Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Red Badge of Courage is hard to classify, as is Crane’s work in general. It is a war story in the sense that the major external action consists of clashes between opposing armies, but certainly it is unconventional in what it omits. No geographical place names are given, except for a single casual mention of the Rappahannock River, so that the action—all the more surreal for this reason—cannot be located on a map. Similarly, no dates are given; it is impossible to tell what strategic significance, if any, the series of inconclusive actions might have had.
In fiction that is intended to justify one side in a war, much is generally made of the justice of the cause; moreover, the soldiers on “our side” are portrayed as brave and noble, the enemy as evil. In The Red Badge of Courage, on the other hand, the cause is never described, and, though the enemy remains mostly faceless, it becomes clear at last that the only difference between Union and Confederate soldiers is the color of their uniforms. The novel is distinctly modern in this sense, much in the spirit of the fiction engendered by the Vietnam War. In its vivid depiction of the futile suffering brought about by war, it is an antiwar novel.
It is also, and perhaps primarily, a coming-of-age story. According to traditional readings, Henry Fleming, the young protagonist, moves in a series of stages from boyhood, marked by his cowardly flight from his first battle, to manhood, marked by his leading a charge and capturing a rebel flag. In the fiction of Crane, however, as ironic a writer as ever lived, nothing is ever quite that simple. The question of just what it is that Henry learns (and in turn, just what it is that war teaches any of those condemned to fight in it) remains open, to be answered by each reader by closely following the details of the story.
The Red Badge of Courage moves back and forth between traditional realism, partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Crane’s ironical one, and the surreal, disjointed imagery of nightmare. Thus, in the opening paragraph, from the camp of Henry’s untested regiment one can see “the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills”—a picture of a war monster. Next the story turns to a matter-of-fact description of camp life, including small domestic arrangements, quarrels, and the inevitable buzz of rumor. By these varied techniques, Crane accurately expresses the flavor of Henry’s existence—mostly ordinary, a life dominated by trivial events and emotions but always haunted by the specter of the fearful unknown.
At length, the regiment begins its march to action. Before any fighting actually occurs, Henry begins to feel his helplessness to alter the onrushing course of events. His regiment “inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.” It is this kind of statement that has caused some critics to describe The Red Badge of Courage as naturalistic and Henry as simply a victim of historical forces. Yet it is important to remember that these are Henry’s perceptions, not Crane’s, and that Henry is often self-deluded. A moment later, he reflects that he “had not enlisted of his free will,” when in fact he had. He made that choice and, like the characters in “The Blue Hotel,” will have others to make as well.
His first crisis occurs when his regiment has to withstand an infantry charge. At first he “suddenly lost concern for himself, and. . . . He became not a man but a member. . . . He felt the...
(The entire section is 1477 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, Stephen Crane’s “psychological portrayal of fear,” follows a young, inexperienced Yankee soldier, Henry Fleming, into battle for his first time. Bored with farm life and motivated to enlist by the heroic images of war in conventional stories, Henry looks forward to battle, but the conversations of seasoned soldiers Wilson and Jim Conklin make him question how he will react under fire and whether he is really a soldier.
Henry’s first, unnamed battle (perhaps Chancellorsville) causes him to shoot wildly and then run in panic when others do. Feeling guilty when he learns of the enemy’s defeat, Henry hides in the forest, where he sees a dead soldier. He joins a group of wounded, including Jim, who dies. Conscience-stricken, Henry envies the dead but becomes embroiled in a retreat and is struck on the head by a fellow Union soldier. His wound, his ironic “red badge of courage,” allows him to rejoin his regiment. In subsequent battles, Henry fights with increasing fierceness and bravery and joins his experienced fellows as a veteran.
Often considered the first modern war novel, The Red Badge of Courage focuses on the common soldier rather than the leadership or on questions of strategy and politics. Henry is a generic youth in battle, a tiny cog in a huge war machine that readers perceive only through the boy’s consciousness, which is a mix of romantic...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The tall soldier, Jim Conklin, and the loud soldier, Wilson, argue bitterly over the rumor that the troops are about to move. Henry Fleming is impatient to experience his first battle, and as he listens to the quarreling of the seasoned soldiers, he wonders if he will become frightened and run away under gunfire. He questions Wilson and Conklin, and each states that he will stand and fight no matter what happens.
Henry had come from a farm, where he had dreamed of battles and longed for Army life. His mother held him back at first. When she saw that her son was bored with the farm, she packed his woolen clothing and, with a warning that he must not associate with the wicked kind of men who were in the military camps, sent him off to join the Yankee troops.
One gray morning, Henry wakes up to find that his regiment is about to move. With a hazy feeling that death would be a relief from dull and meaningless marching, Henry is again disappointed. The troops make only another march. He begins to suspect that the generals are stupid fools, but the other men in his raw regiment scoff at his idea and tell him to shut up.
When the fighting suddenly begins, there is very little action in it for Henry. He lays on the ground with the other men and watches for signs of the enemy. Some of the men around him are wounded. He cannot see what is going on or what the battle is about. Then an attack comes. Immediately, Henry forgets all of his former confused thoughts, and he can only fire his rifle over and over; around him, men behave in their own strange individual manners as they are wounded. Henry feels a close comradeship with the men at his side—men who are firing at the enemy with him.
Suddenly the attack ends. To Henry, it seems strange that the sky above should still be blue after the guns had stopped firing. While the men are recovering from the attack, binding wounds, and gathering equipment, another surprise attack is launched from the enemy line. Unprepared and tired from the first round of fighting, the men retreat in panic. Henry, sharing their sudden terror, runs too.
When the fearful retreat ends, the fleeing men learn that the enemy had lost the battle. Now Henry feels a surge of guilt. Dreading to rejoin his companions, he flees into the forest. There he sees a squirrel run away from him in fright. The fleeing animal seems to vindicate in Henry’s mind his own cowardly flight; he had acted according to nature, whose creatures run from danger. Then, seeing a dead man lying in a clearing, Henry hurries back into the retreating column of wounded men. Most are staggering along in helpless bewilderment, and some are being carried on stretchers. Henry realizes that he has no wound and that he does not belong in that group of staggering men. There is one pitiful-looking man, covered with dirt and...
(The entire section is 1165 words.)