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The Red Badge of Courage

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The Red Badge of Courage first editionFirst edition, 1898
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literary form

Literary, historical fiction

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 46,000 words

Return to war

It's instructive how much of our literature has to do with warfare. From ancient works like the Iliad, through the epics of medieval slaughter and Shakespeare's historical dramas, to modern novels of the past two centuries—bloody conflict has been the setting for many of our greatest works.

I suppose it's because war provides some of the greatest tests humans can face and characters can be revealed more easily in its context than in peace. Moreover, widescale death and destruction provide great jeopardy for characters, helping build suspense and excitement.

At least they used do. While earlier works might have dealt with the fame and glory won in battles for king and country, the treatment of war has shifted in the modern era.

In the nineteenth century there was still a fair bit of rah-rah in the literature but many authors, like Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, were more realistic about describing what really occurred in war and were openly critical of its practice. In the twentieth century, authors wrote either about escaping from war, like Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, or about war as a kind of insanity, like Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front and Joseph Heller in Catch-22.

Battle rage

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is right in the middle of this shift and exhibits a distinctive ambivalence. His hero Henry Fleming (influenced by earlier literature?) has dreamed his whole young life of doing mighty deeds in battle but when exposed to the terrifying reality as a raw recruit in the American Civil War, one of the bloodiest of conflagrations, he flees. He at first pretends to be wounded to escape being found a coward. But eventually he proves himself by regaining his courage and becoming a good soldier for the Union Army. He becomes a man.

Yet it seems at all steps he is governed by the pressure of his peers. In the end he is driven by the heart of his fellow soldiers, maddened by battle rage, to take his part in the fighting, heedless of the bullets, heedless of his own danger.

Is this true courage? I'm not sure whether Crane is saying this or is ridiculing the notion. Most likely he is just presenting the realities of what a soldier goes through and leaving it to us to decide what we think of it. (Quite a feat, given that Crane himself had never been in a war himself when he wrote this.)

The great achievement of The Red Badge of Courage though, I suspect, is not what it says but how it says it. It's an extremely involving story. We may not agree with what passes through Henry Fleming's mind, but we understand it. We are right there with him at every step.

The writing style is ahead of its time: a direct reporting style without fancy decoration but presenting the kind of psychological realism that would become standard in the next century. Just another part of this novel's influence on the literature to come.

— Eric


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