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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Social Concerns / Themes

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The Red Badge of Courage attempts to recreate the combat experiences of a young, frightened soldier in the American Civil War. Henry Fleming, the protagonist, has never seen a real battle and worries about how he will behave under pressure. Crane's novel has been praised ever since it first appeared in print as highly realistic in its presentation of the psychology of a young man facing injury and possible death. One of the best American short novels, Crane's work vividly presents some of the horrors, both physical and psychological, that soldiers encounter in battle.

Crane's novels reflect his basic beliefs about humanity. The chronic misery of the poor aroused his sympathy, as did the plight of common soldiers in wars. Having rejected traditional theological explanations as a boy, Crane never found a philosophy that adequately explained the hardships inherent in the human condition.

Because Crane's theme in The Red Badge of Courage is the fear and isolation common to all war, he deliberately avoids all specific references to the Civil War itself. The battle is presumed to be Chancellorsville, but neither its name nor the names of commanding generals are mentioned. Few characters have names or identities, and even Henry is usually referred to simply as "the youth." Crane is not concerned with the causes of the war, the implications of slavery, the tactics of the armies, or even the outcome of his battle. For the purposes of the story, it makes no difference that this is the American Civil War, or that in the real battle of Chancellorsville thirty thousand men were killed.

The novel vividly depicts the ravaging emotions that lead Henry to abandon his idealism, reevaluate his conception of bravery, recognize nature as a malevolent force, and repudiate the existence of God. The violence that he experiences holds no redemptive qualities. What he has learned in war — the indifference of death, the folly of valor and patriotism, and the illusion of God — becomes distorted and tangled in his memory by the novel's end, so that even the reality is lost and everything becomes a lie. There is no glory in war, not even for the heroes. There is only death for the victims and confusion for the survivors.

Themes

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Naturalism

In The Red Badge of Courage, a novel about a young recruit's first encounter with real battle, Crane emphasizes the lack of free choice in human conduct. Chapter Four in particular highlights a common theme in Crane's work—the naturalistic belief in the indifference of nature. The theory of naturalism is a critical term applied to a method of literary composition that aims at a detached, scientific objectivity in the treatment of a natural man. It also holds to the theory of determinism and leans further towards pessimism, since man is controlled by his instincts or passions, or by his social and economic environment and circumstances. In any case, man is not free to choose. The theory emanates from the nineteenth-century concern for scientific thought, as exemplified in economic determinism (Karl Marx) and biological determinism (Charles Darwin). Darwinism was one of the popular social philosophies of Crane's day, and it stressed that, as in the animal world, only the stronger individuals survive.

Crane candidly reports the sordid and brutish actions of human conduct as well as the testing of human strength in the context of violence and struggle. Henry does not find solace in nature, but rather is deluded into feeling secure in an unfriendly context. As he moves deeper into the woods, away from the sounds of the guns and fighting, he comes upon a lovely spot,...

(This entire section contains 797 words.)

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where the boughs of the trees form a chapel-like area with brown pine needles for the carpet. To his horror, he discovers a ghastly corpse with small ants crawling across its face, quite a shocking discovery in an otherwise sedate, peaceful scene. Henry cries out when he sees the corpse, then gazes at it intently before he gathers the strength to run away. As he flees, he is afraid that the dead man is somehow pursuing him. Finally, he stops to listen whether the corpse is calling after him. He views nature as an impersonal force able to go tranquilly on with its process like "a woman with a deep aversion to tragedy."

Coming of Age

"It is only by immersion in the flux of experience that man becomes disciplined and develops in character, conscience or soul," stated R.W. Stallman in his introduction to The Red Badge of Courage. The battle is where life's flux is strongest, hence the potential for change is greatest. "From the start Henry recognizes the necessity for change, but wars against it. But man must lose his soul in order to save it. The youth develops into the veteran," wrote Stallman. The book can be read as a story of the coming of age of Henry Fleming: his development from an innocent boy to a mature man. A novel that describes the development of a young character into a more aware adult is often called a bildungsroman. Henry encounters a hostile environment and is changed by the horror of the forest-chapel, where he comes into contact with a decomposing corpse, he is also changed by the awesome death of Jim Conklin and by the patient and selfless suffering of "the tattered man." Prompted by a naive sense of patriotism and heroism to enlist, Henry is quickly disillusioned with the life of a common soldier. In the end, he grows in self-confidence and has a clearer grasp of reality.

Appearance vs. Reality

Henry Fleming has a romantic or egotistic illusion about his place in the world and about war. Crane traces the process of education by which the youth matures and changes his thoughts about reality. Man must believe that he is a rational creature whose mind can control and give significance to human conduct. Yet Crane demonstrates that man is at the mercy not only of his illusions and instincts but of superior social and cosmic forces. Rather than present to the reader the romantic, idealized notion of war, he presents its antithesis— chaotic, brutal savagery. By contrast, the book and film Gone With the Wind represents a romanticized version of the Civil War.

Alienation and Loneliness

In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming often feels alone and isolated. The woods and the smoke separate the soldiers and contribute greatly to their feelings of panic during battle. Critic Robert Shulman, writing in American Literature, suggested that Crane had to "test the possibilities and failures of community, an understandable interest since for him the solitary self has limited resources and God and nature are both inaccessible as sources of sustaining power." War accentuates Fleming's feeling of isolation because he faces death so often. He encounters the dead Union soldier propped against a tree and stares at him until he feels the ghastly figure is staring at him. His companions Jim Conklin and "the tattered man" both die, leaving him saddened and confused.

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