Word Count: 1533The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, one of the most significant and renownedbooks in American literature, defies outright classification, showing traits of both the realist and naturalist movements. It is a classic, however, precisely because it does so without sacrificingunity or poignancy. The Red Badge of Courage belongs unequivocably to the naturalist genre,but realism is also present and used to great effect.
The conflict between these styles mirrorsthe bloody clash of the war described in the book and the eternal struggle between good andevil in human nature. There are many characteristics in Cranes novel that would more readily fit within thecategory of realism: the ordinariness of his characters, the use of dialect, the portrayal ofprotagonist Henry Fleming as a complex individual, the description of nature as disinterested inhuman affairs, and the positive ending of the story. Realism, often described as “slice of life” or”photographic” writing, attempts to portray life exactly as it is, without twisting it or reworking it tofit it into preconceived notions of what is appropriate or what is aesthetically pleasing. In thisbook, Crane relies on neither the oversimplified rationalism of classicist literature nor theemotional idealism of romantic prose. Instead, he offers realistic, believable characters withaverage abilities.
The soldiers are presented neither as epic heroes nor as bloodthirsty killers;rather, their most noticeable trait is their overwhelming normalcy. The soldiers of Henrysregiment curse, fight, and argue just like normal people. This down-to-earth, gritty, everydaystyle is characteristic of realism. A particular convention used by Crane in convincing the readerof his characters existence is dialect.
The distinctive speech of the soldiers enhances thephotographic effect of the novel, lending it authenticity. Another distinctive trait of realism is complexity of character a trait readily evident in HenryFleming. As he switches between cowardice and heroism, compassion and contempt, andoptimism and pessimism, the reader observes that he is more than just a stereotype. He is aperson with fears, hopes, dreams, and foibles.
Lastly, nature is often portrayed as indifferent ordisinterested in the affairs of humankind. Whereas naturalism involves emphasis on the hostilityof nature, realism lacks this trait. For example, after fighting a battle, “the youth feels a flash ofastonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields. It issurprising that Nature has gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so muchdevilment” (64). Later, when Henry takes refuge in the woods, the sanctuary of the naturalworld seals out all sounds of the human conflict taking place: “It seems now that Nature hasno ears” (79). During a different battle, “the day grows more white, until the sun shines withhis full radiance upon the thronged forest” a symbol of purity amid the bloody affairs of man(156).
Similarly, the smoke of deadly battle is contrasted with the unadulterated innocence ofnature: “A cloud of dark smoke, as from smoldering ruins, goes up toward the sun now brightand gay in the blue enameled sky” (165). Crane detaches the war from the rest of the world,stating that “the world is fully interested in other matters. Apparently, the regiment has itssmall affair to itself” (172). Lastly, the positive outlook with which the book concludes points to realism.
Whereasnaturalism would pit the soldiers against impossible odds, a certain victory “shows them thatthe proportions are not impossible” (191). Immersed in the sweetness of victory, “the pastholds no pictures of error and disappointment” (200). At the books end, Henry reconcileshimself with his feelings of guilt and shame. He abandons war, and “scars fade as flowers”(223). He retires to “an existence of soft and eternal peace” (223). A golden ray of sun at thebooks close symbolizes the ray of hope Crane has for mankind.
However, the solitary beam isnearly lost amid a mass of dark thunderheads. Correspondingly, although traits of realism arevery evident, ominous naturalism is always present and usually dominant. Naturalism, the practice of using scientific theory to develop and explain characters andevents, is largely negative and pessimistic, often emphasizing mans impotence in affecting hisown destiny. Also, the ideas of evolution and natural selection figure prominently into naturalism. The predominant reasons why The Red Badge of Courage represents naturalism rather thanrealism are the portrayal of nature as hostile (even more so than it is portrayed as indifferent), theapplication of science to war, and the emphasis on the impotence and lack of self-control ofCranes characters. These themes are stressed so heavily that the scales tip toward naturalism.
