The Red Badge of Courage is hard to classify, as is Crane’s work in general. It is a war story in the sense that the major external action consists of clashes between opposing armies, but certainly it is unconventional in what it omits. No geographical place names are given, except for a single casual mention of the Rappahannock River, so that the action—all the more surreal for this reason—cannot be located on a map. Similarly, no dates are given; it is impossible to tell what strategic significance, if any, the series of inconclusive actions might have had.
In fiction that is intended to justify one side in a war, much is generally made of the justice of the cause; moreover, the soldiers on “our side” are portrayed as brave and noble, the enemy as evil. In The Red Badge of Courage, on the other hand, the cause is never described, and, though the enemy remains mostly faceless, it becomes clear at last that the only difference between Union and Confederate soldiers is the color of their uniforms. The novel is distinctly modern in this sense, much in the spirit of the fiction engendered by the Vietnam War. In its vivid depiction of the futile suffering brought about by war, it is an antiwar novel.
It is also, and perhaps primarily, a coming-of-age story. According to traditional readings, Henry Fleming, the young protagonist, moves in a series of stages from boyhood, marked by his cowardly flight from his first battle, to manhood, marked by his leading a charge and capturing a rebel flag. In the fiction of Crane, however, as ironic a writer as ever lived, nothing is ever quite that simple. The question of just what it is that Henry learns (and in turn, just what it is that war teaches any of those condemned to fight in it) remains open, to be answered by each reader by closely following the details of the story.
The Red Badge of Courage moves back and forth between traditional realism, partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Crane’s ironical one, and the surreal, disjointed imagery of nightmare. Thus, in the opening paragraph, from the camp of Henry’s untested regiment one can see “the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills”—a picture of a war monster. Next the story turns to a matter-of-fact description of camp life, including small domestic arrangements, quarrels, and the inevitable buzz of rumor. By these varied techniques, Crane accurately expresses the flavor of Henry’s existence—mostly ordinary, a life dominated by trivial events and emotions but always haunted by the specter of the fearful unknown.
At length, the regiment begins its march to action. Before any fighting actually occurs, Henry begins to feel his helplessness to alter the onrushing course of events. His regiment “inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.” It is this kind of statement that has caused some critics to describe The Red Badge of Courage as naturalistic and Henry as simply a victim of historical forces. Yet it is important to remember that these are Henry’s perceptions, not Crane’s, and that Henry is often self-deluded. A moment later, he reflects that he “had not enlisted of his free will,” when in fact he had. He made that choice and, like the characters in “The Blue Hotel,” will have others to make as well.
His first crisis occurs when his regiment has to withstand an infantry charge. At first he “suddenly lost concern for himself, and. . . . He became not a man but a member. . . . He felt the subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.” This is reminiscent of the brotherhood in “The Open Boat,” but it is ironically undercut by its arising from war (Henry’s state is described as “battle sleep”) and by its being so very short-lived. Soon, when a few men run, Henry runs too.
He runs blindly, without conscious volition, and his adventures while away from his regiment, chapters 6 through 12 of the twenty-four in the book, make up the dramatic heart of the novel. He pictures himself initially as being pursued by dragons and shells with “rows of cruel teeth that grinned at him.” Soon, as he calms down, he begins to justify his flight: Because his regiment was about to be swallowed, running was an intelligent act. Yet when he overhears some officers saying that the regiment held, he feels more than ever isolated: He grows angry at his comrades for standing firm and actually thinks of them as his enemy.
Throughout the novel, in typical adolescent fashion, Henry undergoes wild mood swings that color the ways he sees the external world. Distanced for a time from the fighting, he enters a forest and comes to “a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. . . . There was a religious half light.” Then, in a type of violent juxtaposition that Crane uses frequently, Henry sees that he is “being looked at by a dead man,” a decaying corpse Crane describes in graphic detail. Henry disintegrates: “His mind flew in all directions,” matching the chaos of the day’s events. It is when he comes to a road filled with wounded men that he most acutely feels his shame, hence the need for a wound of his own, a “red badge of courage.”
He falls in with a “tattered man” who befriends him and with a “spectral soldier,” a dying man he recognizes with horror as Jim Conklin, formerly known as the “tall soldier” of his own company. Henry and the tattered man accompany Jim on his death walk as he searches, seemingly, for the right place to die. At his death occurs the most famous and controversial image of the novel: “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.” One prominent critic has interpreted this sun to be a metaphor for a communion wafer, and an elaborately worked-out system of religious references as giving the book its underlying structure. Others, probably with better reason, discount the religious element and see the source of the image as the red seals that were commonly pasted on envelopes.
Henry, in his shame, now abandons the badly wounded tattered man. As he frantically questions a soldier in a routed mass of Union infantry, the man hits him on the head with his rifle, thus bestowing on him a profoundly ironic red badge. As the day ends Henry staggers on into the dark, only to be rescued by a mysterious “cheery man” whose face he never sees. This cheery man, with almost magical prowess and rare good will, restores him to his regiment.
It is typical for heroes of epic myth to make a trip to the underworld, a trip which explores their own deepest fears and from which they are reborn to a higher self. Henry has now completed such a journey; when he wakes the next morning, “it seemed to him that he had been asleep for a thousand years, and he felt sure that he opened his eyes upon an unexpected world.” The difficulty with this sort of mythic reading, however, is that in many ways Henry seems unchanged and continues to behave badly.
Wilson, a comrade formerly known as the “loud soldier,” has been genuinely humbled; there have been models of brotherhood in the tattered man and the cheery soldier, and of heroism in the dignity of Jim Conklin’s death. Yet Henry never tells the truth about his wound, and he is not above wanting to humiliate Wilson for having revealed his fears. At the end, he is tormented not by having abandoned the tattered man but by his fears of being found out. It is as though whatever meaning the mythic story might have had for Crane was overwhelmed by his clear-eyed realism.
Henry does become heroic, or at least stalwartly successful, in conventional military terms, and he turns at the end to “images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace.” On the face of it, there is a happy ending. Henry has basked euphorically in nature before, however, only to be brought up short by a rotting corpse. The war is by no means over; there is little peace to be had, and there is no convincing evidence that Henry will experience unbroken inner peace. So the meaning of the ending remains decidedly ambiguous. Exactly what lessons has Henry Fleming learned—that appearance matters more than reality, or that peace of mind is best attained by internalizing the values of society? If so, The Red Badge of Courage is a darker book than has generally been recognized.