Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

An epic battle between realism and allegory
This novel, first published in 1895, is one of the most gritty and vivid portrayals of combat in the history of literature. Author Stephen Crane not only accurately captures the intensity of combat, but also the day-to-day tedium of the soldier’s life, the confusing lack of communication on the battlefield, and the taxing physical and mental toll on the combatants. Crane subverts the tradition of the epic war novel, stripping away the romance to reveal the realistic hopes and fears of a reluctant warrior. The Red Badge of Courage tells the story of Henry Fleming (usually referred to simply as “the youth”), a new enlistee in the Union army. Henry enters the war with grandiose notions of achieving honor and glory. When his regiment finally proceeds to the battlefield, however, Henry begins to question his own valor and wonders if he will run in the heat of battle. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Henry does flee. Troubled with shame and remorse for this lack of cowardice, he resolves to redeem himself, fight with bravery, and earn back his pride and his manhood, even if it costs him his life.

Stylistically, this book represents a turning point in American literature. On the one hand Crane builds upon the naturalistic narrative style of classic writers like Tolstoy and Zola. On the other hand, by focusing on the psychological dimensions of war rather than on actual historical events, he exhibits the nascent stirrings of modernism. Due to this unique internal perspective on combat, the book was hailed for its innovation and unconventionality. While there’s no doubt this novel was ground breaking for its time, the effect on the 21st century reader is less than stunning.

Although The Red Badge of Courage takes place during the American Civil War, there’s little that ties it to any specific time, place, or battle. The book is more of a universal statement on war than a depiction of any specific conflict. In striving for this universality, however, Crane unintentionally alienates the reader. The character of Henry stands as a symbol for Man in War, but ultimately fails to resemble a living, breathing person. Crane tries so hard to make his protagonist an Everyman, he only succeeds in making him a nobody. While any human being can empathize on a basic level with Henry’s thoughts and emotions, his utter ambiguity hinders any truly meaningful involvement or identification on the part of the reader. Like the other ciphers he encounters in the book—the tall soldier, the loud soldier, the tattered soldier—he bears little more individuality than the horses that populate the battlefield. Crane writes brilliant prose, crafting poetically powerful scenes of carnage, but the overall structure of the novel, or lack thereof, is disappointing. Despite the brevity of the book, it is quite repetitive in its themes. Henry’s mind set constantly vacillates between the shame of cowardice and the desire for glory. The pointlessness of war, the incompetence of the commanders, and the cluelessness of the participants are all relentlessly hammered home. The final message of the book, however, remains unclear. Through his depiction of battle as haphazard, undignified, and futile, Crane undermines the illusion of the glory of war, yet in the end he seems to argue that it’s an essential illusion, necessary for the transformation of boys to men.

Historically, the Red Badge of Courage has rightfully earned its place in the hallowed halls of American literature, but whether it’s deserving of a spot on the bookshelf of the contemporary reader is debatable. If you really like war stories, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy it.

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