How does Stephen Crane interject his opinions about war through his character Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage with the intention of refuting the glorification of war. Crane’s classic novel represents two types of fiction writing: naturalism, and realism.  The author tells the story of the inexperienced Henry Fleming as he rifles through his rite of passage to manhood.

How do these styles impact Crane’s writing style?

Naturalism is a style of writing that portrays life in a detached, almost scientific manner. Crane’s naturalism describes his characters as controlled by the environment, the character’s instinct, and fate.  

Nature is indifferent to mankind. It does not have a personality, feelings, or attitudes.  It is this natural environment that Henry Fleming finds himself facing what the natural world places before him.

Without actually giving authorial commentary, the reader learns what Crane believes about war.  Through the naturalistic approach to characterization, Henry achieves the goal of hero on his own.

Crane offers choices to Fleming. When the character makes a choice, this opportunity portrays the author’s feelings. Through his experiences, Henry learns the true definition of heroism.  However, to get to that point, Henry condemns other soldiers who stayed to fight with no thought of their own mortality.  When he returns to his unit, Henry lies about his wound [his red badge of courage].  The other soldiers call him a hero, and Henry begins to believe the hype. 

When Henry actually goes into battle, he finally learns Crane’s lesson:  that in war the individual is not as important as the unit.  It is the group that moves together as a great fighting machine that becomes his impetus.  It is at that moment that Henry wins his battle of bravery:

He [Henry] made a spring and a clutch at the pole. They jerked at it, stout and furious, but the color sergeant was dead, and the corpse would not relinquish its trust. For a moment there was a grim encounter. It was passed in an instant of time. They wrenched the flag furiously from the dead man, and, as they turned again, the corpse swayed forward with bowed head.

It is at this moment that the author gives Henry the courage to move out and lead the unit into the terrible battle.

Crane also uses the realistic approach to build his characters. His use of colloquialisms and local dialect portray the language of the soldiers as though the reader were standing in the middle of their conversations.  In addition, his use of literary devices creates the natural yet harsh environment that Henry moves through on his way back to his unit.

The choices that Crane makes in presenting his story serve as his comments on his topic: the unreasoning glorification of war.  Henry Fleming’s move to manhood, the gory details of the battles, and the impact of the environment on all of his characters detail the author’s feelings and thoughts of the subject of war.

Differentiating between fear and courage need no explanation other than showing Jim Conklin’s maturity in comparison with Henry and many of the other soldiers.  Conklin’s strength and reliability serve as a foil for Henry.  Crane shows his attitude about the needless loss of life in Conklin who fulfills his responsibilities as best he can. He shows Henry the wisdom needed to become a man.


geraldedmunds | Student

Speaking of his most vivid memories of the engagement, McNab says “it’s just small contained areas that . . . you see.” If the British soldier was not familiar with The Red Badge of Courage, how would you draw an analogy for him showing the similarity between his comment and Crane’s approach to writing about war?

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The Red Badge of Courage

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