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The Red Badge of Courage paints war in a little different light than many other war novels. In this one, Stephen Crane does two things differently than many other works in this genre: he depicts the war realistically and he writes the inner thoughts of the protagonist. The first element is more common; the second is rarer and is the thing which most separates this novel from other fictional war stories of the time.
This novel is set during the Civil War in America, and Crane uses realism to reveal the truth about war. Though he was not even alive during this war, he did extensive research, including interviews with veterans, in order to faithfully and realistically paint the scenes for his readers. Consider this passage, written from young Henry's perspective, from chapter five of the novel:
The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face.... Another grunted suddenly as if a club had struck him in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. [A] man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.
The images of death and destruction are specific and graphic. These four men have all been damaged by the battle they just fought.The captain is dead, but it is the look on his face which is most evocative of the horrors of war. The "babbling man" has only been grazed and his body is relatively intact, but something has happened to his mind because of this battle. Another, the man who simply sits down, is also physically unharmed, but he is clearly ready to fight the next battle with anger and reproach. The final man has been wounded, grotesquely disfigured and disabled in the knee, and is crying out for help.
Each represents the realities of war and its after-effects. While there is no mention of blood or bones sticking out or any of the other more obvious ways to demonstrate the horrors of war, Crane is able to depict the horrors in a much more dramatic way.
This depiction of the starkness of war is noteworthy, but there is a fifth man in this scene: Henry. It is Crane's revelation of Henry's fear which is the most distinguishing factor in this novel. In chapter one we are privvy to Henry's fears that he will not prove to be the man he hopes he is when he has to face an enemy in battle for the first time. He does seem to understand that it is not the war that matters but how well equipped he is to face it.
In the battle that takes place in chapter five, Henry's fear is as palpable as the smoke which surrounds him and the roar of the approaching enemy:
To the youth it was an onslaught of redoubtable dragons. He became like the man who lost his legs at the approach of the red and green monster. He waited in a sort of a horrified, listening attitude. He seemed to shut his eyes and wait to be gobbled.
Crane called this kind of writing the "psychological portrayal of fear," and the depiction of Henry's fears is the most notable element in this novel.
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