I am not sure whether this is really a novel in the traditional sense of the word. It’s very short – about 125 pages – and there is very little plot or characterisation. The events of the novel, (a term I will retain for convenience’ sake), take place over a couple of days during the course of a battle in the American Civil War. They are shown largely from the perspective of a raw recruit, who initially is terrified, and runs away, but once he gains his “red badge of courage” (i.e. a wound) he finds new reserves of bravery, and takes an active part in the remainder of the battle.
The novel was written over 25 years after the end of the war. You would in the normal course of events have expected the novel to be part of the healing process, the rebuilding of the nation – if not, why write it in the first place? The soldiers on both sides of the battle are shown as human and fallible – they show fear, lie, gossip, cuss, and die. They do heroic things and cowardly things side by side, they have a healthy contempt for their leaders, (although the narrator allows the reader to see that the officers are reasonably good at their jobs, even if that includes being cold-blooded about potential casualties) and rarely have anything other than the sketchiest of ideas what is going on in the confusion of the battle. The politics of the war are ignored completely, including the most obvious issue of slavery, which is not mentioned. This arguably gives the novel some verisimilitude, but the reality was the given both armies were volunteer forces, soldiers would have had some idea of why they were fighting, and may have cause to mention it from time to time. Ignoring slavery allows the novel to appeal to both North and South, but is still a puzzling omission given the novel is written entirely from a Unionist (northern) perspective.
Crane uses some interesting techniques to give atmosphere and credibility to his novel, making it in some ways similar to a survivor’s account of the battle. He uses short chapters, making the narrative move quickly. The principal character – Henry Fleming – is almost always referred to as “the youth”, giving him an everyman status, and the other characters are usually referred to in a similar way – the tall soldier, the loud soldier, etc. – to depersonalise them. The soldiers’ heavily accented language is recorded phonetically to give the narrative a sense of authenticity. The point of view stays closely with the youth, and we see what he sees, feel what he feels. The novel’s language focusses on colour, giving an almost impressionist feel to the descriptive passages that form the core of the narrative.
Given the absence of plot or characterisation, it is hard to understand why this is considered a great American novel, or one of the definitive novels of the American Civil War. It seems a calculated attempt to show the war not as a series of great set piece battles where the field of combat was bestrode by might men doing might deeds, but as peopled by real, flawed, people, pushed on by fear of death and failure. I can only speculate, but I suspect the answer is somewhere in this mix. The Civil War was, and remains, America’s bloodiest conflict. The scale of the national trauma was hard for Europeans to imagine, particularly given that America had only been an independent country for less than a hundred years. Civil wars must be much harder to recover from as a country than wars fought against a common enemy. Once the war is over you have to somehow carry on living and accepting the defeated enemy, which remains part of your country. So showing that the war wasn’t a struggle of good versus evil was probably part of that healing process. I read this novel in a Wordsworth edition, which includes two other short stories by Crane. The first, The Veteran, published in 1893, shows Fleming, the protagonist of the Red Badge, much later in life, and acts as a useful coda to the Red Badge. As a survivor of the war he is a greatly respected member of his community, but he refuses to romanticise his experiences:
“Could you see the whites of their eyes?” said the man who was seated on a soapbox.
“Nothing of the kind” replied old Henry warmly, “Just a lot of flitting figures, and I let go at where they ‘peared to be the thickest. Bang”
“Mr Fleming” said the grocer – his deferential voice expressed somehow the old man’s exact social weight – “Mr Fleming, you never was much frightened in them battles, was you?”.
The veteran looked down and grinned…”Well I guess I was, he answered finally”. Pretty well scared, sometimes”. (121)
He even has the courage, in old age, to admit his cowardice in his first battle, despite his tarnishing his image in the eyes of his grandson. So the civil war wasn’t a romantic struggle, it was at best a necessary evil.