One of the most interesting parts about finally reading books I’ve always heard about is seeing how my vague impressions have differed from the actuality of the book. Take The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Not at all what I was expecting when I finally read it this week.
My impression was always that it was about a boy in the Civil War, who deserted during his first battle, then returned, fought bravely in a second battle, and felt that he had earned his “red badge of courage.”
As it turns out, the hero’s not that young. I think this mis-impression was the fault of whatever kid did an oral presentation on this book years ago, during elementary school. And to be fair, the hero, Henry Fleming, is referred to 99.5% of the time as “the youth.” If you’re twelve, I can see how you’d conclude that a youth is probably also twelve. But, while his age is never really given, he and the other soldiers seem to accept him simply as another one of themselves, definitely not a drummer boy or otherwise marked out as significantly younger than the average. Even in the Civil War, that has to mean he’s at least sixteen, and probably eighteen.
Second, this cowardice to bravery business is so much more complicated than I always thought. The youth does run during his first battle, but so does many soldiers. He does return, and fight in a subsequent battle, and this time he’s marked out for bravery. But it didn’t feel like a nice, noble character growth. In the first battle, he’s overcome by the sheer animal instinct of fear. In the second battle, he’s swept away by the no more admirable quality of hate. In both cases, it feels more like a kind of madness than any kind of nobler instinct.
I’m not sure if this was Crane’s point. If his intent was to paint the reality of war, to demonstrate that it isn’t noble and courage is a very iffy thing, I think that’s what he illustrated. Yet somehow he never quite brought it to the point that I could feel completely sure that’s what he was trying to do. Maybe the title is the most telling part. The youth gets his “red badge of courage.” But the red badge turns out to be a wound, and the youth gets his when he tries to ask another fleeing soldier what’s going on, and the man whacks him one with his rifle. There’s nothing courageous about it.
My favorite part of the book was early on, before the first battle. The youth is really troubled about whether he’ll run when he’s put to the test. He thrashes it out, and wonders, and worries–and looks around him and thinks that no one else feels this way. That’s what I found most interesting. It’s the idea of these hidden fears and worries that we’re desperate not to tell anyone, and that we think only we have because no one else expresses them…but maybe it’s just that everyone else is equally desperate not to tell about theirs.
My least favorite aspect of the book was the youth himself. I liked him well enough in the beginning, but after the first battle I found his behavior totally repugnant–and I don’t mean the running. I guess I don’t have the battle instinct. I know that cowardice in the face of danger is practically the highest crime for a military man, and I certainly don’t find it admirable–but I found it easy to forgive him for getting scared and running in the complete chaos of a Civil War battle.
After the battle, though–the youth falls in with a group of wounded men, who are all trudging (as much as they can) back towards the camp. Although he himself is unhurt at this point, the youth seems to demonstrate almost no instinct to help them. He helps one friend in a very minimal way, but actually abandons another man. This troubles him a little later on, but more because he’s afraid someone else will find out than because he feels any actual guilt. I guess I can let go of the glorious battle ideal easily, but have much more trouble letting go of the ideal of comrades in arms and no man left behind.
When the youth is injured himself, a friend (who thinks he was wounded in battle) takes care of him, bandaging up the wound and giving the youth his own blanket. The youth expresses no gratitude, very little acknowledgement even, and is in fact quite rude and contemptuous to the friend later on. Besides which, he just begins to come off as very arrogant and unfeeling on the whole.
Maybe some of this goes back to Crane’s point about war not being glorious, and about soldiers not being saints. But I’d rather have likable characters.
An interesting book, and I’m glad to have my own opinion on it now…but I don’t know that I’d push it on a kid if they asked for a recommendation for a book report.