You are on page 1of 6

Teunissen 1

Mirjam Teunissen
Dr. J.C Kardux
Literature 4A Essay
May 1, 2015
Stephen Cranes Criticism of War as a Test of Male Character in The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane wrote what is considered one of the most realistic novels about the Civil War,
even though he was born after the war. Some critics argue that the novel reveres war as a test
of manhood, for the main character often believes himself to be a hero. Others argue that the
use of war in the novel is ironic, and utilized to mock the emphasis on manhood in Cranes
time. Evidence within and outside of the novel show Crane seems to criticize the way in
which society believed manhood was achieved through the lack of development from the
protagonist character Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage.
The most obvious way of spotting irony in The Red Badge of Courage is considering
the background of the novel. Crane had no experience in war whatsoever, so used his sport as
an anology (Burton/Finkel 104). Sports in fiction was already becoming a greater
phenomenon (Burton/Finkel 104), but regarding it similar to war tactics was still a fresh point
of view. Not only the tactics were examined by Crane, but also the narrative in match reports,
providing the tone for The Red Badge of Courage (DArcy 216). Using a form of leisure as
basis for a war novel may be regarded as ironical, since war was a heavy subject in Cranes
After the Civil War many political leaders and therefore society in general considered
war to be a test of male character and would lead to manhood for the soldiers. Theodore
Roosevelt mentions manhood in his persuasive text The Strenuous Life, where he states it
would be a sad and evil thing for this country if ever the day came when we considered the
great deeds of our forefathers as an excuse for resting slothfully satisfied with what has
already been done. On the contrary, they should be an inspiration and appeal (1141). Instead
of living in peace, men should be willing to fight and search for new territories. Roosevelt
also mentions iron qualities that define manhood (1142). Iron could mean simply the
hardness of men, but could also mean the iron in guns, which would mean that war is
necessary for shaping the male character. This kind of propaganda of manhood is also what
triggers Henry to enlist in the novel: The newspaper, the gossip in the village, his own

Teunissen 2
picturings, had aroused him to an uncheckable degree (6). The downside of such propaganda
is also explained in the novel, since Henry presumes he is already a hero before he even
fought a single battle (8). A paradoxical downside is the pressure which society forces upon
young men, resulting into, in Henrys case, fear. As Robert Rechnitz claims: His
imagination, which is nourishing this private fear, gains its matter not from Henrys own
limited experience but from that of his society (Rechnitz 77). And indeed, Henry feels that
he had not enlisted of his free will. He had been dragged by the merciless government (23).
Manhood is then also not a choice of the young generation, but demanded of them by the
Therefore, young men were eager to participate in war, but their need to prove
themself in war butted against veteran claims that they had fought the last real war in
American history (Casey 2). Implicit in these comments is the notion that true manhood is no
longer available for the new generation of which Crane was part. This created a tension
between the young men and the veterans of the war (Casey 2). This tension is also present in
The Red Badge of Courage, when Henry actually speaks to some veterans, and he is unsure
about the truth in their stories: Still, he could not put a whole faith in veterans tales []
[for] he could not tell how much might be lies (9). By diminishing the veteran tales, Crane is
already criticizing war, because the great war heroes are reduced to plain liars. The heroic side
of Henry may be representative for the veterans and society, and the fearful side
representative for the young men in society.
At first in the novel, Henry is quite naive and frightened with the idea of having to go
into battle. Especially the latter seems to be a great part of his own character, since his old
fears of stupidity and incompetence reassailed him (27). This old fear implies Henry is
naturally unnerved. He is torn between his own dreams of glory and the fear of running when
he actually has to prove himself in the war. These two sides of his character are revealed early
on, since all the thoughts of heroism are weakened by thoughts of fear, especially in the
beginning. For example, he perceived that the man who had fought was magnificent (41) is
weakened by a quote not far along, namely for a moment, in the great clamor, he was like a
proverbial chicken (42). In the wider context of war, the two sides of Henry may represent
the veterans on the one hand and the young new soldiers on the other. At this moment in the
novel, there is no certainty about which side is the superior one, while in society the veterans
were definitely deemed the superior men. The only assurance for Henry is his belief that the
other soldiers may be as fearful as he is: Sometimes he inclined to believing them all heroes.

