The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

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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?

Reviewed on June 10, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I remember feeling very blah about this in high school and have planned to read it as an adult to see if I would appreciate it more. Maybe not! I remember having more sympathy for Henry, but maybe it was just the novelty of the idea for my inexperienced teenaged mind.
    I’m just remembering your “red” project! This must be a part of it.

    • Shelley » maybe that’ why I liked it in high school, I was in the same mindset.

      As for the Reading Red, yes, I am STILL working on GONE WITH THE WIND and then I will get to more red books. I have a ton to get to 🙂

  • What if the main character did not change? Say he merely wanted to change.

    It sounds like you would have been happier reading about a stoic hero (no “whining”). Crane chose to write about someone else? Was that a bad artistic decision?

    That ending is 100% irony.

    • Amateur Reader » I don’t blame Crane for not writing the book I wanted. I just didn’t like it. I so infrequently just plain don’t like it that it took me by surprise. I did like it when I was in high school, although I didn’t remember much about it. Sounds like you did like this book? Thank you for the insight into the irony. I was just so relieved it was over, I knew I was missing something.

  • Wow, no one seems to like this little book. I read this a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Crane had a lyricism to his writing that created a contrast with the content.

    As for Henry and his whining. I took it as naivete. He’d never been to war before and didn’t know what to expect. It reminded me of what I’d learned about WWI. A lot of the soldiers were just boys and assumed they go to war, kill a few enemies, win a few medals and come back as heroes at Christmas. The actuality was more than they could imagine.

    • theduckthief » Interestingly enough, I did read it in high school and I think I liked it. I just don’t remember much about my reactions to it. But enough that I wanted to revisit it! The lyricism, the subject, the naive character — I really wanted it to work for me. I’m actually so glad to hear yours and AR’s comments to hear that there are people out there that like this book! That saw the point! That didn’t hate it with a passion! I really did want to like it.

  • I enjoyed this book when I read it earlier this year, and I’m no teenager! I thought that the whining and immaturity of the main protagonist was what made the book believable. Don’t we all have times trying something new and challenging where we take turns feeling competent and better than our peers (because we don’t know our own ignorance) and then start to feel like a complete fraud that is bound to be found out and thrown out (because we realized our incompetence and actually learned something)? I know I do. The too good ending you disliked was to me just another proof that the youth was too ignorant of war to realize that he still had a lot more to learn; he thought he was a great warrior because he had fought one battle.

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