Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
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, 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.