Monday, March 25, 2013

The Red Badge of Courage: A Coming-of-Age Story


The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane 
Published 1895

**This post is laden with spoilers.**

Calico Ghost Town, CA - 2013 Civil War Re-Enactment
            Set during the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage is not a history about the Civil War.  It is not about who started the war or who won.  It is not necessarily about war either, but about man’s personal struggle with conscience, courage, fear, pride, shame, honor, glory, maturity, existence, and death.   It is a story about “coming-of-age.”

            The main character, Henry Fleming, is a young soldier with an idealistic view of man and heroes.  Men are born to do “mighty deeds of arms” and live for great battles and to be worshiped as godlike heroes.  Henry romanticizes about glory in war.  But when his regiment is faced with its first battle, he reexamines his ideals.

Calico Ghost Town, CA - 2013 Civil War Re-Enactment
            Henry experiences variations of emotions from questioning his own courage to doubting the commanding officers.  He wonders if he will run when the battle begins, and he suspects that those in charge are leading them straight into danger.

            After the first battle, Henry’s regiment has the upper hand, and they feel valiant and prideful until the enemy unexpectedly returns; then Henry retreats and runs away.  To justify his actions and to soothe his self-reproach, he states that it is natural to escape danger, and others should have been as wise.  When he is alone within the bounds of the forest, he sees a corpse and questions whether his wisdom is capable of protecting him from death at all.

A Soldier Runs - Calico Ghost Town, CA
2013 Civil War Re-Enactment


           Once Henry returns to his regiment, after fighting has ceased, he blends in with injured soldiers and escapes questions about his missing “battle wound.”  His secret is a burden on his heart.  When he witnesses a friend and another soldier succumb to their injuries, he experiences shame for not having earned “his red badge of courage.”  He is deeply conflicted between acting bravely and feeling a natural desire to survive.  

            Shortly after another skirmish breaks out, Henry witnesses his comrades retreating, and he stops a soldier to ask questions.  The frantic soldier slams his rifle upon Henry’s head, bloodying him.  This injury serves as a cover up for his guilt, and he will not have to reveal his “crime,” though he is privately ashamed since he did not earn his injury for courage.  After a friend treats his head wound and he rests for a night, Henry goes through a period of pride and vanity because he has thus survived; he is fraudulently arrogant toward other soldiers who have run from this latest clash.  

Calico Ghost Town, CA - 2013 Civil War Re-Enactment
            Henry develops a deep vengeance toward the enemy, and in the next battle, he is blinded with such wrath that his lieutenant is enthusiastically enthralled.  Again, Henry is swollen with juvenile pride and arrogance.  

            Yet, there is a change in Henry now. 
             It was revealed to him that he had been a barbarian, a beast.  He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion…He had been a tremendous figure, no doubt.  But this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be mountains.  They had fallen like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero.  And he had not been aware of the process.  He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight.
            Soon after, Henry and his comrade, Wilson, overhear two officers talking: one, they will charge the enemy; and, two, they insult and mock Henry’s regiment, expecting most soldiers to be lost in the next conflict.  Henry and Wilson inform the soldiers of the charge, but they do not share the other information.  Henry acquires a sense of clarity and determination.  

Calico Ghost Town, CA - 2013 Civil War Re-Enactment
            In battle, he and Wilson are fierce and valorous.  They recover the flag from a fallen color bearer, and Henry guards it protectively; it has become a symbol: 
…a creation of beauty and invulnerability.  It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him.  It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes.  Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power. 
            They urge their comrades on, and the enemy retreats; Henry and Wilson learn that the colonel is greatly impressed by their actions, which provides them much confidence going into the next battle.  

Calico Ghost Town, CA - 2013 Civil War Re-Enactment
            Finally, after the final battle before the end of the story, Henry and Wilson perform heroically once more and help push the enemy back in another retreat.  It is over.  Contemplating his past errors and admitting that he was wrong, Henry demonstrates maturity and accepts his mistakes as part of the entire process of becoming a man.  

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