Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Beginning with Stephen Crane’s most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), but continuing through his other works, the horror of encountering death is a constant theme. Often, rather than confront death directly, Crane’s characters do their best to avoid it. They walk around dead men lying on battlefields, avoid wounded, or express loathing about touching the dead or the dying. However, in this brief tale, written less than a year before his own death, Crane forces his characters, and readers, to face death squarely. In this story there is no way to avoid the issue, just as there is no way for Lean or the adjutant to avoid it on the battlefield. The story begins with two men struggling to decide what to do. At first neither man seems exactly certain, as both grapple with emotions barely under control. At moments each man lashes out at the two enlisted men, but one senses that their anger is not really directed at the hapless privates. Rather, Lean and the adjutant wrestle with both the reality of death and its meaninglessness.

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Each man resists touching the body, but ultimately they must put the corpse into the ground. It is interesting to note that although Lean could order the privates to do the job, he instead decides that he and the adjutant should put the body in the grave. Even though it is not entirely clear whether their motivations are due to their rank, or their relationship to the fallen man, the symbolic aspect of confronting the unpleasant “face” of death cannot be ignored. Lean will not simply walk away, leaving someone else to confront the terror of death for him. What makes the issue even more immediate is the imminent possibility of any of their own deaths. Bullets continue to fly around them as they complete the funeral service.

The image of the upturned face of the dead man is prominent not only at the beginning of the story, but also in several later instances. As the privates initially prepare to fill in the grave one of them hesitates, unsure where to throw the first shovelful of dirt. For some reason Lean is horrified at the thought of the dirt falling on the upturned face. As the private throws the dirt on the corpse’s feet instead, Lean feels “as if tons had been swiftly lifted from off his forehead.” Momentarily, when the private is wounded and Lean must continue the task himself, he fills the entire grave except for the “chalk-blue” face. Lean seems to struggle with his feelings and even snaps an angry remark at his superior, the adjutant. However, ultimately the tension releases all in a moment as the shovel swings back, then forward, and the dirt covers the face. In the end, the reality of death cannot be avoided, neither walked around nor walked away from. The face of death must be stared into and addressed.

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