The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

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What happens in The Red Badge of Courage?

Henry Fleming fights for the Union in the American Civil War. Though eager to join in the fray, Henry flees from his first battle, terrified by the war. He later leads the charge in a battle the Union wins, thus becoming a hero.

  • Henry's first battle starts off slow, and he's disappointed with the fact that there isn't really anything for him to do. Then the Confederate soldiers start pushing them back, and Henry is forced to flee. He feels like a coward.

  • Henry joins a group of wounded soldiers recuperating after the battle. He has sustained a wound, too: his "red badge of courage," a wound left by the butt of a rifle striking him in the head.

  • Determined to become a hero, Henry leads a charge in battle. When the Union forces win the battle, he's declared a hero, just like he wanted.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1,477 words.)