Cbr11bingo Back to School
Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was one of the assigned texts for my 11th grade American Literature course some 37 years ago. I don’t remember much about the novel other than that I hated it and relied heavily on Cliffs Notes to get through it. Having now re-read it, I still don’t care for it. I can appreciate that this novel was probably shocking for its time (published in 1895) due to its realistic depiction of the violence of war, and that presenting the inner struggles of a young man at war was quite original. Yet, overall, I simply don’t like the main character, nor do I feel that he really matures as a result of battle. This is a sort of coming of age story, a story about growing up as a result of what one sees and does on the battlefield, but Henry Fleming still comes across as self-centered and a bit shallow, in my opinion.
When the novel opens, Henry Fleming, frequently referred to as “the youth,” is anxious. He has joined the 304th regiment for the Union Army along with many young men from his village. His age is not given, but he left school for the army so he is most likely a teenager. Henry was eager to join up despite his mother’s protestations. He had boyish, idealized notions of war and its glories from studying the Greeks and so on. But now he and the others have spent weeks simply sitting around waiting. And Henry is worried that when the time comes, he will turn coward and flee from the fighting. He spends a lot of time analyzing the others, trying to decide if they feel as he does but he is too afraid to confess his fears to anyone. The closest he comes to discussing it is in passing with his two buddies, Jim Conklin (aka, the tall one) and Wilson (the loud one). Conklin approaches the war and upcoming battle in a calm and measured way, considering that one might actually run if they see everyone else doing the same. Wilson is confrontational and cocky, ready to whip the entire enemy army on his own. Henry goes back and forth in his mind as to whether he will fight valiantly or become an object of derision. What he wants is to be tested, to just know once and for all what will happen.
It’s not long before the 304th gets its first taste of battle. Henry discovers that initially, there is no question of flight, since his regiment is in such tight formation, he is essentially boxed in. He tells himself that he never wanted to fight and was forced into the army against his will, and he is convinced that the generals and officers don’t know what they are doing. Henry is amazed and angry that his peers are so stupid that they can’t see what he sees. But once the fighting begins, Henry’s mindset changes. He begins to feel part of something bigger than himself.
“He felt the subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.”
Once he starts shooting, Henry feels a “red rage,” a great desire to kill the enemy. He sees that the officers are not striking poses at the rear but “howling” commands to the men, who successfully fight off the enemy charge.
After this first battle, Henry feels as if he has passed a test and is very pleased with himself.
“He went into an ecstasy of self-satisfaction.”
This feeling, however, is short lived, as the enemy regroups and engages in a counter-attack. When Henry sees other men dropping their weapons and running, he joins them. His anger at the officers returns as does his superiority complex, congratulating himself for being smart enough to get out. When he learns that the 304th repelled the counter-attack, he is both angry and ashamed. He wanders away from the battlefield, having a truly horrific encounter with a corpse in the woods before joining up with the wounded. It is here, though, that Henry’s shame increases. One tattered soldier, who is exceedingly kind to him, asks about the nature of Henry’s wound (he has none) and won’t leave him alone no matter how Henry tries to evade him. Then Henry encounters his friend Jim, gravely wounded and dying. He is horrified by what happens to his friend, but then selfishly runs away again, wishing he were wounded. Surrounded by the suffering of others, Henry can only think about his shame and dishonor. How will he ever face his comrades when they learn he ran? The sight of Union soldiers running in retreat actually comforts Henry until her realizes that this could mean the Union will lose, which is unthinkable. When he tries to stop one of the fleeing soldiers to find out what has happened, the soldier bashes Henry’s head with his rifle, giving Henry a wound that leaves him reeling. Someone helps him back to his regiment, where Henry states that his head wound came from battle. Given that many men from the 304th went missing and eventually came back, no one really questions Henry’s story.
Reunited with the 304th, Henry’s friend Wilson takes care of him, and we see that battle has changed “the loud one” into a more thoughtful and even-keeled man. Henry rants about the incompetence of officers and is especially offended to hear one refer to the 304th as “mule drivers.” When they go into battle again, Henry is a changed man. He finds extraordinary courage and leadership skills, seemingly based in his desire to exact revenge on his own officers. Through his battle rage, he impresses his peers and officers, making sure that the regiment’s flag doesn’t fall as they succeed in pushing forward.
At the end of the novel, Henry is momentarily conflicted. On one hand he is very happy with himself because he is a hero in the eyes of his peers. Yet the shame of the first battle haunts him. He remembers the tattered soldier and Jim, and his heroism is tarnished. But Henry quickly learns to put this behind him and see things with new eyes. He is at peace now that he has made it through “the red sickness” of battle.
“With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood.”
I have to be honest. I don’t understand Henry’s thinking at all. He feels bad about being such a jerk to the tattered soldier (whom he abandoned to die alone) but he forgives himself? He lied to his comrades about his injury and was kind of a brash loudmouth jerk when he returned to the 304th, but when it was all over, “He saw that he was good.” Is he though? And is that what Crane wants us to think? Henry still seems immature at best, an arrogant, selfish jerk at worst.
One of the things I find curious about this Civil War novel is that there is no discussion about what the army is fighting for. Henry never ponders why he is fighting or what the ultimate goals of the conflict are. Henry’s motives for enlisting and fighting seem to be very personal — a desire for glory, to see what war looks like with one’s own eyes. While Crane depicts the horror and goriness of war in some detail, he also seems to think that it is a glorious business that makes men. I’d say that was a pretty common way of viewing war until fairly recently, but it is still rather jarring to read today.