The Red Badge of Courage, written in 1895 by Stephen Crane
(1871-1900), is considered by many literary critics to be one of
the greatest of all American novels. This is a book about the Civil
War, and one Union soldiers struggle with his inner demons as he
prepares for, and fights his first battle. Although the story Crane
tells is deceptively simple, it reveals, better than any other
novel Ive read, the full horror of war, and the complexity and
unpredictability of human behavior in the crucible of battle. Henry
Fleming (always referred to by Crane as the youth) is a young
northerner who, despite his mothers objections, enlists in the
Union army with great patriotic fervor. As he awaits his first
battle, the youth ponders how he will react: will he stand and
fight, or will he flee? The answer comes soon enough. His regiment
is attacked by the Confederates; at first the youth stays to fight,
but, during a second attack, he watches other soldiers run away
from battle in a state of panic. He himself is overcome by fear,
and he too flees.
The youth finally reaches a state of exhaustion and stops
running. Immediately, his conscience begins to gnaw at him. He
hears rumors that his regiment has actually stood and won the day
against its foe. His thoughts and emotions begin to run the gamut
from rationalization, to self-loathing, to fear of being discovered
a coward. He continually looks for ways to justify his flight. The
youth hears the continuing sound of battle in the distance, and is
drawn to it, almost as a moth to a flame; he decides to return to
his regiment, but loses his way. As he tries to find his way back
to his regiment, he is confronted by people who serve to prick his
conscience even further. He witnesses the horrible death of Jim
Conklin, one of his friends from his regiment. While walking with a
group of wounded soldiers, he is asked by one tattered and probably
insane soldier what the nature of his wounds are. Shamed by this
inquisition, he runs away, afraid hell be uncovered as the poltroon
he is beginning to believe himself to be. He begins to wish for a
red badge of courage - a wound - which would signify his bravery in
battle. He gets his wish in a roundabout way when he attempts to
ask another soldier for directions. He gets into a scuffle and is
cut on the head with the soldiers rifle. This becomes his red badge
when he finally makes it back to his unit; he lies to his
comrades-in-arms, saying he received the wound as a result of being
shot in the heat of battle.
Cranes writing is excellent on most levels. His descriptions of
the insane violence of battle is graphically intense, and of
reasonable historical accuracy. The one noticeable weakness in
Cranes style is his dialogue. Although it is raw and gritty, it is
also somewhat unrealistic; all his characters sound like they have
southern accents, even though they are supposed to be from New York
and other northern states. Still, the dialogue is effective in
conveying the essential truth of who did most of the fighting on
both sides during the Civil War: tough, profane, and often poor and
uneducated men, many who did not know of, or care about, the causes
for which they fought and sometimes died.
The Red Badge of Courage is indeed a timeless masterpiece of
American fiction. It is easy to understand why it ranks alongside
such great American novels as Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms
Cabin, John Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath, and To Kill a
Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The Red Badge of Courage is a book to
be read and savored
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