red badge of courageCourage VS Cowardice: The Famous Civil War Story

Author: Stephen Crane

Breaking the norm of war fiction, Stephen Crane’s popular classic, first serialized and published in 1895, examines the internal psychology of one Union solider and his maturation process throughout his first and second battles in the Civil War. Shadowed with an addictive ominous tone, pummeled with gory realism and haunting imagery, the tale follows a young idealist, Henry Fleming, who enlists against his mother’s wishes, ready to be an acclaimed war hero. From plough to trench, however, the possibilities of death and the potential for failure soon changes the swaggering hero/former farm boy into something far weaker and more fragile. Paranoid and stuck in a consuming mental battle, Henry fears the possibilities of being a coward and the ramifications of his first battle, which will test his metal and, worse, potentially reveal a growing weakness to the other brave, seemingly faultless soldiers.

The tale is fast and brutal with an unexpected beginning. Performing well in battle only to later run at a second onslaught, the story follows the mental progression of shame, guilt, and justification attempts. Henry proves himself “yellow” as it were, and unlike the other soldiers he later meets up with, he has no wounds to prove his bravery or to hide his treasonous fleeing. Haunted by both the fear of reprisal from the army and the mortal agony over his conduct, Henry finally seeks to redeem himself without ever revealing any of his lies by volunteering for standard bearer after meeting up with his bedraggled platoon. They mark him as a hero, they believe his stories, and his secrets are safe even though perhaps his life might not be – and what of his own inner peace, his morality in the face of so much unwarranted praise.

Received at the time of its publication with much positive feedback, The Red Badge of Courage has since made itself a staple of the classic library and an essential novel, assigned by enthusiastic teachers and even once portrayed on the children’s TV show Wishbone (yes, I am dating myself – this is where I first encountered the classic, in the realm of the precocious pup who loved stories and reading.) Encountering the real book is daunting, and let’s be honest, this has more to do with unpleasant memories of past school assignments than aversion to the actual story. Of course, this is one of those books that you should have read – so you automatically feel stigmatized if you haven’t read it or even worse, don’t like it.

The story begins strong with a luscious language that is descriptive while still accessibly modern and to the point. The imagery can be violent, but leans more toward the haunting. The confrontation between idealistic perceptions, the all too popular patriotic heroism of youth and a certain brand of culture, clashes headlong with the all too real fear of war, death, and even more poignant, failure. This is what made me let go of my assumptions and ok, I’ll be honest, that certain tinge of dread, and embrace this world not for its battle hungry nature, but for its representation of fragility and getting passed having done the unthinkable.  Henry isn’t sympathetic in that he has all the brashness of untested youth and the hubris of a superiority complex, yet he is enlightening and engaging as his world views and perfectionist stance conflict with his own cowardly actions. It’s a mental story, one of justification and fear, and here it succeeds, moving beyond the usual blood-guts-and-glory of exalted war literature.

However, the second half of the story, I suppose that you’d call it the redemptive half, returns to a certain cliché mesmerized readers are less than pleased to see. Henry, lying scoundrel, has returned to his platoon who mistakes an innocuous wound as a bullet and a badge of his wartime grandeur, and becomes the hero (or in my mind anti-hero). The words of the generals and of those around him personally affront Henry who now finds that bravery is easy after the shame. Plowing forward, the standard bearer for the regiment, he undergoes a complete character reversal, although the disenchanting superiority remains with him and is even more annoying than previously. The transition is too sudden and Henry’s excessive bravery too unbelievable. In the face of battle, he wants death, if only to prove that he is worthy. Perhaps it’s more a commentary on gullibility and the influence of popular culture on youth. However, the distinct rah-rah of the unblemished hero, striding like Achilles of old into the battle field, is more of what resonates, giving invested readers the feeling of a cop-out. We thought this one was different. Grittier. Truer. More complex to the real nature of humanity, which blends the heroic and the cowardly, never truly staying fully in the realm of either.

Despite my qualms with the transition, the narrative is still prime storytelling. The battle scenes are sweltering, descriptive, and the acidity of the gun powder and the grit in the air filter through the pages to disturb readers’ sensibilities. The writing is beautiful in a way that creates flashes of imagery with feelings. The meaning is complex, the dynamics of war rendered in a breathless, stunned sweep. Readers will have their own opinions of Henry, with many discussions probably following his last internal monologue and his new-found status as a hero which is oddly discordant with what we as readers know of him internally and know of his true morality. Recommended.

A note on edition: I listened to the Audio Book production read by Sean Pratt. I got this version from my library and am sad to say that it appears to be unavailable anywhere else. Listening to the audio version of this novel truly captured and enhanced the atmosphere and looped me into the circuitous fearful thoughts of the narrator. I highly recommend acquiring an audio version when reading this novel for the first time.

–        Frances Carden



Frances Carden
Latest posts by Frances Carden (see all)