Illustration of Henry Fleming in a soldier's uniform in front of a confederate flag and an American flag

The Red Badge of Courage

by Stephen Crane

Start Free Trial

What does Crane's description of the officers in chapter 5 of "The Red Badge of Courage" signify?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As a Naturalist, Stephen Crane broke with the Romantic tradition and refused to idealize war.  In "The Red Badge of Courage" the officers are not arranged as though they are in a painting, gallant and commanding in "picturesque attitudes."  Instead, Crane portrays the disorientation and chaos of the battlefield:

They [the officers] were bobbing to and fro offering directions and encouragements.  The dimensions of their howls were extraordinary. They expended their lungs with prodigal wills.  And often they nearly stood upon their heads in their anxiety to observe the enemy on the other side of the tumbling smoke.

Behind the battlelines, a lieutenant has a deserter by the collar and scolds him, forcing him back to the battle lines.  The officer even has to load the man's rifle for him.  In very naturalist diction, Crane describes Henry, the main character, as after the battle, he assesses the situation in which he stands:

The youth thought that at last he was going to suffocate.  He became aware of the foul atmosphere in which he had been struggling. He was grimy and dripping like a laborer in a factory.  He grasped his canteen and took a long swallow of the warm water.

Viewed through the eyes of Crane's youth. war is not noble, not picturesque.  Rather, it is stifling, grimy, and foul.  A soldier is no more than a sweating laborer.  There is a helplessness conveyed in Henry who never knows where he is fighting; he is simply moved by an implacable fate that "neglects" to place him in "picturesque" areas.

War is no picturesque, glorious portrait of men of honor.  It is a smoky line of youths who do not even know exactly where they are firing their rifles.  They are choked by the smoke, the grim, and the sordidness of their acts.  Critic Cumberland states that "in the realistic universe, there is no God to make human folly seem sane.  Henry Fleming is forced to confront the fact of death and the inevitability of his own death."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial