Illustration of Henry Fleming in a soldier's uniform in front of a confederate flag and an American flag

The Red Badge of Courage

by Stephen Crane

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What aspects of "The Red Badge of Courage" do you appreciate?

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Being a Civil War enthusiast and historian, I recognize Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as one of the finest fictional novels about the conflict. Its combination of realism and naturalism--especially within the psychological contexts--is one of the novel's strong points. I like Crane's purposeful use of vagueness throughout: The name of the battle is never given (it is supposedly the overwhelming Confederate victory at Chancellorsville); and the men, though given vivid characterizations, are nonetheless addressed by nicknames. The dialogue, though often sparse, is realistic. Perhaps the primary strength of the novel exists in the descriptions of Henry's psychological disposition. He is alternatlely racked by hesitancy, fear, doubt, pretended cockiness and, eventually, extreme self-confidence in his desire to make up for his earlier cowardice. In the end, nothing is resolved (remember, Henry's regiment has won their tiny battle within a battle, but the Union army is badly defeated, though this is never mentioned in the narrative). The men gather their wits and move on to fight again in some unnamed new place. 

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I haven't read The Red Badge of Courage for a few years, but when I did I didn't like it for much of the book.  The emphasis on the ideas of honor and bravery and glory struck me as unrealistic or false.  But when the protagonist finally just becomes so absolutely afraid that there is nothing left to do but charge and fight, and he becomes a hero that way, I changed my mind.  That's how I remember the story, anyway.  I can't swear that my interpretation was accurate long ago when I read it. 

I liked the irony involved, and the modernistic or realistic look at courage and bravery.  I think I would be absolutely terrified if I were in a battle, and I can imagine that many others, at least, would be, too.

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There are a number of reasons to like the book.  As a younger reader, I enjoyed the story and the idea of a young man questioning much of what happens in battle and the "glory" of it.  As an older and somewhat better read adult I appreciate the way that the book calls into question some of the reasons why we fight and the idea of rewards "red badges" for valor in battle and how certain people react to the idea of conflict in different ways.

The several different battle scenes each raise interesting questions for each episode as Henry makes certain decisions about what will be acceptable behavior.  The book can be seen as somewhat pedantic as it is relatively straightforward, but revsiting it as an adult is still rewarding as it can be extrapolated to ask very interesting questions about war and conflict and the human aspect of it.

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