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The Red Badge of Courage first editionFirst edition, 1898

The Red Badge of Courage

Novel, 1895
approx. 46,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

Great lines

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers 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.

He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks,—an existence of soft and eternal peace.

He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

Last line

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.

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The Red Badge of Courage


Return to war

It's instructive to note how much of our literature has to do with warfare. From ancient works like the Iliad, through the epics of medieval slaughter and Shakespeare's historical dramas, to modern novels of the past two centuries—bloody conflict has been the setting for many of our greatest works.

I suppose it's because war provides some of the greatest tests humans can face and characters can be revealed more easily in its context than in peace. Moreover, widescale death and destruction provide great jeopardy for characters, helping build suspense and excitement.

At least they used do. While earlier works might have dealt with the fame and glory won in battles for king and country, the treatment of war has shifted in the modern era. In the nineteenth century there was still a fair bit of rah-rah in the literature but many authors, like Tolstoy in War and Peace, were more realistic about describing what really occurred in war and were openly critical of its practice. In the twentieth century, authors wrote either about escaping from war, like Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, or on war as a kind of insanity, like Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front and Heller in Catch-22.

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is right in the middle of this shift and exhibits an ambivalence that may seem odd to us today. His hero Henry Fleming (influenced by earlier literature?) has dreamed his whole young life of doing mighty deeds in battle but when exposed to the terrifying reality as a raw recruit in the American Civil War, one of the bloodiest of conflagrations, he flees. He at first pretends to be wounded to escape being found a coward. But eventually he proves himself by regaining his courage and becoming a good soldier for the Union Army. He becomes a man.

Yet it seems that at all steps, he is governed by the pressure of his peers. In the end he is driven by the heart of his fellow soldiers, maddened by battle rage, to take his part in the fighting, heedless of the bullets, heedless of his own danger.

Is this true courage? I'm not sure if Crane is saying this or if he is ridiculing the notion. Most likely he is just presenting the realities of what a soldier goes through and leaving it to us to decide what we think of it. (Quite a feat, given that Crane himself had never been in a war himself when he wrote this.)

The great achievement of The Red Badge of Courage though, I suspect, is not what it says but how it says it. It's an extremely involving story. We may not agree with what passes through Henry Fleming's mind, but we understand it. We are right there with him at every step.

The writing style is ahead of its time: a direct reporting style without fancy decoration but presenting the kind of psychological realism that would become standard in the twentieth century. Just another part of this novel's influence on the literature to come.

— Eric McMillan