Monday, July 2, 2012

"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane

Somehow I was never assigned this classic text in high school or college, so this was a first reading for me. I was happily surprised by the short length, though I must have been channeling my inner sulky teenager as I read, because the book felt interminable. Now that I've finished, I can look back with more interest in Crane's work, but man, I do empathize with the generations of teenagers who have slogged through it (I'm a teacher, so note to other teachers: just because a book features a teenage protagonist and is about war does not mean teenagers will like it).

The Red Badge of Courage takes places over several days in the Civil War, and is related from the point of view of Henry (who is more often called the "youth"), a young and untested soldier. Prior to their first real engagement, Henry worries that he will turn cowardly and run in the battle. He later does so and feels ashamed and concerned that others will discover him. However, in later battles, he fights brazenly in an almost crazed manner and decides, in the end, that he has become a man.

To be fair, the exploration of Henry's mental state throughout the battles is well-done. As many critics have noted, Red Badge of Courage was one of the first works to complicate the mythology of war as glorious and soldiers as selflessly courageous and heroic. Instead, Henry goes through a barrage of emotions, from fear to shame to arrogance to self-reflection. Henry doesn't fight because he loves his country or he hates his enemy; instead, when he does fight, he does so for more complicated reasons: fear at being branded a coward; anger at a colonel who calls them "pack mules;" unreasoned group enthusiasm.

I read somewhere that Red Badge was the first anti-war novel, and I'm not sure whether or not I agree. At the end, Henry comes to some peace within himself, believing that he has finally become a man. When I first read the ending, I was angry, thinking Crane equated war with being a man. But, others have argued that the ending is ironic, as Henry's arrogance shows he hasn't really changed or grown. Furthermore, the novel ends with the line, "He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace." Perhaps his turning away from war suggests that war is animalistic and that being at peace with nature is truly human. Truthfully, I'm not sure yet of which interpretation I support.

There are some interesting things going on in Crane's work, but I found myself skimming and falling asleep while reading. Maybe war books just aren't for me (comforting thought, since A Farewell to Arms is next--blech).


  1. I almost fell asleep as well and got really annoyed with there being no names! Don't give up on war books, though! There are some great ones out there. Give The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien a chance before totally writing them off if you haven't read it already. :)

  2. That's true--The Things They Carried is one of my favorite books! I also finished Catch-22 a few weeks ago and loved it. And, I even started A Farewell to Arms today and am so far enjoying it. So, I definitely made an unfair generalization--war books are okay, just not Red Badge of Courage! (and, I didn't like Henry always being called the "youth" either)