Stephen Crane, a twenty-year old who had never been to war, wrote The Red Badge of Courage in 1895. Regardless, the book is considered one of the most accurate portrayals of the physical and psychological effects of intense battle. This book covers just two days of a heated battle between the Union and Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. The novel traces the emotional trajectory of one young recruit, Henry, as he strains to cope with all of the feelings and behaviors of which he is guilty.
Stephen Crane is a master of creating vastly realistic scenes of combat and death, and of the strange and varied emotions that accompany these experiences. Before Red Badge, war novels were generally written from a vantage point in the sky, dealing with issues like tactical movements of large groups of men rather than getting into the psyche of one particular soldier. By doing this, Crane rejected the grandeur and poetry of war and portrayed instead its harsh reality. The novel is known for its important place in the genre of realism, relying on lifelike actions and objects rather than on symbols and allegory. (Some argue that it’s impressionism rather than realism, but we’ll get into that in our discussion of "Genre.")
Because Crane dispensed with the pleasant veneer and exposed the brutalities of combat, The Red Badge of Courage is sometimes known as the first American anti-war novel. This didn’t go over so well with the critics, at least in America. In fact, a U.S. General named Alexander McClurg called it out as an attack on the country and its military. Only after critics in England recognized the value, ingenuity, and literary and psychological merit of Red Badge did America follow suit.
The Red Badge of Courage is the story of young Henry Fleming trying to decide one very vital question: run away as a coward and escape death, or be an honorable soldier and rush headfirst into almost certain death in battle at the Civil War front lines. Even though Henry believes in the war effort, he doubts his ability to be courageous because it would require him to ignore his survival instinct.
While we, as humans, all have a built-in survival instinct, we also see people doing courageous acts all the time. Firefighters routinely rush into burning buildings to rescue people they’ve never even met. We hear stories of heroes like Oskar Schindler, a German member of the Nazi party who worked to save Jews during WWII. And let's not forget the famous situation in which a policeman risked his life by grabbing a hold of a young man intending to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff on Pali Road in Hawaii. The police man himself started going over the cliff as well, but would not let go of the young man to save himself (both were rescued by another police officer) (Source: Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.).
So it looks like there must be something that trumps survival instinct. Is it a moral imperative? A religious one? Is it love? Duty? Fear of guilt? It’s difficult to pick any one of these, but what they all seem to have in common is the sense of the individual belonging to a whole, to something bigger than just himself – a big focus of The Red Badge of Courage.
Author Stephen Crane describes this loss of individuality as a key part of "the war machine." This sense of selflessness can be a good thing – like when feeling part of the human race will make you jump under a subway to save another man, or the way you care more about your team winning the game than you do about scoring that last point yourself. But it can also be dangerous, as The Red Badge of Courage reminds us. Cogs in machines usually don’t think, and no thinking means no judgment or discretion as to whether an act is right or wrong.
Most important, though, is Crane's message that humans have choices to make between individual safety and what's best for group. This tension hasn't disappeared in the last century. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Red Badge is irrelevant or even outdated.