Teunissen 3
[] Then, in other moments, he flouted these theories, and assured himself that his fellows
were all privately wondering and quaking (14). Again there is a contradiction between
heroism and fear. Henry as a soldier is not the only one consumed by the pressure his society
assigns to him, because like raw recruits or rookies the young men brag about the glory they
hope to achieve, but underneath their collective swagger is the question Will I stand my
ground, or will I run? (Burton/Finkel 103). Instead of becoming the men society wanted
them to be, they became even more insecure about their manhood.
The wounds, and in particular Henrys, are central to the story, and they are used in a
ironical way by Crane. As John McDermott puts it: The first reported wound [] is absurd
despite its seriousness. The first encounter with an enemy [] is farcical. And by his
suggestive use of imagery Crane subtly foreshadows Flemings future complex development
which must be preceded by the maturing of his naive idealism (McDermott 326).
McDermott aims at the wound caused by friendly fire and the girl as the first encounter with
the enemy. The significance of battlewounds is impaired by Crane here. Henrys wound, also
caused by his own side of the battlefront, loses its importance too. He desperately wants a
badge of courage, but when he finally manages to be struck, it is not even in battle with the
enemy. The question remains then if it really is a badge of courage, which is the only glory
Henry craves at that moment. Crane seriously undermines the battlewounds and war stories
the veterans brought along with them to society by depicting these scenes. McDermott further
argues that [Henry] discovers it is as easy for him to relinquish his humanity in the direction
of cowardrice as shortly before he has relinquished it in the direction of simplistic courage
(McDermott 326). Cowardrice and courage oppose each other, but are also strangely
connected, because it is easy to alternate between the two. Manhood seems unachievable yet
When Henry eventually runs away from battle, his two sides of courage and
cowardrice unfold considerably. At first, he supposes he was wise to flee, since all his
comrades must have fled as well. Not only was he wise, but he thinks that his actions had
been sagacious things. They had been full of strategy. They were the work of a masters legs
(47). Fighting is deemed unstrategic and foolish by Henry. On the same page he states this
again: He, the enlightened man who looks afar in the dark, had fled because of his superior
perceptions and knowledge (47). All society wants is for men to fight, but Henry judges the
opposite to be true. Oddly enough, his heroic side reveals itself in flight, not in fight.
However, his insecurity also exposes itself, for doubts and he were struggling (68). Doubts
may represent society, as he is struggling with their notion of heroism and his own. The

Teunissen 4
pressure of society is also described somewhat further: Sometimes the brambles formed
chains and tried to hold him back. Trees, confronting him, stretched their arms out and
forbade him to pass (52). The brambles and trees symbolize society pushing him back
towards the battlefield. This passage also shows Henrys fear of becoming unpopular in public
opinion. Being in battle did not change Henry, or make him any more self-confident. War did
not, at least not yet, make him a man.
When Henry finally obtained his badge of courage, and he fought in the war, he
contemplates his own heroism and finds the obvious flaws in it. He discovers that when he
fights like a barbarian, a beast (101) he is finally what he called a hero (101). War then
makes beasts of the youth instead of men. Crane seriously questions here whether war is even
a human thing to do. When war is described by Crane, the analogy to machinery is often used.
This may be linked to the iron qualities Roosevelt referred to. When Henry is fighting, an
anology to animals is often made. Near the beginning, Crane describes: His impotency
appeared to him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast. As DArcy describes: Passion
in fighting has become a passion for fighting (215). Henry also observes that he was very
insignificant (105). As part of a whole, one soldier did not matter greatly to society. For
every soldier to achieve manhood in war would again be impossible. This seems to be a
paradox created by the government and society, simply to lure young men into the army.
At the end of the novel, Henry finally assumes he might be a hero. He still needs
others to tell him this, however: He recalled with a thrill of joy the respectful comments of
his fellows upon his conduct. Nevertheless, the ghost of his flight from the first engagement
appeared to him and danced (138). Firstly, this thought demonstrates Henrys reliability on
the opinions of others, as the young generation depends on societys viewpoints. Secondly,
this reveals a certain cycle back to the beginning, where one can first see Henrys ambiguous
character. Henry is still torn between his heroic and cowardrice sides. When Henry calls
himself a hero, his insecurity is still visible, since he calls it a quiet manhood (139). The
whole notion of heroism and manhood is reduced in strenght by this lack of protagonist
character development.
Crane plays with the idea of manhood and the connection with war in The Red Badge
of Courage. Society believed war to shape the young men into actual men. Henry Fleming,
being such a young man, would then be expected to show this development. He does mature,
but he is as insecure and in some ways naive as he was at the beginning of the novel.
Furthermore, Crane diminishes the war tales and battlewound any veteran may brag about. He

Teunissen 5

also connects the Civil War to the tension in his own time, because Henry represents the
insecure young men that are pressured by society to become men, even though the last real
war was fought according to the veterans. This would imply manhood was the ideal for young
men, but there was no real possibility to ever achieve it. The novel is therefore not a
Bildungsroman, but an ironical view on societys ideal of manhood, the way in which war
was idolized, and war as a means to obtain manhood.
(Word Count: 2014)

Teunissen 6

Works Cited
Burton, Rick, and Jan Finkel. Stephen Crane, Baseball and a Red Badge. Nine: A Journal of
Baseball History and Culture 21.1 (2012): 103-117.
Casey, John Anthony, Jr. Searching For a War of Ones Own: Stephen Crane, The Red
Badge of Courage, and the Glorious Burden of the Civil War Veteran. American
Literary Realism 44.1 (2011): 1-22.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories. London: Penguin, 2005.
DArcy, Julian Meldon. The Red Badge and Running Back: Stephen Crane, Football and the
Fictional Representation of the American Civil War. Sports in History 29.2 (2009):
McDermott, John. Symbolism and Psychological Realism in The Red Badge of Courage.
Nineteenth-Century Fiction 23.3 (1968): 324-331.
Rechnitz, Robert. Depersonalization and the Dream in The Red Badge of Courage. Studies
in the Novel 6.1 (1974): 76-87.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Vol. C. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 1140-1143.