Stephen Crane and Joseph Conrad first met on October 15, 1897, beginning a warm friendship that lasted until Crane’s untimely death in 1900. The two men discussed their work, reviewed each other’s writings, and exchanged literary advice. Though Conrad was fourteen years older than Crane, he began writing late in life, following a long career at sea. Crane achieved literary success before Conrad. Early in his writing career, Conrad was even accused of trying to imitate Crane. Given this close relationship, it is not surprising that both men examined some of the same themes in their work. In Conrad’s novel Lord Jim and Crane’s story ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’ and The Red Badge of Courage, the two authors explore the ideas of heroism, bravery, and the testing of young, inexperienced men confronted by perilous situations.
All three main characters—Fred Collins (‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’), Henry Fleming (The Red Badge of Courage) and Jim (Lord Jim)—cherish fanciful notions of heroism, bravery, and battle based on little evidence. Fred’s idea of a hero is a man who feels no fear and has never been ashamed; by his own account, he is disqualified by failing to repay a loan and occasionally being irritable with his mother. Henry has grandiose visions of ‘‘people secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess.’’ After enlisting, he feels ‘‘growing within him the strength to do mighty deeds of arms.’’ Likewise, in his imagination, Jim
“confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas, and … kept up the hearts of despairing men—always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.”
All three are woefully unprepared for real battle or hardship.
The three young men cope with their situations in different ways, however. Fred invents a reason to put himself in harm’s way before the war itself necessitates it. To silence the teasing and jibes of his fellow soldiers, who dare him to cross the war-torn meadow and draw water from the well, he actually carries out his threat to do so, shocking all involved—including himself. Though on the surface it appears that Fred is simply taking the dare to save face, Crane hints at a deeper motive when he writes that Fred ‘‘was not sure that he wished to make a retraction, even if he could do so without shame.’’ Uncertain of himself and how he will perform in the battle to come, Fred subconsciously creates a test of his mettle by crossing the meadow for a drink of water. His test, unfortunately, is inconclusive; terrified by the shells and gunfire, he spills much of the water he collects. His one moment of heroism occurs when he stops to give a drink to a dying soldier. Here Fred chooses to face danger not for a whim but for the sake of compassion. In this he succeeds.
Henry’s journey toward self-knowledge is a longer one; he swings wildly from extreme selfdoubt to swaggering egotism and denial, finally arriving at a middle ground. Tortured by uncertainty (will he fight bravely? will he turn and run?), at first Henry is impatient for battle to settle the question of his potential as a hero. The battle arrives, but like Fred’s ‘‘test’’ it does not settle the question. Henry fights well at first, but when a second wave of rebel soldiers attacks, Henry turns and runs when he sees others do so, thinking the battle is lost. When Henry discovers that most members of his regiment stayed to fight and held their ground—including a good friend who ends up dying in front of him—he is horrified.
Unlike Fred, Henry fails the test of compassion. When a tattered and injured fellow soldier begins questioning him about his lack of injuries— Henry is retreating with the wounded because he has run away from the battle—he deserts him even though the man is dying of his own very real wounds. Later, after rejoining his regiment, Henry makes up a story about being shot in battle, and when no one learns the truth, he congratulates himself, rationalizing that he was wise to turn and run. Clearly, Henry’s talent for self-deceit is greater than Fred’s: ‘‘Indeed, when he remembered his fortunes of yesterday, and looked at them from a distance he began to see something fine there. He had license to be pompous and veteran-like.’’ Fred, however, sees himself as ‘‘an intruder in the land of fine deeds.’’
Though Jim’s denial of reality lacks Henry’s grand egotism, he clings to it far longer. His identity is so defined by his romantic ideals of sea life and exotic adventure that he is unable to acknowledge his own flawed nature. Though he is tortured by his desertion of the Patna and its passengers—believing the ship is sinking, Jim jumps into a lifeboat with its unscrupulous captain and crew—like Henry he finds ways to rationalize his behavior; his main regret is that he squandered his chance to be a romantic hero (‘‘My God! What a chance missed!’’). He considers himself a tragic, wronged figure caught up in the incident. Unlike Fred and Henry, Jim clings to his romantic image of himself to the very end; his inability to face reality and recognize his own limitations ultimately leads to his death.
None of these men fit the conventional image of a hero: the brave, selfless, flawless (yet modest) human being. If one’s definition of a hero is, like Fred’s, a person with no fear and no transgressions to be ashamed of, then there are no heroes. This idea of a hero is a romantic illusion, the same one cherished by Jim to his death. He offers himself up to be killed in heroic fashion, though he knows it will devastate Jewel, the woman he loves. As the narrator Marlow puts it, ‘‘He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct.’’ Both Fred and Henry believe that throwing themselves in harm’s way will prove their heroism. When given another chance to fight, Henry charges into battle at the front of his regiment, while Fred braves the shells and bullets to fetch water from the well. Yet this does not prove them to be heroes. Henry is still haunted by the image of the tattered man he deserted, and Fred still feels compelled to bring water to the dying officer. Neither Fred nor Henry can stop these men from dying, but both come to recognize that bravery without compassion is a hollow victory. Henry, who earlier fancies himself a ‘‘tremendous figure’’ and ‘‘a knight,’’ finally comes to terms with reality: ‘‘He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.’’ Jim, on the other hand, is kind and compassionate only to the extent that it does not threaten his image of himself as a romantic ideal, ‘‘as unflinching as a hero in a book.’’ Ironically, the only way for him to maintain such an ideal is to die.
In the end, Crane and Conrad demonstrate that there are no heroes, or at least no men who live in a permanent heroic state. Rather, there are just ordinary men who, faced with extreme circumstances, achieve heroic moments.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Stephen Crane – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.