Crane on Heroism
Stephen Crane, an avant-garde writer of his time, forced his readers to look beyond his written words for a more underlined, meaningful moral in most of his stories. Crane follows a strict pattern in most of his work. His subject matter usually deals with the physical, emotional, and intellectual responses of ordinary people confronted by extraordinary, extreme experiences. Fairly common themes are presented in his writing, including fallen humanity and harsh realities; yet all seem to overlap in the category of heroism. Crane, fascinated by the status of a hero, seemed to moralize each story he wrote with a sense of hope. Readers get the impression that you do not have to be super-human to possess super-human abilities, and in return, be a hero.
In Crane’s A Mystery Of Heroism, the search for the question ‘What is a hero?’ is explored. Fred Collins, a union soldier in the Civil War, is a simple man. Out of place, Fred is a shameful, childish man thrown into a war that has no place for him. During the course of the story, Collins yearns for a drink of well water located across an active battlefield. Going against all his inhibitions and judgment, and going along with peer pressure, Collins decides to make the suicidal trip. Remarkably, Collins somehow gathers himself together and reaches the well of water, surprising himself in the meantime. Upon arrival at his destination, Collins ponders the miraculous obstacles he overcame and even dubs himself a hero for a moment. But what is a hero? Must one run across a battlefield for a drink to be put in the category of courageous? Is heroism nothing but defying death? Fred Collins evaluates his life at this point to disprove the title he loosely put upon himself: No, it could not be true. He was not a hero. Heroes had no shames in their lives an, as for him, he remembered borrowing fifteen dollars from a friend and promising to pay it back the next day, and then avoiding that friend for ten months. When at home his mother had aroused him for the early labor of his life on the farm, it had often been his fashion to be irritable, childish, diabolical, and his mother died since he had come to war.
On Collins’ return to his regiment, he happens across a dying man in need of a drink. In a hopeless act of kindness, Fred lets the wounded soldier drink from his bucket as he passes. Yet this scene is but a small paragraph in the story, it completes the moral and emphasizes Crane’s goal of the narrative. Although Fred Collins is but a simple man not free from flaws, he uncovers the mystery of heroism. He is not a hero because he put a title upon himself, or because he denied death the satisfaction. He is a hero in the sense that he did a good thing without trying for that hero title. Yet he might not know it, he was a hero for that one moment in the eyes of the wounded soldier. Crane also shows heroism works in very mysterious ways.
In another of Crane’s shorts, The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky, the character of Jack Potter is put to the task of proving his heroism as sheriff of his town. As the story opens, the reader is introduced to Jack as a subtle, quiet man. He is on his way to Yellow Sky, Texas riding in a parlor-car with his new wife. Crane purposely does not clue the reader in as to the true identity of Jack Potter in the beginning of the story for the presence of shock value. To find out that this reserved man is a fearless sheriff by day is surprising do to his actions described on his trip: From time to time he looked down respectfully at his attire. He sat with a hand on each knee, like a man waiting in a barber shop. The glances he devoted to other passengers were furtive and shy.
As the train grows closer to Yellow Sky, Jack ponders the welcome he will receive. Frightened and worried about mixed reactions from the community in Yellow Sky, he sulks. He, the town marshal of Yellow Sky, a man known, liked, and feared in his corner, a prominent person, had gone to San Antonio to meet a girl he believed he loved, and there, after the usual prayers, had actually induced her to marry him, without consulting Yellow Sky for any part of the transaction … his friends could not forgive him. Jack’s character shines as a coward; a man who knows no heroism. Yet towards the end of the narrative, Jack confronts his arch rival Scratchy. In a showdown of old west style, Jack is eventually placed, unarmed, looking down the barrel of Scratchy Wilson’s revolver. Jack then confronts Scratchy in the only manner he could. He reveals that he has no weapon and says that he would not fight back in any instance. Crane sets up an anticipated confrontation between the unlikely hero and his gun-slinging counterpart beautifully. He also proves, once again, that the exterior prowess of a man does not prove his heroism. But what does make Jack a hero? We again see Crane’s character defying death, yet the sense of heroism goes deeper than that. Jack Potter used words to save himself instead of violence or cowardly running off. The story ends on an uplifting moral of heroism by inner sanctity, not outer strength.
One of Stephen Cranes most famous works, The Open Boat, is a tale of heroic proportion following the story of four castaways on a lifeboat in the ocean. As we saw in Crane’s previous works, the characters are merely atypical, run-of-the-mill, working-class men. To emphasize the plainness of his characters, Crane fails to even name all but one of his crew. The anecdote traces the travel of four men, the oiler, the cook, the corespondent, and the captain of the sunken vessel. The story captivates readers and takes them on a trip of crashing waves, deadly sharks, hardships at sea and grueling pain through which the four men go through. Defying death many times over, the castaways battle past hunger and fight for sanity on the trip to land. Crane’s naturalistic writing takes flight as our four friends struggle against nature and all she has to throw at them, as the sea carelessly tosses their boat around.
Yet amongst all the hardships they endeavor, their heroism takes charge. We see this in their constant chant to boost morale: If I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Crane’s point is yet again taken into consideration. When the ship goes down, four average, non-heroic characters are saved. Yet, when ordinary people are put upon to perform extraordinary feats, heroes are produced.
Stephen Crane was a magnificent author with determination and morals in his heart. He wrote these stories in hope that people find heroes within their average selves. All of his characters were intruders in the land of heroism, yet all were considered literary heroes. He emphasized that you do not have to be Hercules to have super-human strength. You do not have to be a fighter to win a fight. You do not have to defy death to be classified a hero. You do not have to be a hero, to be a hero. Heroism comes from within. Heroism comes in many shapes and forms, and each and everyone of us has it in ourselves to be a hero. And at some point, heroism will show itself without warning.