I came into this book with a vague notion that it is a classic that was taught in schools more commonly before my day, and that it was popular with boy-children, also mostly before my time. It is a Civil War story. “The youth,” as we mostly know him, Henry Fleming, signs up against his mother’s wishes to go fight for the Union, and the book follows his war experience.
The bulk of this story is taken up not with events but with the turmoil inside Henry’s head. He is fascinated by war and wants to participate; it takes a certain amount of internal argument before he signs up, and then he thinks he’ll make his mother proud. Then after much waiting in camp, when it appears that he might actually see battle, he becomes petrified with the fear that he’ll run. He meets battle, stands and fights at first, wondering at his nonchalant courage; and then turns and runs. While a fugitive deserter in the woods on his own, he convinces himself that running was in fact the wise and respectable decision; then upon encountering the army again he comes filled with self-loathing. He watches a friend die. He rejoins his regiment with an excuse for his absence and becomes confident again. And on and on – you get the idea. It’s the story of a young boy’s difficulty with the concept of fighting and, most centrally (as in the title), the concept of courage. I’m not sure we ever learn the age of “the youth,” which I regret; I kept wondering how old he was, but maybe the point was that we’re unclear on that question. There is more fighting; our youth stays and fights; there is a victory. (Perhaps it is The Victory; I’m not sure.) At the end of the story, Henry has found a peace and a confidence in himself; the war seems to have helped him grow up.
I kept track, off and on, of the uses of the color red in this book. Aside from the obvious red of blood, war is repeatedly characterized as a red animal, and the flag is a red and white woman who demands and inspires Henry’s courage. And red is not the only color to receive repetitive attention. Yellow is cowardice and men’s pale, sickly, frightened or wounded faces. (Henry’s mother threw a yellow light on the color of Henry’s ambition, by opposing his wish to join the army.) Purple is twilight; blue is the Union uniform as well as the sky, and rage is variously red, black, and purple.
I like this passage; note all the colors used:
He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that had once been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of bundle along the upper lip.
Honestly, though, I was not particularly taken with The Red Badge of Courage. It had its moments of colorful imagery that I found charming; and at times Henry’s turmoil felt very human and sympathetic. But for the most part I was a little bit bored. Relatively little action takes place; mostly we hear about Henry’s anguish. I hate to be callous about his struggles – this is war, he is but a “youth,” war is terrible – but it felt to me like rather much circling around the same emotions. It wasn’t as evocative, at least for me, as it could have been. Books about the war experience should twist the knife deeper than this one did.
I also found a few aspects of Crane’s treatment of war a little surprising. For one thing, we almost never heard about the enemy; aside from being dressed in gray and being the antagonist of the battle scenes, the Confederates aren’t developed at all. Many war stories, and especially Civil War stories, paint the opposing army as tragically familiar, thus illustrating the futility and ultimate tragedy of war. This book seemed to take a pass on any such message, which left me feeling a little hollow.
As I sum up my experience reading this book, I have to say I didn’t find it very moving. I would love to hear from someone else who did, though. Any fans of The Red Badge of Courage out there?