“For days he made ceaseless calculations, but they were all wondrously unsatisfactory. He found that he could establish nothing. He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults. He reluctantly admitted that he could not sit still and with a mental slate and pencil derive an answer. To gain it, he must have blaze, blood, and danger, even as a chemist requires this, that, and the other.”
That quote is the theme of Stephen Crane’s novel.
What might we do when the chips are down?
What might we do when the heat turns up?
Do we possess the heroic qualities that we would like to think we possess?
Do we possess more cowardly attributes than we would like to admit?
Crane’s brief novel is often inflicted on middle and high-school students, I wager, because of it’s very briefness. I also say “inflict” as the novel, as taught [I suffered through three classes that included it as required reading myself] often is viewed as an anti-war tract.
It is anti-war in the same vein that Robert Leckie’s true account of his experiences Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific is anti-war.
Both Leckie’s memoir of true events and Crane’s fictional depiction dwell on an un-romanticized blood and grue version of armed conflict where the “glory” is stripped off the top of the narrative and what valor or courage that claws its way through the mud and blood is all the more valorous all the more marrow-bone inspiring as it comes from a place of truth rather than one pre-packaged as heroism wrapped in flag-draped heroics.
Both books are anti-war in the sense that any human with a compassionate commiserating soul would read of such misery and never wish it inflicted upon another human being. And if such armed action is required, to sit idly by and provide nary a hand in support, be that one’s own skin-in-the-game service or at the very least a return to the days of Victory Gardens where sacrifices were made and bumper sticker phrases of “I Support the Troops” would have been viewed as the weak-sauce that it is.
The true theme of Crane’s novel is: Does our protagonist have what it takes to face what is to come?
In turn, the thoughtful reader is left to ask him or herself: Do YOU have what it takes?
Have a read of that opening quote again, the crux and truth is here: He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults. He reluctantly admitted that he could not sit still and with a mental slate and pencil derive an answer. To gain it, he must have blaze, blood, and danger, even as a chemist requires this, that, and the other.”
The proof of life is always in the doing. You find your character, your strengths, your weaknesses when under fire figuratively or literally.
You discover your true self when you do something, anything risky. However, you define risk, whether you are willing to face it or not answers your own question of what you are.
Crane did not write a “war novel” [anti or otherwise.] He asked a universal question of all humans and merely framed it in a brief Civil War tale.
What are the merits of your own legs in the face of risk?
We will only know if we test them.
All the guesses and surmises in the world regarding your bravery, your cowardice are mere suppositions until we test ourselves.
In short Crane’s theme is “Deeds not words define us.”
May we all test our legs often and discover what we are. Until then, all else is a guess.