The Red Badge of Courage Themes
by Stephen Crane

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.


(Novels for Students)


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...

(The entire section is 1,168 words.)