Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Red Badge of Courage

The protagonist in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming, is an anti-hero. He shows cowardice in battle and has to deal with his guilt thereafter. He has other flaws along the way. He becomes angrier at an officer in the heat of battle than the enemy, and he takes some solace in the defeat of his regiment (so that his own flight from the enemy is not so glaring). In general the novel is conveying the reality of war, warts and all. War is utter confusion. Soldiers don’t really know what’s going on from their one-sided perspective on the frontline. They depend on gossip and the less-than-noble decisions of commanders. The author never misses an opportunity to depict individuals as flawed and their perspective myopic. At the beginning of the novel, Jim Conklin, described by the narrator as the “tall soldier,” wrongly predicts the regiment’s actions for the next day. As the battle is about to begin, Wilson, the “loud one,” hands Fleming a packet of personal items because he’s convinced he won’t survive the day; later he’ll sheepishly ask for his effects back.

Crane’s objective in writing the novel, other than an attempt to describe the real experience of war from the grunt’s perspective, is not readily apparent. One can read it as an anti-war statement, I suppose, but it’s never been condemned as such by those in the military. Just because the novel describes the “fog of war”—the confusion and disorientation of a battle experience—and the mistakes and acts of self-preservation that inevitably occur during combat doesn’t make it an anti-war statement; even Teddy Roosevelt, who would press for a war with Spain and lead the charge as an officer in the Spanish-American War, congratulated Crane on his work. Some of those who had participated in the Civil War or who at least knew something of the war could be critical of Crane in points of detail. One Civil War general thought the novel denigrated the heroism and sacrifice of patriots. But as far as I know literary critics didn’t interpret Crane’s book as simply a condemnation of war. As mentioned above, the author, wanting to avoid a conventional war narrative, portrayed Henry Fleming as an anti-hero, someone who would for instance ponder his regiment’s defeat as his personal gain.

Crane wanted to make his account of war less about particular individuals, military strategy or the political issues at stake and more about the experience of war first-hand. He achieves this approach in part by using archetypes. The protagonist is called “the youth.” The omniscient narrator refers to other soldiers as tall, loud, cheery, and tattered. Perhaps Crane’s attempt to generalize the protagonist’s experience and make his portrayal of war archetypal and introspective gave less fodder for critics and activists gleaning the novel for political statements.