Places: The Red Badge of Courage

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1895

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1861-1865

Places DiscussedCamp

Camp. Red Badge of Courage, TheEncampment of Henry’s regiment where the novel opens. Although the regiment has only been lodged there for a few months, the novel’s initial location seems to Henry to be “sort of eternal camp.” In the opening paragraph, as a fog clears to display the awakening army, roads “grow” in the distance from “long troughs of liquid mud.” The shore of a nearby river is occupied by the enemy, whose campfires glow by night on the ridges of low hills. Sometimes pickets posted as sentries on opposite banks shoot at one another; however, at other times they converse peaceably, their enmity set aside.

The regiment’s lodgings are log-walled huts roofed with folded tents. Cracker boxes serve as furniture, grouped around fireplaces whose chimneys–crudely compounded out of clay and sticks–are inefficient, with the effect that the atmosphere inside each hut is foul with smoke: an omen of the battlefield to come.

Henry’s home

Henry’s home. Henry remembers life on his widowed mother’s dairy farm as an endless round of trudging between the house, the barn, and the fields. He recalls that after enlisting he went to say good-bye to his admiring schoolmates, and that as he walked away from the seminary, along a path between two rows of oaks, a girl watched him from a window; his subsequent journey by railroad to Washington, D.C., seemed to be a hero’s triumph because of the manner in which the troops were greeted at every station. Immediately before the battle, Henry remembers his local village on the day of a circus parade: an exquisitely detailed image that serves as a counterpoint to his chaotic awareness of the battlefield.

Battlefield

Battlefield. Images of the battlefield are compounded from a patchwork series of briefly glimpsed microcosms, each one narrowly confined by the undulations of the ground and the sprawling pine forests that girdle every little cluster of fields. When Henry first sees skirmishers running back and forth across clear ground, continually ducking into and out of trees, while a dark battle line extends across a sunstruck clearing, it seems to him to be entirely the wrong place to fight a battle. The forest appears to him at times to be an ambush-laden trap and at other times a protective haven. Eventually, however, it becomes a mere blur as his regiment is marched through it, emerging periodically into open land chaotically and cacophonously hazed by gunfire and smoke before moving back again.

When Henry hears that his companions have held the position from which he has run away, the forest creepers begin to catch his legs, as if protesting against his movement; he nearly wanders into a swamp before finding a corpse in a quiet “chapel” of pines. The forest remains resistant, brambles impeding his journey back to the battlefield as the creepers had earlier hindered his retreat, until he joins the procession of wounded men. Reunited with his battered regiment, Henry finds the scene initially reminiscent of the aftermath of an orgy, then of a slaughterhouse.

The landscape becomes increasingly hallucinatory thereafter, and it is while searching for an illusory stream that the youth overhears a general giving the order to send the regiment into a suicidal charge. From then on the almost-monochrome landscape is dominated by two flags: the one that the youth takes over from his own color sergeant and the one flying over the position where the retreating enemy leaves behind a pocket of desperate resistance. Between these two encounters the youth looks back in astonishment at the triviality of distances he has covered; it is because his companions are accused of “not going far enough” that they charge with sufficient resolution to capture the enemy flag.

On leaving the battlefield, the youth and the remnant of his regiment pass a “stolid white house”: a symbolic reminder of everything for which they are supposed to be fighting. Although the marching men return to troughs of mud identical to those from which they emerged, they now seem to the youth to be heading toward “prospects of clover”: a vision of the meadowy paradise awaiting them on the far side of the river.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Examines style, technique, narrative method, and psychological aspects of Crane’s novel. Places the novel in the epic tradition.Cazemajou, Jean. “The Red Badge of Courage: The ‘Religion of Peace’ and the War Archetype.” In Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays, edited by Joseph Katz. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972. Finds a balance in the novel between a metaphoric view of war as chaos and confusion, and a view of a world at peace. War and peace function more as archetypes than as realities in the novel.LaFrance, Marston. A Reading of Stephen Crane. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Identifies Crane’s genius not in creating literary naturalism, but rather in his psychological portrayal of Henry Fleming. Praises Crane’s use of third-person limited point of view.Mitchell, Lee Clark, ed. New Essays on ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Traces the novel’s evolution; concludes that the original draft served as an outline to be expanded into the 1895 version. Identifies Crane’s abstraction of the Civil War from its historical context as a distinctive contribution to American literature.Solomon, Eric. Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Credits Crane with countering a tradition of dashing heroes in war fiction by using parody and with giving the war novel a new form that afterward became the model. Maintains that Crane selects his war stories for their value as fiction, creating rather than reliving war experiences.
Categories: Places