An Episode Of War Summary

Stephen Crane

An Episode Of War

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An Episode Of War Summary

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“An Episode of War,” a short story by Stephen Crane, takes place during the Civil War. The story opens with a lieutenant handing out rations of coffee. Despite his efforts to measure out equal portions, the corporals who have come for their share surge forward and blood is spilled. The corporals all stop to stare at him; they are so used to violence in battle that they are stunned by this bloodshed.

He had been using his sword to separate the coffee and had tried to sheath it, but because of his wound, requires help from the orderly-sergeant. All the men, the orderly-sergeant included, treat the lieutenant as though to touch him would send him over the precipice. Finally, another soldier offers his shoulder for the lieutenant to lean upon, but is dismissed with a wave. As the lieutenant retreats, he notices a general mounted upon a black horse, receiving a paper from a messenger.

Behind the general on the black horse, the chaos of war ensues; the lieutenant sees and hears all of this. He walks among the stragglers of the battle, and hears them talking about the field hospital, the officers, and how each corps is performing in the war. He meets an officer who cuts his sleeve and bandages his wound with a handkerchief, and feels ashamed under the man’s scolding. He comes upon the hospital, where two ambulances are trapped in the mud, their wheels locked together. The drivers yell at one another while the injured soldiers they carry moan in pain. On the steps of a nearby schoolhouse, the lieutenant spots a man smoking a pipe. He has a grey pallor, and the lieutenant wants to warn him that he is dying.

A surgeon comes along and cries out over the way the lieutenant’s arm is bandaged with a handkerchief. He beckons to the lieutenant to follow him and promises to tend to his wound. He tells the lieutenant that he will have to go to jail, and the lieutenant is relieved that his arm will not be amputated. The surgeon confirms this and tells him not to be a baby as he drags him along toward the schoolhouse, which he thinks is a portal to the other side–a symbol of death.

The story concludes with the lieutenant at home with his wife, mother, and sisters. They all sob over his lost arm, evidenced by the flat sleeve hanging from his coat. He surmises that it doesnot matter, after all.

There are some important things of note happening in this short story. More than once, the lieutenant is filled with shame about his wound. First, when the officer ties it off with a handkerchief, he tells the lieutenant that he is caring for his wound wrong. Up until this point, the lieutenant has potentially imagined the war happening around him. When he meets the surgeon, the man tells him that the handkerchief was a bad idea. His view of the world is becoming less and less realistic, suggesting to the reader that he is either in shock or experiencing an infection-driven fever. Why would he have to go to jail simply for mistreating his own wound? Once more, he is filled with shame. Once he returns home, and the women in his life weep over the loss of his arm, he is filled with shame again, a third time. He seems complacent about the loss of his limb, and his shame stems from their reaction to the injury.

Each time he feels shame, it is because of how others react to his wound. The officer tells him he should have treated it. The surgeon tells him that the officer treated it wrong. His wife, mother, and sisters cry that he lost it–that obviously it was treated poorly and had had to be amputated after all.

In the beginning of the story, the lieutenant is carefully dividing coffee to distribute to the soldiers under his command. He loses command when the men charge at him over the coffee. He first loses control over his soldiers, and then over the care of his arm. He moves through the battle vision or scene with calmness, merely observing and rarely interacting. Was his command so complacent? That complacency may suggest his feelings toward the war. He is more impassioned about the division of coffee than he is anything else, even the loss of his own arm.

The author, Stephen Crane was born six years after the end of the American Civil War. Though he only lived to twenty-eight years old, Crane produced an influential body of works, including the novel The Red Badge of Courage. Fear and the difference between ideals and reality are major themes throughout many of his works, including An Episode of War. This short story is part of a series of five stories that Crane wrote on contract after visiting important battlefields of the Civil War.