Crane frequently portrays nature as hostile to man. As Henry runs from the woods, “thebranches, pushing against him, threaten to throw him” (81). “Trees, confronting him, stretchout their arms and forbid him to pass” (84). At many times in the book, characters areimpeded and attacked by brambles and “cussed briers” (155). Natures foliage “seems to veilpowers and horrors” (174). As the regiment moves through the woods, “the forest makes aterrible objection” (175).
In these and many other instances, nature is personified as evil. Itthreatens, reaches out, and grabs at soldiers, taking an active, hostile role, as if it were a humanenemy even offering up a horrid, rotting corpse as a symbol of its evil (88). This is a centralidea of naturalism. Another tenet of naturalistic writing is the application of scientific theory to plot and character.
Crane makes extensive use of scientific parlance and references prominent theories of sciencethroughout the novel. For example, when wondering whether or not he will run from battle,Henry is called “an unknown quantity” and “obliged to experiment” and “accumulateinformation,” as if he were a variable in a scientific laboratory procedure (17). He tries “tomathematically prove to himself that he will not run from a battle” and makes “ceaselesscalculations” to determine whether or not he possesses sufficient courage (22). During a battle,Crane makes an allusion to Darwins theory of “survival of the fittest”: while running, “Henryfeels vaguely that death must make a first choice of the men who are nearest; the initialmorsels for the dragons would be then those who are following him. So he displays the zealof an insane sprinter in his purpose to keep them in the rear.
There is a race. ” After hesuccessfully escapes, Henry justifies his flight by comparing his situation to that of a squirrel. When threatened, the squirrel turns and runs, controlled solely by natural instinct. Nature, heclaims, provides reinforcement to his argument with scientific “proofs” (79).
The most convincing argument that The Red Badge of Courage is a naturalistic novel is therepeated emphasis that Henry and his military companions are powerless and guided by forcesbeyond their control. A primary axiom of naturalism is mans lack of free will; all is supposedlydetermined for them by heredity or environment. Crane places great emphasis on humaninability to act for oneself. He makes references to mobs, crowds, and stampedes, pointing outhow individual members are powerless to resist the will of the masses. “As Henry runs with hiscomrades he strenuously tries to think, but all he knows is that if he falls down those comingfrom behind will tread upon himHe feels carried along by a mob” (38). Desiring to leavethe crowd, Henry sees “that it would be impossible for him to escape from the regiment.
Itencloses him. And there are the iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He is in amoving box” (38). This portrayal of man as trapped and incapable of resistance is central tonaturalism. “Henry had not enlisted of his free will,” Crane adds. “He had been dragged in bythe merciless government” (38).
Crane compares the regiment to “puppets under a magicianshand” and “little pieces” that the officers “fit together” (76). This lack of control is infuriating toHenry, who complains, “We just get fired around from pillar to post and get licked here and getlicked there, and nobody knows what its done for. It makes a man feel like a damn kitten in abag” (155). Later on, when fired upon, the soldiers “accept the pelting of the bullets” to resistwould be “to strive against wallsto batter themselves against granite” (184). Crane reiteratesmany times that Henry and his companions have no power over their situation.
All is determinedfor them; resistance is futile. In summary, The Red Badge of Courage is a naturalistic work with realistic tendencies. Theconvincing, believable characters, the authentic-sounding dialect, the complexity of Henrysthoughts, the occasional impartiality of nature, and the optimistic ending are representative ofrealism. However, nature is far more often shown as evil or hostile. Scientific theory is applied toHenry and to the events that befall him.
And neither Henry nor anyone else has any control overhis fate. All these are traits of naturalism. The naturalistic elements are predominant throughoutmost of the book, and although the ending is curiously positive for a naturalistic work, itshowcases Cranes unique perspective as an author. The struggle between negative andpositive, optimism and pessimism, and realism and naturalism parallels the battle between blueand gray described in the plot as well as humanitys dual faces of good and evil. Rejecting purenaturalism as overly simplistic, Crane implies that although humans are subject to the savageforces of nature, there is still hope to eventually arrive at a better life. Adding a touch of realismto temper the morbidity of his naturalism, Stephen Crane will be remembered far into the futureas the author of one of the most influential novels in American literature.