A Summary and Analysis of Stephen Crane’s ‘In the Desert’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘In the Desert’ is a poem by the American author Stephen Crane (1871-1900), published in his 1895 collection, The Black Riders and Other Lines. Crane is perhaps best-known for his American Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, and this is his best-remembered poem.

‘In the Desert’ is a short poem, comprising just two brief stanzas: one of seven lines and one of three lines. The poem features an encounter between the speaker of the poem and a strange creature in the desert: a creature which is eating its own heart.

But what is the meaning of this curious little poem? Let’s take a closer look at the language and imagery of Crane’s poem and offer a few words of analysis concerning its meaning and significance.

‘In the Desert’: summary

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, ‘Is it good, friend?’
‘It is bitter—bitter,’ he answered;

In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem comes across a naked and beastlike creature in the desert. This creature is squatting on the ground and holds his own heart in his hands. While the speaker is watching, the creature eats part of his own heart. The speaker asks him whether it tastes good, and the creature replies that the heart tastes bitter.

‘But I like it
‘Because it is bitter,
‘And because it is my heart.’

In the second stanza, the beastlike creature continues his response. He says that although the heart tastes bitter, he actually likes the taste. He likes it because it is bitter – but also, he likes it because it’s his heart.

‘In the Desert’: analysis

In the above summary, we added an emphasis to our paraphrase of the poem’s second stanza, but in reality, there are two ways of analysing and interpreting the poem’s final line – just as there are multiple ways of interpreting ‘In the Desert’ as a whole.

Does the creature say, ‘And because it is my heart’ (that is, ‘I like eating this bitter heart, because it’s mine and not somebody else’s’)? Or does he say, ‘And because it is my heart’ (that is, ‘I like eating it because, although it’s bitter, it’s my heart, and there’s something nice about eating one’s heart’). There’s a subtle difference between these two readings, but Crane’s poem is devoid of emphasis, leaving it up to us as readers to decide how we should read, or ‘hear’, that final line.

Indeed, in many respects ‘In the Desert’ carries the force of a parable, although it cannot be said to be a religious parable as such, much less a Christian one. What, then, might Stephen Crane be suggesting about the heart, or about being human, or about the self, through this puzzling little story?

There is no ‘one’ answer to this question. Crane leaves his little poetic parable brief enough, and elliptical enough, to invite numerous interpretations as to its true ‘meaning’. One way of approaching this issue, though, is to think about the main symbols in the poem: the desert and the heart.

The ‘naked, bestial’ creature is also significant: he has the power of speech and the speaker’s description of him as ‘naked’ implies that the speaker expected him to be wearing clothes. We don’t tend to describe a cat or dog as ‘naked’ because they don’t wear clothes. So there is something ‘bestial’ or beastlike, but also something human about the figure the speaker encounters.

Could this figure be a primal version of man? Humankind stripped of its civilising elements (those clothes, for one) and returned to its early, primitive self? The nakedness also symbolises the unadorned and, for want of a better word, honest character of the figure: a quality arguably borne out by what he says to the speaker of the poem.

And the fact that the encounter takes place in a desert – again, a naked, barren landscape which has not been built on – is also laden with meaning.

Hearts, meanwhile, also take us to honesty, love, passion, and the self (among other things). The fact that the figure is eating his own heart and not enjoying the experience is worth noting, but the key detail is his persistence in eating it all the same.

If the heart is the seat of the emotions, then perhaps we can interpret this little parable as a tale about man’s fondness for self-pity: we know that wallowing in our own self-pity isn’t good for us and is a ‘bitter’ experience, and it is destroying ourselves slowly (much as the creature devouring his heart is slowly destroying it), but we carry on all the same. There is something about it being our self-pity, our own emotions we are wallowing in, that makes the experience strangely compelling.

The symbolism of the desert becomes more relevant to the poem if we accept this meaning. The emptiness of the desert represents the figure’s solitude and loneliness. All he has is his own emotions: his heart. And he is eating away at it because he has nothing else. Life, Stephen Crane seems to be saying, is lonely and hard, and humankind has a self-destructive tendency.

‘In the Desert’: form

‘In the Desert’ is written in free verse, because it has no rhyme scheme or regular metre or rhythm. Its line and stanza lengths are also of irregular lengths. This lends the poem a colloquial, natural feel, which is entirely appropriate for the poem’s subject matter: it is as if the speaker is recounting his strange encounter with the creature in the desert while entertaining his guests at dinner.

The poem is mostly end-stopped, which means that there is punctuation at the end of the lines, but there are a couple of examples of enjambment or run-on lines, where a clause or sentence continues beyond the end of a particular verse line and into the next: ‘In the desert / I saw a creature’ and ‘But I like it / Because it is bitter’. These moments help with the free-flowing movement of the lines, and enhance the ‘natural’ quality to the poem.

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