Crane’s work often makes use of irony (a contradiction between what appears to be, or what one expects, and reality). In this story there are many ironic elements. First of all, the story of a man’s journey through heavy artillery fire to get a drink of water is in itself ironic. In a story of war the reader expects men to risk their lives for something greater, more noble, such as freedom. It is also ironic that Collins gets so upset over a little teasing from his comrades when he clearly has bigger things to worry about, such as fighting the enemy. Crane sets up visual irony as well when Collins is shown running back toward A company with the bucket of water:
“In running with a filled bucket, a man can adopt but one kind of gait. So, through this terrible field over which screamed practical angels of death, Collins ran in the manner of a farmer chased out of a dairy by a bull.”
Crane utilizes dramatic irony—an incongruity between what the character believes or perceives and what the reader knows to be true—in the passages in which Collins ponders the definition of a hero. Collins makes assertions that the reader can easily see are flawed. He states that heroes are men with no shame in their lives, and that all men who do not feel fear are by definition heroes.
One of the greatest ironies in ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’ is the spilling of the water bucket at the end of the story. It is already ironic that Collins takes such a huge risk for such a meager reward, and when his fellow soldiers squander that hard-earned reward by horsing around with the bucket, the irony is even greater. Through the use of irony Crane encourages his readers to question their own ideas about what heroism is.
Crane uses dialogue to distinguish between the classes of men fighting in the battle. The men of the infantry speak in a dialect that defines them as belonging to the lower class. Collins tells his fellow soldiers, ‘‘Dern yeh! I ain’t afraid t’ go. If yeh say much, I will go!’’ One of his comrades answers, ‘‘You’ll run through that there medder, won’t yeh?’’ In contrast, the colonel addresses Collins as ‘‘my lad’’ and when he says ‘‘you,’’ Crane spells it normally, not ‘‘yeh,’’ as with the infantrymen. The dying officer in the meadow also speaks more formally: ‘‘Say, young man, give me a drink of water, will you?’’ Though class lines are drawn in terms of the dialogue, the dying officer illustrates that death is the great equalizer; in battle the shells do not discriminate in their destruction.
Realism is a literary movement that came about in the late nineteenth century. Realist writers, as the name implies, sought to describe reality in terms of objective detail, dwelling less on the thoughts and feelings of the characters and more on fact. Unlike the Romantic writers who preceded them, realists were more likely to use the common man as a character in their works. Crane is considered by many to belong to the realist category. His description of the Civil War battle in this story is objective and unsentimental. His main character is a common man without any of the extraordinary characteristics usually found in a romantic hero: he is not noble, brave, or even especially smart. Crane interrupts the drama of the raging battle periodically with Collins’s outbursts: ‘‘Thunder! I wisht I had a drink!’’ The childish exchange between Collins and his fellow soldiers, while others are dying all around them, illustrates that these are not exalted, heroic defenders of freedom but ordinary, flawed men more focused on themselves than on abstract concepts such as freedom or individual rights.
While some term Crane a realist because of his choice of subject matter and his realistic battle descriptions, others feel that Crane’s writing represents a transitional style between realism and impressionism. Impressionism focuses less on objective detail and more on a character’s perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. When Crane describes the battlefield, he does so objectively:
“[The meadow’s] long green grass was rippling gently in a breeze. Beyond it was the grey form of a house half torn to pieces by shells and by the busy axes of soldiers who had pursued firewood.”
However, when he reveals Collins’s thoughts on the nature of heroism, the writing verges on stream-of-consciousness, a technique that attempts to reproduce the random flow of thoughts passing through a character’s mind: ‘‘This, then, was a hero. After all, heroes were not much. No, it could not be true. He was not a hero. Heroes had no shames in their lives. … ’’ Crane’s early experience as a newspaper reporter probably contributed to the realistic aspect of his writing. (After reading the battle descriptions in his earlier works, many were amazed to learn that Crane had never actually seen or experienced combat himself.) However, when describing the inner life of his characters, Crane experimented with more impressionistic methods.
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.