In ‘‘A Mystery of Heroism’’ and many of his other short stories (including The Red Badge of Courage) Crane grapples with the definition of heroism. What makes a hero a hero? Is the conventional definition of heroism truly valid? Crane uses Collins’s opinions about heroism as a way of poking fun at the conventional idea of what constitutes a hero. Still in a daze after deciding to cross the meadow, Collins feels no fear, first assuming that this must mean he is heroic ‘‘because human expression had said loudly for centuries that men should feel afraid of certain things, and that all men who did not feel this fear were phenomena—heroes.’’ Just as quickly as he comes to this conclusion, however, he rejects it. Collins feels he cannot be a hero because ‘‘heroes had no shames in their lives,’’ and Collins can think of a few transgressions of which he is ashamed.
Through this use of irony Crane demonstrates the overblown, unrealistic definition of heroism cherished by society. If the only heroes are people who have never felt fear, never made mistakes, and never been ashamed, clearly there are no heroes at all. A further irony is the idea that Collins fancies himself a hero at all simply because he feels no fear. Collins does not consider the motivation behind his actions, which could hardly be less heroic: first, he is thirsty, and, second, he wants to shut up his comrades, who goad him into action. None of the men, including Collins, are dying of thirst. The only moment of his journey that could be considered heroic is when he returns to the dying officer to give him a drink of water. Here, finally, Collins considers someone other than himself and is motivated by compassion, not pride.
The emptiness of Collins’s foolish gesture is symbolized by the spilled bucket; in the end, Collins has risked his life for nothing, not even the drink he pined for at the beginning of the story.
Collins’s pointless journey could be considered a metaphor for the pointlessness of war in general. Crane makes no judgment calls as to which side of the conflict is right or wrong. In fact, aside from one reference to the ‘‘long blue line’’ of Collins’s regiment, there is no mention of who is fighting for which side. There is no glory in Crane’s description of the deaths that occur; no one sacrifices himself to save others; no one ‘‘saves the day.’’ In fact, at the end of the story the outcome of the battle is unclear. Nor does Crane specify the historical time or location of the battle, simply providing a description of the landscape.
All this vagueness leads the reader to assume that this battle is typical of a dozen other battles, and that the outcomes of many of them are as fruitless as Collins’s journey to the well. Just as Collins has no compelling reason to risk his life, nations sometimes rush into war without a clear plan or rationale, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives.
The main motivation behind Collins’s perilous quest for water is not thirst but pride. When his comrades tease him about going to the well, Collins is insulted by the implication that he is all talk and no action. To save face, he repeatedly insists that if they do not stop provoking him, he will indeed make the trip. When his comrades persist with their teasing, Collins has two choices: to swallow his pride and concede that he has no intention of risking his life for a drink of water, or to actually risk his life to save face.
Continuing his quest, Collins ‘‘was vaguely conscious that a chasm, the deep valley of all prides, was suddenly between him and his comrades.’’ He has no clear idea why he is venturing forth. Crane writes, ‘‘As a matter of truth, he was sure of very little. He was mainly surprised.’’ Here Crane demonstrates the destructive power of pride, goading Collins into foolish action, just as nationalistic or religious pride can lead people to wage war.
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.