Essay - The Outrage of War In literature, similar themes are portrayed in many different ways, mostly according to the time period they were written in. A new generation of writers came of age after the civil war, known as the realists. They dominated American fiction from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. They took their ideas from the slums of the rapidly growing cities at that time, from the factories replacing farmland, and from the every day common people: poor factory workers, corrupt politicians, soldiers, and even prostitutes. Realists sought to accurately portray real life. One of those Realist writers was Stephen Crane (1871-1900).
In the short story “A Mystery of Heroism” and his poem “War is Kind” Stephen Crane uses irony and sarcasm to effectively portray his attitudes about war and to mock Romantic heroism.
In the story, at first sight no one could be called a hero. There are many characteristics that mark a true hero, someone that stands up for his beliefs and dies for it if he has to, not just dying in war or in a horrible way. The motive is what truly counts. In “Mystery”, Collins is just a symbol for the common crowd. He strives for the feeling of heroism by doing something courageous. He is one of many, but definitely no hero. The passing of the battlefield to get to the water could just be seen as the war scene itself. There are no heroes; we all do what we have to do. “…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. He was then a hero...After all, heroes were not much” (Mystery, p.490). This quote is totally ironical, because it shows that being a hero, in a romantic way, does not take much. Doing something courageous, dangerous, and something adventurous without showing fear. It is mocking romantic heroes, because it says that those heroes cannot really be true heroes. A romantic hero is someone marked by courageous acts, honored deeds, someone who engages in daring chases, fights, and exciting escapes. Since Crane also was a pioneer of naturalism, he valued instincts and behavior and the motives for people to turn out as they did. Getting the water by taking a dangerous path means nothing then without the motive. Nevertheless, Crane throws in a short moment where he forgets his indifference about heroism and creates his own heroism, a realistic one. To Crane, being a hero is more an individual state, it does not have to be glorifying but something that is natural, and a good act. Standing up for one‘s beliefs without regarding the outcome. Collins just went to get some water. He was thirsty and wanted to show his courage. It was no belief he pursued, and a rather purposeless action, nothing heroic at all to the realistic eye. The only little moment where Crane changes his character is when Collins turns around to give the officer some water. This does not save him from dying, which it would have done in a romantic story, but just offers him kindness. It portrays a very social, real-to-life heroic act, neither selfish nor very grant and honored, but individually seen as a giant leap of benevolence and a pursuing of moral belief, without great meaning to the world, an every day natural scene. “But Collins turned…Here’s your drink…Turn over, man, for God’s sake…There was the faintest shadow of a smile on his lips as he looked at Collins” (p.492). Even though Collins was not given a medal for his act he did something, in realistic measures, heroic. The poem is saying the same thing. Allthose people dying in war, in itself, is not very heroic at all. “These men were born to drill and die”(War is Kind, p.494). Men mostly fought, because that was their job. We all die sooner or later. The soldiers are no more heroes than the mourning wives and children. They both endure hardships and do what they have to do.
Through comparing the short story and the poem, one can find similar scenes, as well as themes and attitudes. A part of the second stanza of “War is Kind” is a basic link between the two. “Little souls who thirst for fight, These men were born to drill and die. The unexplained glory flies above them”(p.494). In the story, people fight, because they are trained for it. They act like machines, as if that is all they ever do, which also brings about the theme they share: War dehumanizes people. They do not let emotions interfere with their work and their orders. “Unexplained glory” especially marks Crane’s realistic attitude. Soldiers are glorified, through romantics at least, but why; it looks unexplainable, because they have done nothing natural to be proud of.
Crane’s attitude toward war is that war has no purpose and is bad and horrible. Ironic is though, that he writes almost the exact opposite, because he is being satirical and almost cynical. The very title “War Is Kind”, at first sight, gives the reader a wrong idea of Crane’s attitude. One expects him to go on and develop his point, to prove it. It seems as if he truly believed in that statement. Only when looking beyond and analyzing, one can dig out his true intentions. He is not writing in a straightforward style and it requires some thought to get the twist. There also is situational irony. Collins takes all this danger and hardship upon him just to get a bucket full water. He comes back and a little later, we learn that “the bucket lay on the ground empty”(Mystery, p.492). The reader definitely expects something else to happen. It was all for nothing. Collins accomplished nothing.
Crane does not show that war is kind. In fact, he portrays the exact opposite. War by nature is bad. Both the story and the poem are mocking Romanticism. Collins feels like a hero just because he crosses the battlefield. Since we only learn about his thoughts and feelings, the war around him gets sort of peripheral. Collins whole journey, which makes up most of the story, can actually be seen as an extended metaphor for the whole war scene. He goes through fear and danger to get the water, but after returning from his mission, the water is gone. Whether the lieutenants spilled it, or Collins himself on his obstacle filled path, is not important. Fact is that the water is gone, which tells us that there was no purpose in getting the water in the first place. War works the same way. People are trained to fight and die, sometimes unknowing what they were fighting for or how it started. They travel on horses, by foot, they go into battle, risk their lives, die by the thousands. Later on, all that is left are ruins and corpses. Mostly, people are angrier than before. There was no purpose, it was meaningless, no goals were accomplished, and we ask ourselves if it was necessary to do it. The outcome usually is worse. In the poem his repetitive line “War is Kind” is using irony to explain the same idea. “Do not weep, babe, for war is kind. Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches, raged at his breast, gulped, and died…”(p.494). Romanticists would go beyond and find some beauty, some heroic act, a dim light in the distance, while Crane realizes the truth and tells us to open our eyes, to see the tears, and the destruction, and the blood, there is no point in war.