I first read this work as a high school assignment lo' those many years ago, and based on the tell-tale high number of one-star reviews, it apparently still is. To quote from one budding scholar: "Making it mandatory reading for students should be declared unconstitutional as it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment." I shudder to think that my distant self might have once written that. Gulp! There are some well-known downsides to getting older, but on the plus side of the ledger is that you are no longer in high school, and don't have to figure out the teacher's "spin" on a particular book to get a good grade. Hopefully you've adopted higher standards, since you get to grade yourself.
Stephen Crane had never been to war. He wrote this novel about "the face of battle," almost 30 years after the American Civil War. He wrote the book not that long after high school, in his early 20's. The novel has searing authenticity. His efforts are an astonishing achievement. How did he do it? I would have claimed it impossible, but he apparently interviewed veterans of that war, who had to be thirty years his senior, and could correctly sort out the yarns and the embroidery from those hard-kernels truths, in a "game" in which, as the axiom has it: "truth is the first casualty."
The novel is shorn of the particulars of time and place, though one can safely deduce that the protagonist, Henry Fleming, often fittingly just called "the youth" is in the Army of the Potomac, fighting the Johnny Rebs, somewhere in Northern Virginia. Crane supposedly once said that the setting for the fighting was derived from the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Fleming was working on the family farm, and his mother, as so many do, did not want him to enlist. But he did anyway. Later, and it is one of those authentic touches, Fleming would remember his enlistment a different way: "As he perceived this fact it occurred to him that he had never wished to come to the war. He had not enlisted of his free will. He had been dragged by the merciless government." Another truth from all wars, but particular for the Army of the Potomac: "He had had the belief that real war was a series of death struggles with small time in between for sleep and meals; but since his regiment had come to the field the army had done little but sit still and try to keep warm."
Eventually though, real battle does come. Crane has an incredible knack for depicting what has become known as "the fog of war." When you are in it, there is no "big picture," no overall strategy. It is emotions, and the blind fight to stay alive, when it is only you, and an enemy that somehow looms up out of nowhere, and just as suddenly disappears, leaving your adrenalin depleted. From the beginning of the novel, Fleming, as a "fresh fish," the apparent Civil war term for what would in a later war be called "FNG's", the new guy, is afraid how he would react in actual battle. He is concerned that he might turn tail and "skedaddle." He does, not after the first attack wave, but the second, and has some company in headlong retreat. A coward? An old-fashioned version of "friendly fire" saves him from that ignominy. A fellow "skedaddler" hits him in the head with his rifle butt, and Fleming manages to pass off the wound as the result of an enemy bullet that grazed his head. And in the "fog of war," no one else is the wiser. Hence, "the red badge of courage," which has passed into the American language, with many worse examples co-opted by our politicians and most recently, a newscaster, not to mention a large slew of the population just trying to impress someone with their "stolen valor."
Crane uses a lot of slang, including "skedaddle," and I've thought long about the last time I heard someone use that term. Crane weaves so many of the "truths" of battle into the novel, I thought it appropriate to conclude with the "short-timer's" fear: "It was perhaps that they dreaded to be killed in insignificant ways after the times for proper military deaths had passed. Or, perhaps, they thought it would be too ironical to get killed at the portals of safety," which is precisely how Kat, in another war, and in another army, died, on a day that was so quiet and still along the entire front that the high command confined its report to a single sentence: All Quiet on the Western Front. 5-stars, plus.
What's it's like to be in battle? Where do you get the courage to attack under enemy fire? If you're eager to find out without actually going into battle, John Keegan's book ''The Face of Battle" gives the best factual account that I know of, but for sheer emotional impact nothing outdoes "The Red Badge of Courage". Because it's fiction rather than fact this is the definitive book on the topic.
In a very simple and sparse language Crane succeeds in conveying the battle waged in Henry Fleming's mind (dreaming of heroism but confronted with cruelty and horror), and he does it with tremendous impact. So small a book yet so powerful, this is a gem everyone should read.
The novel follows Henry, a new recruit to the Army who at first is subject to endless marching around and the boredom that accompanies it. While the soldiers sit around waiting for rumours that fighting will eventually begin, Henry has time to reflect on his situation and he wonders how he will react once he actually sees battle: will he stand and fight, or turn and run. This psychological battle in his head continues even when he is engaged in battle as he tries to overcome his fears.
"Well, I wanta do some fighting anyway," interrupted the other. "I didn't come here to walk. I could 'ave walked to home-'round an' 'round the barn, if I jest wanted to walk."
The novel is quite an intense read as Henry goes through a wide range of emotions from bravery, pride, wishing for a wound (his own read badge of courage) to sheer cowardice. These emotions along with the men's contempt for their superiors make this one of the most interesting depictions of war I have ever read.
