Leaving his widowed mother alone on their New York State farm, Henry Fleming, his head filled with visions of the heroic deeds of epic literature and popular myth, joins the Union Army only to enter the decidedly unheroic world of the military camp: the boredom of daily drills and the anonymity of military life. The “youth,” as Crane prefers to call him, persists in his delusions as well as in his fear that he will not measure up to his grandiose and utterly unrealistic vision of himself as a hero.
Dismayed by reality’s failure to meet his expectations and frightened by the chaos that swirls around him, Henry runs from his first battle. Hit on the head by another fleeing Union soldier, Henry receives the ironic wound, his “little red badge of courage,” that gains him reentry into his regiment, with no questions asked. On the second day, Henry fights like a “wildcat,” earning the admiration of his fellows and the praise of his lieutenant.
The “quiet manhood” that Henry gains in the final chapter is another of his delusions, one which the reader may mistakenly come to share if he fails to note Crane’s subtle irony. The back and forth movement of Crane’s plot, the pendulumlike swings toward and away from battle, with experience at one pole and reflection, especially rationalization, at the other, parallel the back and forth movement of Henry’s impressionistic perceptions about reality and about himself.
His misperceptions derive literally from the obscuring smoke of battle but figuratively, or psychologically, from his insatiable need to see himself and his world as meaningful even as experience teaches him quite the opposite lesson, that the world is flatly indifferent to man. The discrepancy between Henry’s self-portrait of the young man as hero and Crane’s depiction of him as a small, vainglorious, and nearly nameless cog in the military machine (or more generally in the meaningless, mechanistic world) serves as the measure of the author’s ironic vision.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Examines style, technique, narrative method, and psychological aspects of Crane’s novel. Places the novel in the epic tradition.
Cazemajou, Jean. “The Red Badge of Courage: The ‘Religion of Peace’ and the War Archetype.” In Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays, edited by Joseph Katz. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972. Finds a balance in the novel between a metaphoric view of war as chaos and confusion, and a view of a world at peace. War and peace function more as archetypes than as realities in the novel.
LaFrance, Marston. A Reading of Stephen Crane. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Identifies Crane’s genius not in creating literary naturalism, but rather in his psychological portrayal of Henry Fleming. Praises Crane’s use of third-person limited point of view.
Mitchell, Lee Clark, ed. New Essays on ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Traces the novel’s evolution; concludes that the original draft served as an outline to be expanded into the 1895 version. Identifies Crane’s abstraction of the Civil War from its historical context as a distinctive contribution to American literature.
Solomon, Eric. Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Credits Crane with countering a tradition of dashing heroes in war fiction by using parody and with giving the war novel a new form that afterward became the model. Maintains that Crane selects his war stories for their value as fiction, creating rather than reliving war experiences.