The Red Badge of Courage, by nineteenth-century author Stephen Crane, is standard high school reading fare. It’s a relatively short book with simple, clear language, except for some attempts at setting regional dialects to type. Its premise is equally simple: An examination of the thoughts and emotions experienced by someone entering a war zone.
The story centers around young Henry Fleming, a Union Army private in the 304th regiment during the American Civil War. Henry enlisted on a whim, looking for the excitement and glory that he saw in the faces of local soldiers. Instead, he finds a military experience that includes weeks of boredom and an utter lack of anything glorious. That is, until he has to face the enemy. That’s when fear shows up.
In the midst of the regiment’s first big battle, Henry deserts his post, literally running for his life as those in his company are gunned down by Confederate forces. But when he sees some of the walking wounded behind the battle lines, he has a change of heart, and wishes that he had his own battle wound, his own red badge of courage. Eventually, he returns to his group, takes up his post despite continuing qualms, and even receives a commendation from a superior officer.
While the book does document aspects of the Civil War and its horrors, the core text focuses on the internal emotions and thoughts of a person in crisis. Henry passes through all five of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), plus about three dozen other distinct patterns of thought, all documented in paragraph after paragraph of Crane’s prose. Sometimes it becomes repetitive and tedious. “Stop whimpering and go shoot the enemy already,” you want to scream at Fleming. But he eventually gets around to dealing with his conflicting emotions.
Considering the work’s typical reader, I wonder how reasonable it is to expect someone so young to process the depth of emotions expressed in the book. There are some very young individuals who have an unexpectedly firm grasp on life, even in times of war. President Andrew Jackson joined the Revolutionary War when he was yet 13, was captured by the British, saw his brother die in battle and his other brother and mother die of smallpox, making him an orphan by 14. Yet he still managed to deal with it all and go on to great things. Perhaps this is akin to what the protagonist in Crane’s book experiences, albeit compressed into the course of a few days. But in the text it seems somewhat artificial.
Despite what I think of the book, secondary English teachers around the country consider the text essential reading for young readers going through their own emotional wars. Although I hardly remember it now, high school may, in fact, be a battlefield all its own. Perhaps many of today’s youth, once you look past the video games, the grunge clothes, and the constant beat of their ear buds, are also looking for some form of victory and success, even if it means having to get some red badge of courage to obtain it.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.