Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
He moved back, staggered, and stood straight. He looked at the forest from where the bullet had come. The other men were surprised, frightened and stood silently. They also looked to the forest where there was white smoke of the gunfire. The officer tried to hold the sword with his left hand because his right arm was bleeding. His own sword now became a strange thing to him. He was unable to put it in a scabbard. He was breathing like a wrestler. At this moment one of the men took the sword and placed it in the scabbard. But he moved back nervously. He respected the wounded officer. He supposed that the officer was great and that he might die soon if he touched him carelessly. Then another man also wanted to help him, but the officer waved him away sadly. He behaved as if he was suffering from an incurable disease. Then the officer left the group.
As he passed from the line of battle, he saw many things which were unknown to him. He saw the battlefield looking like a historical painting. He also looked to the forest from where the shooting could be occasionally heard. On the way he met some stragglers and they told him the way to the field hospital. He met different people on his way to the hospital. Their behavior towards him was also very different. Some of them respected him, some behaved in a friendly way, while some others even scolded him. One of the officers on the roadside scolded him when he saw the wound in his arm. He cut the sleeve of the lieutenant and his touch made him feel a great pain. He tied his handkerchief over the wound, scolding away in the meantime. His tone made the lieutenant felt that he did not know how to be correctly wounded and that it was the natural to be wounded in the war every day.
Finally, he saw the tents of the hospital. Two ambulances were unable to move out of the mud. The wounded people were crying. The line of the bandaged men was coming and going. A large number of people were nursing their wounds, sitting under the tree.
A busy surgeon greeted him with a friendly smile. But when he saw the lieutenant’s arm, his face suddenly changed. He started to hate him. The wound brought lieutenant to the lowest social level. He untied the wound and fingered it hatefully. He behaved as if the officer was a criminal not a brave soldier. He was taken into the room and his hand is amputated (cut off). Lieutenant lost his arm. When he reached his home his sisters, his mother and his wife are shocked at the sight of flat sleeve. They cried for a long time, but the lieutenant tried to console himself and others by saying “I don’t suppose it matters so much as all that.”
The attitude of these people helps to define the theme of this story. The war is glorified by everyone. Being wounded in the war is a mark of respect. So all the lieutenant’s men respect him. Even if he dies, he will die a brave death. The officers considered it a common thing. So they are indifferent to him. The doctor knows what the lieutenant’s life will be like in the future after his arm has been amputated. So he scorns him and treats him as a criminal. When his family members begin to cry seeing his amputated arm, the war hero stands shamefaced. The story might be trying to tell us that war may be glorified in any way, but an individual has become its victim.
The story presents a very cruel picture of war not only on the battlefield, but also in the barracks, or in the hospitals. People glorify war and the warriors, but only those people who are directly involved in the war know about its bitter realities. As long as the soldier can fight, he is respected by all. But when he is wounded, he is treated badly because he is not fit for the war any more. Even the family members do not glorify his boldness. The family members of the lieutenant started weeping and he stood shamefaced. Then he made a conclusion that he could survive without one arm. As he had all the parts of his body in a good condition, he would do one thing or the other to survive. By losing one arm, he did not lose the whole world. He knows that the glorification of the war is false.
The writer has used the word “lieutenant” in the generic sense. The lieutenant stands for not one particular lieutenant, but any lieutenant. As the writer does not mean a particular lieutenant, he has refused to give a proper name to him. Not only in the case of the lieutenant, but in all cases he has not used any proper names. The place is unidentified. So are all the characters in the story. The writer wants to show that any war is inhuman.
Crane compares the actual battle to “an historical painting” to mean that war is not a new phenomenon. It took place in the past and the artists in the past made the painting to glorify the war. By looking at the picture the future generation might be encouraged to fight. Crane intends to say that historical events are repeated, but no one learns any lesson from them. They just glorify the war, but they never look into its cruel aspects. Those who experience its terrible aspects are familiar with its horror, but the other people are just like the persons in the historical painting, who want to be immortal by dying bravely in the battlefield.
When we read the story, we feel that the scene on the front, the marching of the soldiers, the battle in the jungle, the pain of the wounded soldiers are taking place in front of our eyes. We also perceive the sympathy of the men, the scolding of the officer, and the contempt of the surgeon and the shock of the lieutenant’s relatives. The description is most effective in the story as an aid in narrating the disillusionment of the lieutenant. It creates a vivid impression for the reader. The use of abundant details had made this story quite good.
Read complete story An Episode of War by Stephen Crane