Stephen Crane/ The Red Badge Of Courage Essay, Research Paper
Stephen Crane and Critical Interpretation of The Red Badge of Courage
The Red Badge of Courage is one of the most well known novels in American history. And the author, Stephen Crane, is a prominent writer in history. He lived a short life due to tuberculosis but he still managed to write, what some critics say, is the best personal account of the American Civil War (Wolford 119). Then again, there are others who say that this is a poor reflection of the War Between the States and should not be looked on as an historical book on the War (McClurg 30-31). Nevertheless the book made the man, the author Stephen Crane known around the world. But there are other works that Crane was praised for writing such as his poems and his short stories. Although his writings are pessimistic and brutal, he is idolized for his works, especially The Red Badge of Courage (Encarta ‘95).
Stephen Crane was born the youngest of 14 children. Almost from the beginning he rebelled against the strictness of his upbringing (Katz 418). He never received his degree from college and became a journalist for a couple New York newspapers. Then, he wrote the first of his six novels, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It’s the story of a young factory girl who is victimized by a slick bartender. The girl is eventually driven to suicide. The book received several rejections from shocked editors. Because of this, Crane published it himself under the name Johnson Smith (Katz 418). Although not many copies were sold, he did win some favorable attention and opportunities from some critics. Then, he wrote his first volume of free verse The Black Riders and Other Lines. In an attempt to make money, Crane decided to write a love story in the time of the Civil War; but instead it turned into The Red Badge of Courage (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 8). The book made Crane an instant celebrity at the age of 24. Then, he tried to follow it up with the two novels George’s Mother and The Third Violet. Both were poorly received. Part of the reason is that Crane’s reputation had been damaged when newspapers ran a story of a woman who charged Crane with solicitation (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 9). Later, he went to Florida to report on the war in Cuba. He was aboard the Commodore when it sank. The newspapers reported that Crane had drowned, but he sailed to safety aboard a dinghy. He put this episode of his life in the short story, “The Open Boat.” Later that year he went to report on the Turkish War, which would serve as the setting for the novel Active Service. Finally, he volunteered for military service but was rejected because of signs of tuberculosis, and then he died two years later.
Overall, Crane was one of the first and best naturalistic and realistic writers. Some refer to his ideas as “Darwinnistic.” His naturalistic portrayals are pessimistic and brutal, yet his poetic ability and sympathetic understanding of character relieve the realism (Encarta ‘95). If he had lived longer, perhaps he would have written more and even better works. Crane’s writings were the basis of Ernest Hemingway’s style. Every author after Hemingway either copied his style or wrote completely the opposite of his style. His style is best portrayed in The Red Badge of Courage (Bloom, Intro to The Red Badge 2).
The point of view in The Red Badge of Courage is basically that of limited third person narrator whole access to data is restricted to the mind of the protagonist Henry Fleming. The main conflict here is man versus himself in an internal struggle. The inciting moment comes when the regiment fights its first battle against the Confederate army. The climax comes when Henry finally “fights like a man in battle,” (Katz 419)
The book starts off establishing two central themes. The first is the continual movement and change in the world. The second is the fact that this will be an “initiation story”, a movement towards the fulfillment of a destiny. Henry and the regiment are preparing for battle at any given moment. He thinks about what would happen if he ran away from the fight. We are introduced to other characters such as the “loud soldier” and the “tall soldier,” (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 11). Chapter two focuses upon Henry’s psychological state as he anticipates battle. He is still considering running from the battlefield. He feels that he is a “mental outcast” and alone in the monotony of his suffering. In chapter three the regiment moves toward battle. The regiment throws away their backpacks and shirts brought from home. This represents another step in this ritual of initiation. It also represents perhaps a transition to manhood (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 12). Next, the war atmosphere is created and the North and the South battle. Henry is forced to start shooting rebels. When the rebel army retreats and then returns, Henry “runs like a rabbit.” Later he finds that his regiment held their ground. After the struggle he contemplates his guilt. He walks through a “field of corpses” is ashamed of his cowardliness (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 14). The “tattered soldier” asks Henry where he’s been hit