The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s second novel (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets had appeared under a pseudonym in 1893) and his most famous work, has often been considered the first truly modern war novel. The war is the American Civil War, and the battle is presumed to be the one fought at Chancellorsville, though neither the war nor the battle is named in the novel. Further, there is no mention of Abraham Lincoln or the principal battle generals, Joseph Hooker (Union) and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (Confederate). This is by design, since Crane was writing a different kind of war novel. He was not concerned with the causes of the war, the political and social implications of the prolonged and bloody conflict, the strategy and tactics of the commanding officers, or even the real outcome of the battle in which historically the combined losses were nearly thirty thousand men (including Jackson, mistakenly shot in darkness by one of his own men).
From beginning to end, the short novel focuses upon one Union Army volunteer. Though other characters enter the story and reappear intermittently, they are distinctly minor, and they are present primarily to show the relationship of Henry Fleming (usually called only “the youth”) to one person, to a small group of soldiers, or to the complex war of which he is such an insignificant part. Much of the story takes the reader into Henry’s consciousness. Readers share his boyish dreams of glory, his excitement in anticipating battle action, his fear of showing fear, his cowardice and flight, his inner justification of what he has done, his wish for a wound to symbolize a courage he has not shown, the ironic gaining of his false “red badge,” his secret knowledge of the badge’s origin, his “earning” the badge as he later fights fiercely and instinctively, his joy in musing on his own bravery and valiant actions, his anger at an officer who fails to appreciate his soldiers, and his final feeling that “the great death” is, after all, not a thing to be feared so much. Now, he tells himself, he is a man. In centering the story within the consciousness of an inexperienced youth caught in a war situation whose meaning and complexities he cannot understand, Crane anticipates Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, and other later novelists.
Crane has been called a realist, a naturalist, an impressionist, and a Symbolist. He is all of these in The Red Badge of Courage. Though Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote the novel, he had read about them, had talked with veterans and had studied history under a Civil War general, and had imagined what it would be like to be a frightened young man facing violent death amid the confusion, noise, and turmoil of a conflict that had no clear meaning to him. Intuitively, he wrote so realistically that several early reviewers concluded that only an experienced soldier could have written the book. After Crane had later seen the Greeks and Turks fighting in 1897 (he was a journalist reporting the war), he told Joseph Conrad, “My picture of war was all right! I have found it as I imagined it.”
Although naturalistic passages appear in the novel, Crane portrays in Henry not a helpless chip floating on the indifferent ocean of life but a youth sometimes impelled into action by society or by instinct yet also capable of consciously willed acts. Before the first skirmish, Henry wishes he could escape from his regiment and consider his plight: “there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.” In the second skirmish, he runs “like a rabbit.” When a squirrel in the forest flees after Henry throws a pinecone at him, Henry justifies his own flight: “There was the law, he said. Nature had given him a sign.” He is not, however, content to look upon himself as on the squirrel’s level. He feels guilt over his cowardice. When he carries the flag in the later skirmishes, he is not a terrified chicken or rabbit or squirrel but a young man motivated by pride, by a sense of belonging to a group, and by a determination to show his courage to an officer who had scornfully called the soldiers in his group “mule drivers.”
From the beginning, critics have both admired and complained about Crane’s impressionistic writing and his use of imagery and symbols in The Red Badge of Courage. Edward Garnett in 1898 called Crane “the chief impressionist of our day” and praised his “wonderful fervour and freshness of style.” Conrad (himself an impressionist) was struck by Crane’s “genuine verbal felicity, welding analysis and description in a continuous fascination of individual style,” and Conrad saw Henry as “the symbol of all untried men.” By contrast, one American critic in 1898 described the novel as “a mere riot of words” and condemned “the violent straining after effect” and the “absurd similes.” Though H. G. Wells liked the book as a whole, he commented on “those chromatic splashes that at times deafen and confuse . . . those images that astonish rather than enlighten.”
However, judging by the continuing popularity of The Red Badge of Courage, most readers are not repelled by Crane’s repeated use of color—“blue demonstration,” “red eyes,” “red animal—war,” “red sun”—or by his use of images—“dark shadows that moved like monsters,” “the dragons were coming,” guns that “belched and howled like brass devils guarding a gate.” Only in a few passages does Crane indulge in “arty” writing—“the guns squatted in a row like savage chiefs. They argued with abrupt violence”—or drop into the pathetic fallacy—“The flag suddenly sank down as if dying. Its motion as it fell was a gesture of despair.” Usually the impressionistic phrasing is appropriate to the scene or to the emotional state of Henry at a particular moment, as when, after he has fought heroically, the sun shines “now bright and gay in the blue, enameled sky.” A brilliant work of the imagination, The Red Badge of Courage will endure as what Crane afterward wrote a friend he had intended it to be, “a psychological portrayal of fear.”