It is not often that I finish a book and feel nothing positive. I tend to like most of what I read, and even if I don’t like it, I try to find something that sheds light on life in some way.
I struggle now to think of what I could possibly find redeeming in The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1894), a painfully realistic look at a young man in the midst of a Civil War battle. There’s plenty of symbolism for the high school student to find, but I don’t particularly want to read it with that depth. It was quite a blah book for me.
This post, however, will try to give two perspectives: an attempt to portray some of the depth that should possibly give one a reason to like it, and then a brief consideration of the reasons it just didn’t work for me.
Henry Fielding is an everyman. He’s a young man rushing off to battle to be a hero, but the realities of war give him plenty of second guesses. He doesn’t want to be a fool and a coward, and yet he is. His is a story of growing up, or trying to, in the midst of a scary series of battles.
He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage. (Chapter 9)
Despite his wishes, though, Henry (called “the youth” for much of the book) finds it’s much harder to be a hero than he at first thought. He’s afraid, and he must come to terms with that fear.
Stephen Crane provides plenty of fodder for high school symbolism classes. Each color represents something, and while I didn’t want to determine what each did represent, sometimes Crane was rather obvious. A few times he reminded us that war was the “red animal” and hope was a pale blue (a line of soldiers in the distance, or the morning sky or something else).
Other symbolism seemed vaguely familiar to me. Take this passage.
Nature had given him a sign. The squirrel, immediately upon recognizing danger, had taken to his legs without ado. He did not stand stolidly baring his furry belly to the missile, and dies with an upward glance at the sympathetic heavens. On the contrary, he had fled as fast as his legs could carry him; and was but an ordinary squirrel too – doubtless no philosopher of his race. The youth wended, feeling that Nature was of his mind. She re-enforced his argument with proofs that lived where the sun shone. (Chapter 7)
I find it quite appropriate, then, that Hemingway likewise has his character in For Whom the Bell Tolls, another war book, observing the animals prior to entering into battle. Of course, in Hemingway, the animals represent something a little bit more (they aren’t running away but rather being killed for dinner). Yet, the concept of relating human behavior to that of the animals in the underbrush seems to be a common theme in war books. (I say this not having read many war books, I must admit.) War makes one an animal, I suppose. Henry at first rejects that inevitable metamorphosis. He must come to terms with it, much as Robert Jordan needed to come to terms with his fate.
And yet, the familiarity of Henry Fielding and the symbolism Crane dropped in failed to engage me in the novel. Despite how real Henry Fielding was, I hated him. Being in the midst of war was his fault. He wanted to go to war. I failed to have sympathy for his whining, and it got so boring. In fact, despite the brevity of the novel, it took me forever to plough through. I felt like I was walking through sludge every time I picked it up.
Part of my issue was with Henry himself: his whining. But Crane also failed to convince me of Henry’s metamorphosis by the end. I think it significant that Crane himself had never been in war. Maybe I just was not fully convinced of the reality of the battle? Regardless I found Henry’s ultimate *spoiler* claim to a future “existence of soft and eternal peace” to be a blah ending to a boring and blah book. Seriously? The battle is still raging, but you can now approach it with peace because you are a hero? Wait until tomorrow, buddy. I personally felt peace because I was finally FINISHED READING. *end spoiler*
So would I recommend The Red Badge of Courage? Absolutely not. It’s so dull. The fan of realism may like the look at Civil War realities, but I personally was not convinced by the end of it that the main character had changed. It just did nothing for me.
Have you read The Red Badge of Courage? What did I miss here? Or, was your assessment similar?