In The Red Badge of Courage, why has Crane chosen an obscure ending in which the war is not finished?
Stephen Crane’s intention in writing his novel The Red Badge of Courage was not to give insight into the actual civil war. His purpose was to portray the unique aspects of this war based on the youth and inexperience of the soldiers. In addition, Crane had never fought in a war, so he used his imagination to create the realistic battle scenes. Most of his battle scenes and depictions are loosely based on the battle of Chancellorsville.
Part of the reason that he wrote the novel was to address the preconceived ideas of the general public about the reality of war. War is neither pretty nor idealistic. Many times during the civil war, brother fought brother. Many young boys died fighting for a cause that they did not understand.
The main character of the story Private Henry Fleming comes under psychological scrutiny and is often found wanting in the courage necessary to fight. Henry joined the army to take part in what he thought was the glory of battle. Henry discovers that being a soldier involves waiting, marching, waiting, and then the actual battle. Most of the shooting is done without seeing who the enemy is.
Henry has to face his deepest fear: he is a coward. At one point, Henry runs blindly away from the battle. During his trek back to his regiment, he obtains his “red badge of courage,” a wound received in battle. Ironically, it is hardly a sign of courage because it was given to him by one of the soldiers on his side.
Another facet of life that Henry learns comes from his understanding that he must face his test alone. He is not the center of the universe, and the world is indifferent to what happens to him. As the story progresses, Henry faces the horrific wounds that men receive in battle. He becomes ashamed of his wound although his fellow soldiers treat him as though he is a hero when he finally returns to his unit.
When Henry finally engages in an actual battle, he loses himself and becomes a part of the unit. The officers observe Henry as he fights like a madman and consider him to be one of the best men in their regiment. An important lesson comes to Henry when he realizes that becoming a man is more important than making oneself a hero.
He [Henry Fleming, the youth] felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man. So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed.
Crane does not finish the end of the battle because that was not his intention. The author wanted to show the effects of the fighting on an individual. The question was this: Does the youth rise to the occasion or run and hide and stay a coward? Henry Fleming answers the question when he picks up the flag and leads his unit into battle.
While the setting of Crane's novel is the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage is an intensely psychological narrative that concerns itself mainly with the existential questions of a young man. Central to this novel, then, is not war, but the psychological growth and education of a proud, but naive young man. Therefore, whether the war is ended matters not because there will be more wars and more young men isolated by their abstract dreams in a materialistic bellicose society.
In addition to this aspect, the Realistic and, at times, Naturalistic style of Crane depicts a universe indifferent to peace or war. Moreover, the real war is within Henry Fielding himself, a youth of romantic illusions and other undefined impressions. In Chapter XXIV, the final chapter, Henry reflects upon the battle and is "enabled to more closely comprehend himself,"
He understood then that the existence of shot and counter–shot was in the past. He had dwelt in a land of strange, squalling upheavals and had come forth. He had been where there was red of blood and black of passion, and he was escaped.
Thus, for Henry Fleming the battle is ended. Yet, he realizes that as a soldier he has proceeded "sheeplike" and he begins to analyze his failures and achievements, reproaching himself for his early act of cowardice, but he knows that he no longer will "quail before his guides whenever they should point." Henry now feels "he had been to touch the great death, and it was but the great death." In the end, therefore, Henry realizes he is a man. He has come of age, whether the war continues or ends.