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When asking anybody, “have you read The Red Badge of Courage?” The reply is almost universal: “Yeah, I'm sure I read it in high school.”
Well, there's a reason for that. Along with being a gateway into modern literature a la Hemingway, it is also a starter kit for in-the-trenches accounting of war from the common man's point of view. It is the perfect compliment for those boring, historical facts covering humanity's most despicable act. A universal bell-ringer for contemplating death without the aging wisdom garnered to prepare for it, it is also a reflection on the values necessary to conduct support for emotionally-charged words like Honor, Loyalty, Bravery, Brotherhood, Death. It does so in a startlingly-unadorned manner, without the foaming promises of religious servitude to muck up core reactions to the difficult questions when facing killing your own or yourself. This is an impressionable book, and its declarations should definitely be pressed upon formative, open minds.
As a third-person narrative, it is thoroughly limited to the protagonist, Union buck private Henry Fleming. It is interesting that his name is not used with any repetition until he re-joins his battalion after its first battle. This feeling of being simply anonymous meat for the machine is re-enforced as almost every character is called by an external, objectified characteristic, such as “tall soldier”, “loud soldier”, “cheery soldier”. In our hero's mind, individuals worthy of a name are only created out of the courage to do their duty.
This, of course, is the main dilemma: am I a coward or a respected member of my community? And, what, exactly, determines either?
To his shame, Henry bolts in his inaugural battle at the enemy's second charge, seeing them through fear-widened eyes as the “onslaught of redoubtable dragons”(Dalmatian Press, ISBN 1403709203, printed 2004, c.1895 p.69). He chastises himself and falls into self-pity, yet manages a rationalization when he sees a squirrel's hasty retreat from a howitzered pinecone as “Nature was of his mind”(p.81). Returning to his regiment, he has gained an excuse by taking an accidental blow to the head by a fellow soldier. It is a fraudulent “red badge of courage”(p.95) and makes him feel like a “craven loon”(p.118), but it moves him from feeling cowardly to the lesser evil of losing respect from his fellow soldiers. The acceptance of his chicanery turns his fear into raging pride and pitiless anger for the next battle, and Henry comes away heralded as a true “war devil”(p.172). Now, having found "himself rid of the red sickness of battle"(p.235), subsequent onslaughts are fought in “wild battle madness” beyond terror; a kind of quasi-hallucinogenic state of “sublime recklessness. . . He thought of the bullets only as things that could prevent him from reaching the place of his endeavor”(p.223). As the final battle progresses, Henry takes up the dropped flag, leading the men in a victorious charge, unarmed.
The novel takes place during the Civil War, probably patterned after the battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. Since author Crane was born in 1871, his “realism” is based upon others' accounts, and, although a war correspondent during both the Greco-Turkish war and the Spanish-American war, he never experienced combat himself. This was not for lack to trying, however, but being sickly most his life and dying at the age of 28 of tuberculosis, certainly lessened his chances. War should never be in favor for those men pulling the triggers, but author Crane lays—and lived—the foundation for courage and achievement that is timeless, and faced—to some degree of another—by everybody when determining their life journeys. Still, this account is quite self-involved and detached—probably due to author Crane's journalistic background—so if you're looking for a more emotional/social viewpoint, try Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front from 1929. Between the two, you'll either enlist, or never volunteer for anything ever again in your life.