“The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel by American author Stephen Crane (1871–1900).

Taking place during the American Civil War, the story is about a young private of the Union Army, Henry Fleming, who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound, a “red badge of courage,” to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, Henry acts as standard-bearer.

Six members met to discuss The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.

Scores were very middle-of-the-road ranging from 4 to 7 with an average of 5.5 (39/7 – 1 email vote) which perhaps would have been a lot lower if some of the non-attendees had voted.

Barbara, Jade, Evan and Jill found the plot dull or non-existent. Michele though it ‘heavy going’. Jade and Evan thought it dull. Maddie could only read 35 pages because she found it bland and emotionless.

However, Evan and Jill thought “the youth’s” motivations and emotions were well described. Bill enjoyed the book and its impressionistic view of warfare. Jade Bill and Evan thought it a good portrayal of the confusion and chaos of war. Jade found some good descriptions. Barbara and Michele found it interesting with regard to the historical context.

Bill’s email

I enjoyed the story and its impressionistic view of warfare.

The American Civil War was an horrendous conflict, with battles fought in close quarters, and awful casualty rates (the weapons were so powerful). More Americans died than in all the other wars that the U.S.
has been involved in put together. One of the many ironies (and they were legion in this conflict), was that the new cemetery (now the National Cemetery) that had to be opened in Washington was constructed in the grounds of Robert E Lee’s house in Arlington. The bodies were literally laid at his door, with purpose and intent.

I thought that the book gave a good impression of how confusing and disorientating battles are; and how soldiers sit around for days, weeks and months, waiting for lines to be drawn, and generals to decide tactics. In the end, it all amounts to which side is willing (or able) to lose most men. The North had a population of 21 millions, and most of the wealth; the South had 9 millions, 4 millions of whom were slaves.

The war was not really about slavery, but about States’ rights over Federal ones. Surprisingly, it was the (newly formed) Republican party, led by Lincoln, that fought for the rights of the whole over those of the individual. How things have changed.

The ‘youth’ of the story is as confused and disorientated as the actions he’s involved in; and torn between cowardice and heroism. The Red Badge of Courage is one of the first books about war to examine these dilemmas, and, as such, is considered an early example of naturalism. Crane and Theodore Dreiser knew each other, and we will be reading the latter’s naturalistic novel, Sister Carrie, next month.

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