Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (1895)

Tom Sawyer goes to war.

I won't be flip about this book, but I'm probably too old to have read it.  I can now understand why it is so often assigned as a book report in school.  It gives wonderful insight into the mind of a teenager who goes into battle and wants to be a hero.  The descriptions of the main character's thoughts took me back to my own teenage years, describing well the myriads of trifling things that occupy the mind of a guy that age.

It's a coming of age story, as our main character - referred to as "the youth" - is worried that he will run from the battle.  Will he stand and fight?  Will he run like a big chicken?  That's his worry.  It's perfect.  Looking at the Civil War from a distance, looking at the battles as an outsider, we see cause and purpose, we see strategy, we see a fight against slavery maybe, an insurrection perhaps, a great upheaval.  We see all those things.

But Stephen Crane brings all of that down to the level and to the concerns of a single person - a teenage boy.  Slavery is not mentioned.  Great causes are not mentioned.  This could have been any war, any battle, and he could have been on any side.  What it boils down to is this guy is worried about the same thing any 15 year old guy is worried about - looking good, being well thought of, and having girls think highly of him.

However, what young Henry goes through shakes reality into him.  When he thinks the battle is lost he runs from it while his comrades stay and fight.  They win the battle, much to Henry's surprise.  He is full of turmoil and confused emotions over this, and Crane brings that out nicely.  Then he encounters wounded and dying men.  He envies them because they fought and were wounded while he ran and has no wounds.  He's ashamed of that, bringing out more emotions and turmoil.  When a childhood friend dies before his eyes, he deserts another man and leaves him dying on the road.

All this haunts him throughout the story.  So this book is more about the emotions and reactions of Henry than about the actual battle or the fighting.  That is brought out clearly by the fact that the book ends not with the winning of the war or even of a great battle, but by Henry realizing that he is a man.  I know, it sounds a bit corny, and Crane's description of it is not subtle.  But Crane was only 24 when he wrote this.
With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
It's blatant sentimentalism, I know.  But it's effective.  Corniness aside, there are some great battle scenes.  Henry, ashamed of his earlier flight from battle, and angered at being considered a "mule driver" by an officer, uses hatred to drive him into battle.  His comrades now look at him as heroic.
The youth had resolved not to budge whatever should happen. Some arrows of scorn that had buried themselves in his heart had generated strange and unspeakable hatred. It was clear to him that his final and absolute revenge was to be achieved by his dead body lying, torn and gluttering, upon the field. This was to be a poignant retaliation upon the officer who had said "mule drivers," and later "mud diggers," for in all the wild graspings of his mind for a unit responsible for his sufferings and commotions he always seized upon the man who had dubbed him wrongly. And it was his idea, vaguely formulated, that his corpse would be for those eyes a great and salt reproach.
So he wants to die just to prove that officer wrong.  Henry is not interested in dying for his country or dying for a great cause.  He wants to die to rub it in that officer's face.  The book is not about winning a war.  It's about an individual reaching manhood.  It's not about fighting and killing, or even about being brave.  It's about dealing with who you are, and how you react to terrible situations.  It's about putting that into perspective to try to see yourself as brave, to see yourself as a man.

Here's another scene that stood out from the crowd.
The orderly sergeant of the youth's company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well. 
The youth saw him presently go rearward. His strength seemed in nowise impaired. He ran swiftly, casting wild glances for succor.
I only included that because it was one of the few gory scenes in the book.

The book is full of symbolism and meaning...or at least people say it is.  I wonder if Stephen Crane intended for certain things to be metaphors or if people are just reading more into it than is there.  One annoyance was the use of "the youth" instead of using his name, Henry.  It felt amateurish.  I thought that maybe at the end Crane was going to call him "the man", but he didn't.  To the very end that poor kid was called "the youth."  The book felt confused in many places, sometimes resulting from that same habit of not giving people names.  You aren't sure if the person being referenced is the same as a previous person being referenced.

Not a bad book.  But go into it understanding what it is.  Don't think of it as a book about the Civil War, or about winning a battle.  It's about a young man finding his courage.

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