The Red Badge of Courage, the Novella long considered Stephen Crane’s Civil War masterpiece, is subtitled An Episode of the American Civil War. Although celebrated both for the realism of its style and for the authenticity of its battle scenes, the work provides, strictly speaking, only limited examples of these qualities. The realistic subject, war, is certainly a typical one for many of the 19th-century realists—Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland, and Mark Twain, for instance, all of whom deal with such themes as slum life, alcoholism, and prostitution, along with war—and Crane handles the battle scenes with breathtaking intensity. Nonetheless, Crane has a different view of reality that suggests its elusiveness and its ambiguity. He describes cannon fire as giant red war blossoms; the long lines of troops appear as dragonlike serpents winding their way through brooding hills. As to Crane’s firsthand knowledge of war, he had none: Born in 1871, six years after the peace treaty signing at Appomattox, Crane simply had a first-rate talent for conveying the daily life of the soldier based on stories he had heard and his own fertile imagination.
On one level this tale is a bildungsroman that follows a young man from callow immaturity into a somewhat rueful maturity. The novella opens as the youthful protagonist, Henry Fleming, lately volunteered and now bivouacked with the army, thinks back to his having left home despite his mother’s protests. As did many young men, Henry envisions himself the subject of purple-and-gold fantasies of heroism when he joins up with the 304th New York regiment. Crane uses names very sparingly to convey a sense of the universal situation of his characters; thus Henry is usually referred to as “the youth,” his friends Jim Conklin, “the tall soldier,” and Wilson, “the loud one.” Henry agonizes over whether he will have the courage not to run when he engages in his first battle, but at first, fearful of exposing his naïveté, he asks only indirect questions of his fellow soldiers. Indeed, during the first skirmish, Henry does run in terror into the woods, only to learn that he cannot escape death even in the cathedrallike stillness: He encounters a grotesque sight in the form of a maggot-infested dead soldier. Much of Crane’s irony, in fact, derives from nature’s passivity. In the heat of battle, the day continues blue and golden, as if it had nothing to do with the frantic and bloody deeds of war.
Having run away as a coward, Henry tries to justify his actions by blaming the officers and anyone he can think of but himself. He joins a group of walking wounded and angrily turns from them when they ask him where he has been hurt. After learning that the troops have held out against the Confederates without him, watching Jim Conklin die, and receiving solicitous treatment from all those he encounters, however, Henry thinks less and less of himself. Finally receiving a wound from an angry comrade who hits him on the head, Henry returns to camp without disclosing the real source of the wound to his comrades, who once again treat him kindly, assuming his head has been grazed by a rifle ball. In the next skirmish, he learns to use his anger at the enemy as a way to intensify his fighting ability, and in the one following, he incorporates his anger and his inarticulate love of the flag to join with his friend Wilson to save the colors and thereby encourage the other men. When he learns that the colonel has praised him and Wilson, saying that they should be major-generals, all his wrath dissipates and Henry gradually learns to think of himself not as an individual, but as the member of the group: the “blue demonstration,” the “blue line.”
In the final battle, Henry and Wilson—unthinkingly heroic now—capture the Confederate flag and with that action help urge the others to victory. Henry’s maturity at the end becomes evident as he realizes that death is no great monster to be feared, but simply a fact. Although happy with his conduct, he realizes that his pride will forever be tempered by his recollection and understanding of his cowardly running away from battle and from the friends who needed his help. With this comprehension of his strengths and weaknesses, he has matured, and this time nature seems in sympathy with his mood: Crane parts the clouds and causes the sun to shine down on Henry Fleming.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. In Great Short Works of Stephen Crane, edited by James B. Colvert. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.