A Mystery Of Heroism Summary

Stephen Cran

A Mystery Of Heroism

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A Mystery Of Heroism Summary

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A Mystery of Heroism is a short story by Stephen Crane, one which demonstrates his signature ironic style and his unrelenting look at the perils of war. In it, a soldier re-examines his attitude towards  heroism, and whether he fits his preconceived notions of what a hero looks like.

The story opens with a soldier named Fred Collins. An unspecified war is raging around him, with two armies engaged in the confrontation. There are cannons firing and gunfire all around. Most of the soldiers and horses caught in the middle of the action have fallen, and amidst all the gunfire, Fred wonders if there’s any water nearby. He would like to have a drink of water.

In the distance, there is a house, but it is under heavy fire. What remains are barely splinters, but off to the side of the house, there’s a well. Fred’s company listens to men fighting on both sides, and the war escalates around them. An officer from another regiment rides by and holds his arm close to him. Fred wonders if it might fall off. The man’s face is dirty, but he smiles when he sees the soldiers looking at him.

Fred mentions again that he would like a drink of water. He thinks that the well beside the house would probably still contain drinkable water. The men make fun of him, asking how he plans to get there with a war raging around them. The meadow and the house are still under heavy fire. Just then, a shell explodes on the house leveling it.

His fellow soldiers persist with their teasing, and Fred decides to attempt to reach the well. He asks his captain permission to go and his captain grants it, not knowing if Fred really wants to go or not. They tell him that if he’s going, he needs to bring additional canteens to bring back water for the rest of the men. He wonders if this is what heroes are, but he exclaims that he can’t be a hero because he has done bad things in his life.

Fred then runs through the field towards the well. He manages to get there unscathed and begins filling up the canteens. He feels fear for the first time since beginning this mission because the canteens take a long time to fill. He sees a bucket and decides to fill that instead of filling all canteens. He runs back through the field under heavy fire until he gets back to his company.

On his way, he sees a fallen officer lying in the field. The officer asks for a drink of water, butFred tells him that he cannot stop. He continues on his way, but then changes his mind and returns to the officer to get him a drink. The officer sighs with relief at the drink, and Fred once again returns to his path.

When he reaches his company, he gives his fellow soldiers the bucket of water. However, the bucket is shot out of his hands as he does so and it falls from his hands, useless. All his hard work and his bravery are for nothing.

Crane’s story suggests that our idea of what qualifies as heroism is misguided.  Fred Collins believes that to be a hero, he must lead a blameless life. When he develops his inexplicable thirst, he receives permission to fetch some water, and he is not afraid to make the attempt.  Under most circumstances, the willingness to cross a field under heavy artillery would earn anyone the title “hero”, but this is not the case.

Fred thinks about his perceptions of heroism as he stands filling the canteen by the well. He is in a highly vulnerable position, but he continues to collect water, even filling up a bucket he finds nearby. When he makes his way back across the field to his company, he stumbles on a dying officer. The dying officer wants water, and although he balks at first, he turns around in the middle of the field and chooses to offer the officer water.

His act has no larger meaning. He will not save the life of the soldier, and in the end, the water will not matter. He may not consider his act to be  a heroic one, but choosing to stop in the middle of an open battle field to grant the wish of a dying soldier would certainly qualify him as a hero.

A Mystery of Heroism is one of Crane’s first published war stories, and it suggests that it isn’t lack of fear, or living a blameless life that makes one a hero. The water wasn’t useful or helpful for anyone, but the fact that Collins was willing to undertake the mission to retrieve it is itself heroic. Heroism isn’t about the results. It’s more about the willingness to take a huge risk that might benefit someone else. Fred Collins’ decision to risk his life to give the dying soldier water is enough to qualify him as a hero.