Unfortunately the writing is very heavy going and quite difficult to read. At times, especially during the battle scenes I had trouble working out what was going on and if Henry was observing or participating. This meant that I did not get emotionally involved with the story or with Henry which is a great shame as the ideas and concept is very interesting.
At times he regarded the wounded solders in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.
There are more modern novels which deal with similar themes which are easier to read and have more of an emotional impact so I wouldn't recommend this one unless you had a particular interest in novels of this period or you wanted to understand why this novel is so influential.
Peace is a rare circumstance among major nations in the last 150 years. When war pushes peace out, everyone quickly realizes why peace is so important and desirable. When peace returns, the next generation can quickly fail to grasp its significance. In extreme cases, this can lead to romanticism of war. Books like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front are important ways to pass along the message of how undesirable war is. The Red Badge of Courage offers another benefit. Stephen Crane takes us into the mindset of mid-19th century America. At that time, the spiritual and the tangible were closely entertwined in peoples' minds. You will find a lot of religious metaphors in this book that a modern writer would be relatively unlikely to use. Another benefit of reading The Red Badge of Courage is that it helps to understand the profound effect that the Civil War has had on the United States. The significance of these events remains fresh for many Americans, while others ignore the events totally. Although it is certainly not an easy book to read, it can be a rewarding one. You will find that you can discuss this book with a high percentage of all the people you will ever meet who like to read. That's a pretty nice benefit from reading a fairly short book. I also recommend that you also think about where in your own life you have developed misconceptions that could harm you.
A REVIEW OF `THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE' by STEPHEN CRANE Now established as a classic among American literature, `The Red Badge of Courage' (1895) is a surprisingly intimate and gritty novel which chronicles the experience of warfare rather than relying upon memorable incidents or events. Those expecting the sprawling narrative of `Moby Dick' or `Ben Hur' should look elsewhere. However, for those wanting a stark, close-up taste of what it must have been like to fight in The American Civil War (1861-65), `The Red Badge of Courage' has much to enthral the reader.
The actual plot of the novel is minimal. Young recruit Henry Fielding signs up (against his mother's wishes) to fight on the side of The Union. Intensely questioning his ability to remain resolute under fire, the novel chronicles a two-day period in battle during which Henry undergoes a tidal wave of emotional turmoil, experiencing shameful lows and stirring highs.
It is interesting to note the almost total absence of historical context in which the events unfold. Crane makes no attempt to explain the causes of The Civil War, nor the issues that motivated either side. Indeed, this seems to be a record of simply `war' and, as such, garnered the book many a resurgence in popularity, notably during 1914-1918. Similarly, Henry is more frequently referred to as `the youth' than by name, and has an everyman appeal that makes his experiences seem to be `universal'.
For a book of its age, `The Red Badge of Courage' is surprisingly stark in its details. Although the profusion of swearing from the soldiers is merely referenced as a torrent of unspecified `oaths', the accounts of the fighting and its impact upon the combatants is striking. One incident in which a young recruit is shot through the cheek is pitifully explicit. In reading the latter chapters, I was reminded of the similarly bleak episode of television's `Band of Brothers' during which Easy Company was stationed in Bastogne in 1944.
What prevents me from scoring `The Red Badge of Courage' as highly as other novels that might be described as its logical `bedfellows' is the limitations imposed by its failure to adhere to the usual three-act structure and offer a truly satisfying story-arc. Indeed, those who want to know whether Henry could really be described as heroic are advised to read Crane's short story `The Veteran' which is regularly published alongside `The Red Badge of Courage'. In very few pages, it provides a wonderfully poignant finale that arguably eclipses that of the novel.
Nevertheless, as a grainy, intense and credible study of a young man's experiences in the heat of battle, it is not hard to see why `The Red Badge of Courage' so fascinated the public at the start of the 20th century. How ironic that its lessons were so blatantly disregarded in the earth-shattering conflicts that were to lie ahead.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy this much but I did. I found it gripping. I have never been involved in a war but for what its worth, I found this the most convincing account of being in a battle I have ever read. The only other thing I have seen which gives the same feel is Clint Eastwood's film about Iwo Jima.
I liked the way Crane describes the swirling and shifting thoughts of a young man under extreme stress, in a group of many others in the same state.
It shows how, if one is lucky enough to survive, war can mature a person almost overnight.
When this book was written, the Civil War was only 30 years old and a living memory. That this story was embraced by the people who lived through this War and continues to be read today, is a testament to its greatness. Quite simply, I love 'The Red Badge of Courage' as it is one of the most beautifully written stories I have ever read.