The Civil War Through the Eyes of a Protagonist

By Juan Haines
Senior Editor

The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a powerful storytelling event, placed during the American Civil War. It is told through the eyes of protagonist, Henry Flemming, referred to as the youth.

Author, Stephen Crane uses the youth’s observations while in the mists of battle to give readers an honest look at an individual’s core beliefs and his self-evaluation regarding the circumstance of death.

Crane sets up the reader by using institutionalization, dehumanization, and peer pressure as literary devices.

The youth’s institutionalization is depicted in the beginning of the novel through his attitude about war.

Crane creates an interesting link with the youth’s transformation of being institutionalized to his expectations that he’d be proud of conduct during war.

As he perceived this fact it occurred to him that he had never wished to come to war. He had not enlisted of his free will. He had been dragged by the merciless government. And now they were taking him to be slaughtered.

Dehumanization shows ups in how the youth interprets his superiors’ attitude about sending his regiment into, what he believed to be, a losing battle:

A dog, a woman, an’ a walnut tree, Th’ more yeh beat ‘em, th’ better they be!

It was the youth’s shame about running fearfully away from the battle that caused him to look inward, seeking worth.

The youth, in seeing how his peers viewed death, sought the same:

He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

As he went on, he seemed always looking for a place, like one who goes to choose a grave.

The Red Badge of Courage has a relentless storytelling appeal through its contrast against keen observations about Nature in wartime.

The round red discharges from the guns made a crimson flare and a high, thick smoke.

Naturekeeps its neutrality, by adhering to a constant state of clam in spite of man’s destructive character.

There was much blood upon the grass blades.

Crane is constantly interpreting the meaning of being a warrior and while struggling for dignity and life in the mist of battle.

…he instantly saw that it would be impossible for him to escape from the regiment. It inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.

While finding a way to keep the youth’s dignity and warrior-like persona in the last battle, Crane used symbolism in a very smart way:

The battle flag in the disgrace jerked about madly. It seemed to be struggling to free itself from an agony. The billowing smoke was filled with horizontal flashes.

When Henry transformed into the warrior, the war hero, the person that his superiors look to as an example of the type of person who’d fight and kill in war, it was a reminder of the person who’d he’d wanted himself to be seen as.

When all is done and it is over, The Red Badge of Courage, readers should look for how Crane, long before this time, tackles Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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