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War, Heroism, and Human Nature in Crane's A Mystery of Heroism

A Mystery Of Heroism Literary Response And Analysis 1

"A Mystery Of Heroism" is a short story by Stephen Crane that was first published in 1895. It tells the story of Fred Collins, a soldier who decides to get a drink of water from a well across a battlefield during an unnamed war. On his way, he encounters danger, fear, doubt, and irony. The story explores themes such as war, heroism, human nature, and futility.

A Mystery Of Heroism Literary Response And Analysis 1

The Setting and the Context of the Story

Crane does not specify the time or place of the story, but it can be inferred that it is set during the American Civil War, based on the references to the "blue" uniforms of the Union soldiers and the title of Crane's book where the story was published: The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War. However, Crane does not focus on the historical or political aspects of the war; rather, he depicts it as a chaotic and brutal phenomenon that affects the lives of ordinary men.

The story begins with a series of vivid descriptions of the battle scene. Crane uses sensory details, imagery, metaphors, and similes to convey the intensity and horror of war. For example, he writes: "The shells bursting in air had given surrounding objects an appearance of quivering; they seemed to be boiling" (Paragraph 4). He also compares the shells to "crimson terror" (Paragraph 3) and "red flowers" (Paragraph 14), creating a contrast between beauty and violence. He shows how war destroys nature, as seen in the "fair little meadow" (Paragraph 5) that is torn up by shelling and the house that is shattered by bombs. He also shows how war kills and wounds men and animals indiscriminately, as seen in the bugler who is hit by a shell (Paragraph 2), the lieutenant who is injured by his own horse (Paragraph 3), and the battery that is decimated by another shell (Paragraph 14).

Crane also creates a sense of confusion and randomness in his portrayal of war. He does not explain why or how the battle is being fought, nor does he identify who are the enemies or allies. He shifts his perspective from one scene to another without any clear connection or transition. He also uses repetition, fragmentation, and colloquial language to mimic the speech patterns of the soldiers who are bewildered and disoriented by war. For example, he writes: "The men stared at him in surprise. 'Are you going to try it?' they asked him. 'Yes,' he said; 'I'm going to try it.' 'Are you really going?' they asked him incredulously. 'Yes,' he said; 'I'm going.' 'Are you really going?' they asked him again" (Paragraph 12).

The Characterization of Fred Collins

Crane portrays Fred Collins as a complex and conflicted protagonist who is neither a hero nor a coward, but a human being who acts on impulse and emotion. Collins is not a typical soldier who follows orders or fights for a cause; rather, he is an individual who has his own desires, feelings, and thoughts. He is not motivated by patriotism, duty, or glory; rather, he is driven by thirst, pride, and curiosity.

Collins's Motivation for Getting Water

The story begins with Collins expressing his need for a drink of water. This is a simple and natural desire that anyone can relate to, especially in a hot and dry environment. However, this desire becomes a challenge and a risk when Collins decides to get water from the well across the battlefield. He does not do this out of necessity or altruism; rather, he does it out of resentment and defiance. He is annoyed by his companions who mock him and dare him to go to the well. He is also angry at his superiors who grant him permission but do not seem to care about his fate. He wants to prove them wrong and show them that he is brave and capable. He says: "I don't know whether I can get it or not, but I'm going to try it, anyhow" (Paragraph 10).

However, Collins's motivation is not only based on pride; it is also based on curiosity. He wants to see what the battlefield is like and what it feels like to be in danger. He wonders: "What was it like over there? What was it like where the shells exploded?" (Paragraph 13). He also wonders: "Was he a hero? Was he a hero?" (Paragraph 15). He is intrigued by the mystery of heroism and wants to test himself and his limits.

Collins's Experience on the Battlefield

As Collins crosses the battlefield, he faces various obstacles and emotions that challenge his expectations and assumptions. He realizes that his decision was based on emotion rather than reason, and that he has put himself in a perilous situation. He says: "He had been possessed of much fear of cowardice when he started on this adventure" (Paragraph 16). He also says: "He had been impelled by some words, some looks" (Paragraph 17). He finds himself in a state of confusion and detachment, as if he were watching himself from a distance.

Collins also experiences fear and doubt on his way to the well and back. He is afraid of being hit by a shell or shot by an enemy. He says: "He was sure that he was going to be killed" (Paragraph 18). He also doubts his own actions and their meaning. He says: "He did not know why he should go on such an errand" (Paragraph 19). He also says: "He did not know why he had attempted this thing" (Paragraph 23). He feels that his quest for water is absurd and futile in the face of war.