and Henry feels remorseful. He envies the wounded and he wishes that he had the “red badge of courage.” Then, his best friend Jim Conklin dies from the battle. The “tattered soldier continually follows Henry around, asking where Henry’s wound is. Finally, Henry leaves the soldier dying in the field. Henry envies the dead, whose secrets may no longer be probed. In chapter eleven, fear is the emotion through which Henry perceives his surroundings (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 15). He tries to stay near the battlefield so that he may appear as though he is one of the fighters. He doesn’t have a gun, and so he runs. In his own mind he is a coward. In chapter twelve, Henry stands in the midst of the South army. He grabs a man by the arm to question him. The soldier hits him on the head with the butt of the rifle. Henry walks away from his army, and is then led back. The blow he took stuns Henry. He claims to the “loud soldier” that he was shot. Henry thinks that his fellow men are more heroic than he is. He keeps dreaming of the day when he will be a true hero to himself. Then, Henry is motivated to stand his ground and fight from his visions of being a hero. Finally, He becomes the man he intended to be. He proudly carries the flag in the battle against the South. In chapter twenty-one, Crane emphasizes the compression of time and experience in battle. Henry is very satisfied with his performance on the field. Another fight occurs and Henry records the battlescene like a camera (Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 20). Crane describes the chaos of the battlefield in impressionistic detail. Henry transforms into a veteran soldier. He urges his fellow men to charge the enemy. The North wins and Henry helps get the enemy’s flag. And in the final chapter, Henry contemplates his role in the war. He thinks about how he became a man through war. He recalls his cowardice and abandonment when he was just a “boy.”
Stephen Crane himself once wrote, “The Red Badge of Courage was born of pain – despair.” He was not only referring to the pain of Henry Fleming, but the terror and hurt that comes out of the transition from adolescence to manhood. Crane wrote the book thirty years after the Civil War, yet the tales in The Red Badge of Courage are “fictionalized reality that may also be viewed as testing stages in the psychological evolution of Henry Fleming,” (Knapp 59-60).
Crane only had scant knowledge of the Civil War. The only experience he had with war was military maneuvers at prep school. He had to do some major research on the subject to write a book about it. He studied such works as Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, a four volume account written by veterans; Warren Lee Goss’ Recollections of a Private, and the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Knapp 61-62).
Many critics have said and wrote many things about The Red Badge of Courage. Here are some of those things:
The New York Times wrote, “The very best thing that can be said about it is that it strikes the reader as a statement of facts by a veteran. Yet it is as a picture, which seems to be extraordinarily true, free from any suspicion of ideality, defying every accepted tradition of martial glory, that the book commends itself to the reader. Mr. Crane depicts war as a mean, nasty, horrible thing.”
Donald B. Gibson wrote, “The difference between The Red Badge of Courage any American novel written before it is a measure of its author’s extraordinary imaginative capacities of the uniqueness of his vision, of his daring to pursue paths untried by others,” (1). Harold Bloom wrote, “Crane’s use of alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia heightens the nerve-searing impact of military retreats and the push of advancing columns.” Harold Frederic, an American journalist said, “If there were in existence any books of a similar character, one could start confidently by saying that it was the best of its kind,” (27). John Hart wrote, “Crane had no experience in war, but in portraying the reactions of a young soldier in battle, he had written with amazing accuracy,” (37).
A.C. McClurg, a war veteran wrote, “The book is a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies. The book is written by an author born long since the war, a piece of intended realism based entirely on unreality. The hero of the book is an ignorant and stupid country lad, who, without a spark of patriotic feeling. He has no soldierly ambition, and has enlisted in the army from no definite motive that the reader can discover. He is throughout an idiot or a maniac, and betrays no trace of the reasoning. No thrill of patriotic devotion to cause or country ever moves his breast. The whole book, in which there is absolutely no story, is occupied with giving what are supposed to be his emotions and actions in the first two days of battle,” (30-31).
Personally, I thought that The Red Badge of Courage was a great book. It’s much different than other books in that it’s not flowery or the main character doesn’t have the “war hero” characteristics. He’s just an aspiring hero with imperfect qualities. Crane was very clever to create this character. Crane was as realistic as possible in writing this book. And I think that is what makes it a great book.