In The Red Badge of Courage: How can Henry Fleming's journey to (supposed) manhood be linked to the naturalistic themes so dominant in the book?

Expert Answers
sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Naturalism seeks to apply a cold scientific objectivity to the study of human beings and their actions.  Realism tends to focus on events, and naturalism tends to focus on people.  While "Red Badge of Courage" is quite realistic in many ways, the book is inwardly focused on the character of Henry and his relation to the world around him.  That makes the book fall in the naturalism category.  Naturalism also tends to view man as being controlled by forces completely out of man's control.  

That makes sense when you know that naturalists are heavily influenced by Charles Darwin's evolutionary theories.  To Darwin, change is inevitable.  Species will change as a result of their environments.  But the changes are random and uncontrollable.  Henry's world in the book is very similar.  He has no control over when and where the army is going to do battle.  He, and the others, have no control over who lives and dies.  It doesn't matter how brave or a good a soldier may be, because he is still subject to the natural and random forces of the universe itself.  The corpse that Henry comes across in the woods is a good symbolic image of the naturalistic ideas presented in the book.  

"The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be see on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its read had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the grey skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling up some sort of a bundle along the upper lip."

There is nothing remarkable about the body.  Nature isn't showing it any reverence because of the bravery it showed in battle.  Nature is simply working its way through the decomposition of the body.  To Henry, it serves as a symbol that nature simply doesn't care if he lives or dies.  That reminds me of a poem by Crane.  It's short and is as follows.  

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Perhaps the realization that his death is random and simply a part of nature's uncaring cycle is a contributing factor to why Henry was able to be so brave by the end of the book.  Deep down he knew that nature was going to determine his fate regardless of his actions, so why not "be all that he could be."  

sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The cause? No.  cause? Yes.  Henry changes as a soldier.  He goes from being a petty glory hound that runs away from battle to an actual contributing member of his unit. One of the causes of this change is the naturalism that Henry sees at work. Whether or not he realizes it as naturalism is doubtful, but Henry does come to realize the world, nature, the army, his officers, etc. as a big uncaring machine. His path is determined by powers completely out of his control. That realization could absolutely contribute to his change toward manhood and being an effective soldier. Instead of trying to artificially become a hero by attempting to shape the world around him (in other words, cheat), he realizes that the best thing to do is help the guy next to him. To fight and do what he is told. To pick up and believe in the cause, which he does when he grabs the flag and runs further into battle.  

navv | Student

First of all, thank you very much for the fast response. However, I am aware of the naturalistic themes. Maybe my question will be clearer if I rephrase it: Can the cause of Henry's manhood be the result of naturalistic themes? And if yes, how?

After some research I thought of explaining his coming of age with Existentialism, which (as far as I'm concerned) is part of a naturalistic world view. By standing his ground to survive in an indifferent universe (not only staying alive on the battlefield but also to preserving his dignity by not being a coward -> "social death") he becomes a hero and therefor a man. Would it be plausible to argue that his battle with an indifferent universe is not only restricted to nature, but also to the army itself (the higher ups of the army being described as indifferent to the common footsoldier and deciding about their lives at will)?

In the end, however, it would still remain questionable if Fleming's start on the road towards his image of manhood is a real one (many argue his motives were egoistical ones and therefor not virtuous, while others compare it with accounts of WWII and Vietnam veteran's accounts that share similar views of manhood; Is a civilian even cut out to define manhood that is shaped through war?)

So, to ask the question again: Can the cause of Henry's manhood be the result of naturalistic themes? And if yes, how?

Read the study guide:
The Red Badge of Courage

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question