The Red Badge of Courage Book Review

The Red Badge of Courage

Literary heritage of the prolific American writer Stephen Crane consists of a few novels, which differ from his other works in terms of flamboyant literary devices and eloquent effects. At the same time, these works (written during the last years of his life) recapitulate the salient points of Crane’s research into man’s soul. Stephen Crane marries realism of depiction and psychological analysis to the elements of naturalism and impressionism. The Red Badge of Courage is a novel of great disillusionment. The protagonist’s quixotic and romantic apprehension of war was upended by the harsh reality and pedestrian character of war with its monotony, confusion, and bloodbath. The commitment to discharge his patriotic duty was initially Henry’s dominating passion.

However, when the first skirmish broke out, another dominating passion overwhelmed him and caused to scuttle. Having shrunk in the face of danger, the protagonist attempted to logically justify his cowardice and vanquish his fear. Very soon, Henry started having second thoughts about his renegade defection and decided to rectify this glaring misdeed. Henry found himself lost in reverie of being decorated with a “small red badge of courage”. The author of the book milked the irony when his pen allowed Henry’s dream to come true. By and large, this paper delves into Henry’s way to improvement and attempts to illuminate driving forces behind Henry’s decision to rehabilitate his flyblown reputation. Moreover, it examines literary devices used by the author to achieve this goal.

According to Mitchell (1986), “Crane had not been to the battlefield prior to the publication of The Red Badge of Courage”. The fact that he resorted to the theme of war was not stipulated by his keen interest in the antecedent periods but rather by the inmost sensation that the war was a marginal situation when the man’s perception of his fleeting existence and unmitigated defenselessness was especially acute. These extreme conditions dictated to Henry, as well. He faced the necessity to adopt an attitude towards death, which impended over the soldiers, and heroism, which could help him to throw off his fetters of fear. When at war, Henry reevaluated his ethical qualities and moral rectitude. He inevitably started regarding himself as a part of the general order, a feeling that urged Henry to ponder over some of the universal regularities, which were plunging the majority of people into the bloody chaos.

Military operations depicted by Crane were the author’s another experiment on human nature and temperament (Gibson, 1988). This is exactly the reason why The Red Badge of Courage does not mention any historical realities and does not indicate the factors that led to the incipience of war (the problem of slavery, as well as the confrontation between the West and the South). There are no toponyms or names of the historical leaders pertinent to the Civil War in the book. Crane used this maneuver to emphasize the idea of the “common ruck”, i.e. he wanted to concentrate his attention on the feelings and susceptibilities of private soldiers rather than giving a detailed account of the battles (Henry was not the sole renegade after all). Such an elucidation of the Civil War was extremely unusual for the time when the consummate historians meticulously depicted political and ideological significance of each battle (Weatherford, 1997). Crane expunged ideological and political dimensions of war from the narrative and riveted his attention on the associative concatenation of impressions of the young soldier who could not grasp historical significance of the events he became embroiled in.

Constant vacillations in the self-appraisal constitute the crux of the Henry’s spiritual crisis. At the same time, Crane does not stress the emotional constituent of this psychological process but rather its gnosiological aspect (Weatherford, 1988). The fear of being a “craven loon” made Henry think that his previous notion of himself was as fictitious as his dreams of glory. The way that Crane’s protagonist used to reluctate spiritual crisis deserves special attention. Cordial conversation with the soldiers from his regiment brought Henry a solace as he found out that they also were afraid. Curiously enough, the fact that they had qualms allayed Henry’s own fears. In any event, Henry experienced only a partial, temporary alleviation.

The protagonist’s recourse to God and reliance on a strong faith is yet another important aspect which helped him transmogrify from a pusillanimous youth into a mature soldier. According to Mitchell (1986), “The fact that Henry continued to seek faith subliminally singled him out from the Crane’s other heroes”. The novel (which is, in fact, confined to the world of the protagonist’s consciousness) maintains traces of the God’s presence. Religious discourse is extremely intensive on the pages of the book. There is no direct mentioning of the protagonist’s religiousness, but his special perception of nature, as well as the ardent hopes to elicit from it a response to the haunting thoughts and feelings, speak of a sort of piety. Oftentimes, nature was the only thing that offered spiritual consolation to Henry (Mitchell, 1986). State of his soul correlated to the state of nature. Another important feature of the novel is that religious discourse is much more vehement than other discourses like that of vainglory (Weatherford, 1997).

However, vanity and complacency of Henry are also sometimes described in the religiously mystical terms.

Religion of war is another important moment that impacted the protagonist’s comprehension of his duties. It is no coincidence that Crane juxtaposes battles with the war machine (Gibson, 1988). Designed by the humans, this machine enslaved its creators so that they became screws in this sinister construction. Indeed, the protagonist’s morale had bestial nature and was not connected to the cause of war initially. Henry merely wanted to prove himself and his mother that he was worth something. Moral cowardice and indecision were hidden beneath a veneer of national pride. As the story unfolds, this lack of conscientiousness recedes into the background. When Henry embarked on the ambitious efforts to rectify his ignominious misdeed and redeem his honor, his heroic behavior gained the traits of conscientiousness. At the same time, the fact that the protagonist was guided by the willingness to retrieve his character is somewhat dissembling and speaks of his ostentation. Of course, Henry changes beyond recognition. He brushed away the remnants of irresolution and dedicated himself to the idea of earning a “red badge of courage”. Nevertheless, he was not imbued with the feeling of patriotism. His ulterior motives became divorced from his original ones. Henry was now guided by the overarching feeling of self-assertion, which supplanted his angst and anxieties.

Although the protagonist’s transformation from a pusillanimous boy into a conscious soldier was fraught with uncertainties and contradictions, the very fact that it happened is laudable. Henry displayed unconditional gallantry at the capstone to battle, the one against his own perfidy and cowardice. Having vanquished his fears, Henry demolished his lackluster reputation at the same time.

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