Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a startlingly realistic portrayal of warfare by a writer who had never experienced it. More broadly, the novel is a searching exploration of the mysteries of human motivation. The landscape in which the novel is set is as much the mind of Henry Fleming, the novel’s protagonist, as it is the Civil War battlefields on which the outward action takes place. Henry is full of dichotomies, the most central of them being cowardice and bravery. Throughout the novel, his self-perception and understanding of his situation vacillate between various extremes, subject to change in an instant. Before he ever enlists, his thoughts about battle exemplify this tendency. The narrator tells us that Henry “had looked upon the war in his own country with distrust. It must be some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greeklike struggle” (p. 5). Nevertheless, Henry “had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all” (p. 5). Why does the sound of “the clangoring of the church bell as some enthusiast jerked the rope frantically to tell the twisted news of a great battle” (p. 6) finally push Henry to announce to his mother his plans to enlist?
Once he has enlisted, the notion of deserting gnaws at Henry: “In his life he had taken certain things for granted, never challenging his belief in ultimate success, and bothering little about means and roads. But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run” (p. 10). Henry’s “laws of life”—derived from conventional ideas that he had never closely examined—no longer apply. The result is that he starts to think for himself, perceiving his fellow soldiers, generals, and himself in new ways. And his perceptions change and waver with his mood. About his companions, “[S]ometimes he inclined to believing them all heroes. . . . Then, in other moments, he flouted these theories, and assured himself that his fellows were all privately wondering and quaking” (p. 14). Freed from his laws of life, Henry is able to criticize his superiors—a position that develops later in the novel into a full-fledged hatred of certain officers. Henry’s thinking before battle wavers radically from moment to moment, but, as he marches into his first battle “carried along by a mob,” his inescapable physical situation makes him think “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. And now they were taking him out to be slaughtered” (p. 23). After such musings, it is not surprising that Henry flees his regiment. But is his flight the result of cowardice, a sense of fatalism, or an independence of mind that expresses his free will?
Rather than seek refuge after his flight, Henry hovers near the battle and is attracted to it: “The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses” (p. 52). This impulse leads to the peculiar circumstances in which Henry receives his ironic “red badge of courage.” In the midst of the retreating army, Henry accosts one of the soldiers, but without a clear purpose, able only to ask him, “Why?” What is it that Henry wants to know? Instead of trying to answer Henry’s question (or determine what the question is), the soldier hits Henry in the head with his rifle to keep Henry from detaining him any longer. When Henry’s regiment, once he rejoins it, assumes that he suffered his wound in battle, we’re left to wonder what Crane might be suggesting about not only the nature of war but also the role that chance and misunderstanding play in determining one’s fate and sense of identity. Why doesn’t anyone discover Henry’s desertion or the circumstances in which he is wounded? After receiving this false symbol of courage, why does Henry return to the battlefield?
A determining factor in Henry’s actions during battle is the extent to which he is conscious of himself as a thinking individual. Although fearful before his first experience of battle, he finds that “[H]e suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis” (p. 35). The absence of a sense of himself as an individual allows Henry to fight, and with this fighting comes a “red rage” that “was directed not so much against the men whom he knew were rushing toward him as against the swirling battle phantoms which were choking him” (p. 36). After deserting and then returning to his regiment, Henry fights in such a way that his fellow soldiers “looked upon him as a war devil” (p. 101). He realizes that he is unaware of himself during battle and “had not been aware of the process” that made him a “knight” (p. 101). This “battle sleep” becomes still more powerful later in the novel when he takes over as a flag bearer. When his life is most at risk, Henry does not hesitate to fight and feels no inclination to run. What is the cause of this transformation? Are we meant to think that Henry’s lack of awareness constitutes bravery? Does a brave action result from being unconscious of one’s fear or from a conscious decision? At the end of the novel, it seems as if Henry’s experiences have transformed him, but what Crane means to show through this transformation remains ambiguous. The qualities that Henry exhibits as a fighting machine are not necessarily more highly valued than those he exhibits as a fearful soldier guided by self-preservation.
The fullness of Stephen Crane’s life and his literary productivity make his death at the age of twenty-eight all the more striking. Born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, Crane was the youngest of fourteen children raised in an aristocratic and religious home. His mother was a religious and civic reformer; his father, a minister, descended from a Revolutionary patriot, after whom Stephen was named.
Perhaps due to his upbringing, Crane lived rather recklessly as a young man, smoking, drinking, and gambling. Although he attended Lafayette College and Syracuse University, he graduated from neither, gaining recognition as a baseball player rather than as a student. He then moved to New York City, where he lived a bohemian life, publishing newspaper articles but not firmly establishing himself as a journalist. His experiences during this time were the grist for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which he published in 1893 under a pseudonym. It was his second novel, however, The Red Badge of Courage, that made Crane famous. Published to wide acclaim in syndicated form in 1894, then as a book the following year, the novel contains brutally realistic depictions of war written by an author who had yet to witness combat firsthand.
Crane found opportunities to travel abroad on journalistic missions that inspired a number of short stories, a form for which he gained a reputation as a master. On the basis of one such trip in 1895 to the American West and Mexico, Crane wrote two of his finest short stories, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and “The Blue Hotel.” From another journalistic trip in 1897, during which his boat sank on the way to Cuba, came “The Open Boat,” which many critics consider to be not only Crane’s best work but also one of the world’s great short stories.
Though never legally married, Crane settled in England in 1897 with Cora Taylor, proprietor of a hotel that also functioned as a nightclub and brothel. He returned to Cuba in 1898 to cover the Spanish-American War. In 1899, he returned to England, but, because of his ill health and accruing debts, Crane soon left for a spa in Germany, where he died of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900.
For Further Reflection