Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage as a response to late 19th century American society’s glamorization of war. Crane’s serialized story was meant to bring out the realities of war while at the same time satirizing glamorous illusions of the nobility of battle.
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The novel opens with Private Henry Fleming, a Union soldier during the Civil War, getting the news that his regiment will soon be on the move to a battlefield. Henry, bored with the monotony of the encampment, is both excited and contemplative about this coming engagement with the enemy.
Henry’s regiment, a few days later, finally moves towards Chancellorsville and the bloody battle that actually took place there. Henry survives his first engagement with Confederate soldiers, only to give in to his fears and desert in the face of a second wave of enemy troops. Henry runs and then falls in with a group of wounded soldiers making their way toward the rear of the battlefield and presumable toward medical care, such as it was. Several pivotal events happen during Henry’s march with the wounded soldiers which I will not go into here. Eventually, Henry returns to his regiment and proves himself on the battlefield the following day.
Elements of Style
While the plot may seem rather thin, Crane’s artistry is densely packed onto each page. First, Crane parodies the language of popular chivalric romances (i.e., Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), calling Henry a “knight” rather than the egocentric coward that he really is. Crane’s use of color, especially red and blue which are mentioned with the most frequently, bears some attention while reading and seems to restore symbolism to the storyline just when the reader least expects it.
Crane also dips into satire, effectively skewering some of the aspects of military life applicable still today: the regiment digging in and having to move three times in one day; the captain and the lieutenant squabbling over how to bind a wound; the inability of the private to see the larger tactical picture as the generals did; the leaving behind of packs on the march because they suddenly contain things the soldiers only thought they would need until they had to carry it all; the false bravado. These scenes had me laughing out loud.
On the other end of the spectrum, I found one of the most chilling aspects of the military as well: the berserker, the soldier as killing machine who will mow down anything in his way and seems invincible. This kind of soldier is great to have on one’s side during a battle, but the question always arises: how does one turn him off when the battle is over? And later, how does one turn this killing machine back upon a peacetime society? I’ve known soldiers like this and some of them I would trust with my life—as long as I was sure that they would be loyal enough to me to save it and not leave me lying somewhere in a foxhole.
I see the berserker in Henry Fleming. His first engagement, he comes through all right. He does not run or get hurt. In the second engagement Henry runs. This, however, is not Henry’s fault. The way that the modern military undermines cowardice on the battlefield is through training--a lot of it. Although the text tells us that Henry drilled frequently while encamped, parade drills are not useful on a battlefield, though I dare say the generals of the Civil War thought that kind of training appropriate. If Henry and his regiment had received proper training on how to move under fire, how to return fire in an engagement, etc., then they would not have deserted in such large numbers, nor would so many of them gotten killed or wounded, nor would they have retreated instead of completing their charge. Training can temper fear, for most soldiers, and it can replace cowardice as well.
Secondly, Henry leaves another soldier, wounded and delusional, somewhere in a field. He later completely distances himself from his actions, which I find reprehensible; Henry personifies the berserker-without-loyalty in this instance. Only after this scene, when Henry rejoins his regiment and engages in the battle the next day does the reader finally see the undeniable berserker traits come to the fore when Henry amazes his regiment by continuing to fire after the enemy has disengaged; by running with the guide-on at the front of the unit; by trying to capture for himself the glory that he thinks is inherent in war. Through all of this, Henry thinks about the grand tales he will be able to tell when he returns home after the end of the war.
Crane captures the sights and sounds of the battlefield, though at the time he wrote The Red Badge of Courage he had never witnessed a war. That said, however, Crane completely misses one vital aspect: the smells of a battlefield that are just as compelling (gun powder, blood, sweat), and in many ways more memorable than the experiences of the other senses.
The Red Badge of Courage seems to be one of the forgotten classics of American literature, though not as neglected as other authors from the American Realism period. Crane’s story shocked 19th century audiences, hopefully out of their complacency and attributions to war of a nobility that does not exist in it. The story of Henry Fleming remains applicable to modern concepts of warfare and modern society’s ways of distancing themselves from the wars our country engages in and our justification of them.
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