‘The Fight’ by Stephen Crane

The Fight by Stephen Crane, 1900

The magic trick:

Revealing the psychology behind a boys’ fight

We all know Stephen Crane for Red Badge Of Courage, but he wrote a little bit of everything in his all-too-brief life. We begin a week of Crane stories on the SSMT website with a perhaps surprising foray into children’s literature. Crane’s series of semi-autobiographical stories set in the fictional town of Whilomville are pretty great.

“The Fight” throws the reader into 1880s small-town New York. It’s not dissimilar from Mark Twain. The boys are caught up in honor and bravery but seem to miss the forest for the trees in their rush to save face before the mob mentality of their peers. But where Twain can’t ever resist emphasizing the humor, Crane is all about realism. There is humor inherent to the children’s hollow boasts, of course. But Crane never plays it up. He is more interested in the psychology. The reader can laugh if they want; he doesn’t seem to care.

And even as you know very early on that an exposure of the boys’ fighting words is central to the story, there are surprises yet. He understands the feelings involved so well, he can push and twist the plot in nuanced ways to show the reader just how complex this idiotic pride really is. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say it’s really good. It’s a new and surprising variation on the same theme. And that’s quite a trick on Crane’s part. 

The selection:

Finally Jimmie, driven to aggression, walked close to the fence and said to the new boy, “The first time I catch you out of your own yard, I’ll lam the head off’n you.” This was received with wild plaudits by the Whilomville urchins.

But the new boy stepped back from the fence. He was awed by Jimmie’s formidable mien. But he managed to get out a semi-defiant sentence. “Maybe you will and maybe you won’t,” said he.

However, his short retreat was taken as a practical victory for Jimmie and the boys hooted him bitterly. He remained inside the fence, swinging one foot and scowling while Jimmie was escorted off down the street amid acclamations. The new boy turned and walked back toward the house, his face gloomy, lined deep with discouragement, as if he felt that the new environment’s antagonism and palpable cruelty were sure to prove too much for him.

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