Crane's story follows a black coachman named Henry Johnson and his employers, the Trescott family. When the Trescott home catches fire, Johnson puts himself in danger and saves the boy, Jimmie. In doing so, however, Johnson is horrifically disfigured (all we are told is that he has "no face"; Crane is deliciously coy on details). The story then shifts to Dr. Trescott, the family patriarch, in dealing with the "monster" who saved the life of his son but now causes revulsion and horror among the townspeople. The story is told largely through the eyes of the judgmental, rumor-mongering townspeople. Ultimately, the story is one of oppression and of societal shunning — but not the shunning of Johnson. In fact, the monster himself becomes less and less a part of the story, with only one scene of actual dialogue after the fire.
Julian Hawthorne, the son of the famous novelist, immediately drew comparison with another book published some 80 years earlier: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. "What is a man to do with a monster which exists owing to his own efforts?" Hawthorne asks in his review. Like Shelley's book, the book is really asking the ethical questions surrounding not the monster, but the man behind the monster. And Crane, in a style reminiscent of his poetry, leaves massive gaps for the reader to fill in — particularly in its final scene. This style was not appreciated by Hawthorne: "And if you believe it, Crane leaves the matter... without the faintest pretense of doing anything whatever to relieve it!"
The real question in the story is this one, asked not coincidentally by the judge of the town:
...the judge said, suddenly, "Trescott, do you think it is —" As Trescott paused expectantly, the judge fingered his knife. He said, thoughtfully, "No one wants to advance such ideas, but somehow I think that that poor fellow ought to die."
There was in Trescott's face at once a look of recognition, as if in this tangent of the judge he saw an old problem. He merely sighed and answered, "Who knows?" The words were spoken in a deep tone that gave them an elusive kind of significance.
But it is not the death of the monster Henry Johnson that concerned Crane (who, incidentally, died about seven months later). These are the enigmatic last lines of the story that so angered Hawthorne — and the passage should convince you to go back and read the whole thing:
The wind was whining round the house, and the snow beat aslant upon the windows. Sometimes the coal in the stove settled with a crumbling sound, and the four panes of mica flashed a sudden new crimson. As he sat holding her head on his shoulder, Trescott found himself occasionally trying to count the cups. There were fifteen of them.