Collins's Reflection on Heroism

As Collins returns to his regiment with the bucket of water, he reflects on his own heroism and its significance. He questions whether he has done something heroic or foolish, whether he has gained or lost something, whether he has changed or remained the same. He says: "He wondered if they would think him very heroic" (Paragraph 24). He also says: "He wondered if they would think him very foolish" (Paragraph 25). He also says: "He wondered if they would think him very wise" (Paragraph 26).

Collins does not find any clear or satisfying answers to his questions. He does not feel any pride or joy in his achievement; rather, he feels empty and indifferent. He says: "He did not care for their opinions" (Paragraph 27). He also says: "He did not care for anything" (Paragraph 28). He realizes that his act of getting water has not made any difference in the war or in himself. He says: "It seemed to him that there was no progress; there was only a brown debacle" (Paragraph 29). He also says: "It seemed to him that he was nothing" (Paragraph 30).

The Symbolism of Water and the Well

he faces death and futility. The well is usually associated with death, as it is a deep and dark hole that leads to the underworld. However, in the story, the well becomes a source of life, as it provides water for Collins and his comrades. However, this source of life is also ironic and futile, as it is located in the middle of a deadly battlefield and its water is spilled and wasted. The Irony and the Message of the Story

Crane uses irony to criticize war and challenge conventional notions of heroism in the story. Irony is a literary device that creates a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens, or between what is said and what is meant. Crane employs different types of irony in the story, such as verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.

Verbal irony is when the opposite of what is meant is said. For example, when Collins asks his superiors for permission to get water from the well, one of them says: "It's a big risk to take for a drink of water" (Paragraph 9). This is ironic because it implies that getting water is not worth risking one's life for, while at the same time implying that fighting in a war is worth risking one's life for. However, Crane suggests that both are equally absurd and meaningless.

Situational irony is when the opposite of what is expected happens. For example, when Collins returns to his regiment with the bucket of water, he expects to be praised and admired for his bravery and generosity. However, the opposite happens: he is ignored and forgotten by his comrades, who are busy watching the battle or joking around. Moreover, the bucket of water that he risked his life for is spilled by two lieutenants who are playing with it. This is ironic because it shows how Collins's act of heroism has no impact or value in the war.

Dramatic irony is when one of the characters and the audience knows something that other characters do not. For example, when Collins crosses the battlefield to get water from the well, he does not know that he is being watched by his comrades and his superiors from behind the hill. They are amazed and curious about his courage and his motive. They wonder: "What was he doing? What was he thinking?" (Paragraph 13). This is ironic because it creates a contrast between Collins's perspective and theirs. While they see him as a hero or a fool, he sees himself as nothing.

The message of the story is that war is a senseless and brutal phenomenon that dehumanizes and destroys people. It also shows that heroism is a subjective and relative concept that depends on one's point of view and situation. Crane challenges the reader to question their own assumptions and beliefs about war and heroism.


"A Mystery Of Heroism" by Stephen Crane is a short story that depicts a soldier's quest for water in the midst of a battle during an unnamed war. The story explores themes such as war, heroism, human nature, and futility through the characterization of Fred Collins, the symbolism of water and the well, and the use of irony. The story criticizes war and challenges conventional notions of heroism by showing how they are absurd and meaningless in the face of violence and death.


  • Q: What genre is "A Mystery Of Heroism"?

  • A: "A Mystery Of Heroism" is a realistic war story that belongs to the literary movement of naturalism.

  • Q: What inspired Stephen Crane to write "A Mystery Of Heroism"?

  • A: Stephen Crane was inspired by his experience as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War and his interest in the American Civil War.

  • Q: How does "A Mystery Of Heroism" relate to Crane's other works?

  • A: "A Mystery Of Heroism" relates to Crane's other works by sharing similar themes, such as war, courage, fate, and survival. For example, his novel The Red Badge of Courage also portrays a young soldier's psychological journey during the Civil War.

  • Q: What are some literary devices that Crane uses in "A Mystery Of Heroism"?

  • A: Some literary devices that Crane uses in "A Mystery Of Heroism" are imagery, metaphor, simile, personification, repetition, fragmentation, and irony.

  • Q: What are some possible topics for an essay on "A Mystery Of Heroism"?

  • A: Some possible topics for an essay on "A Mystery Of Heroism" are: - How does Crane portray the effects of war on the soldiers and the environment? - How does Collins's character develop throughout the story? - How does Crane use water and the well as symbols in the story? - How does Crane use irony to convey his message and tone in the story? - How does Crane challenge the reader's expectations and assumptions about war and heroism in the story?


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