‘The Red Badge of Courage’ – Stephen Crane, 1893
As Henry Fleming looks over the battle in Chapter XXII, the “impressionist” Crane is at work.
Henry sees his side’s troops as a “blue curve along the side of an adjacent hill” (195).
Later he sees his a brigate retreating: “The brigade was jaunty and seemed to point a proud thumb at the yelling wood” (196)
or: “Again he saw a blue wave dash with such thunderous force against a gray obstruction that it seemed to clear the earth of it and leave nothing but trampled sod.” (197)
And so it goes on. Inanimate objects personified (“two flags shaking with laughter”), humans de-animated into natural objects/animals (“blue wave”, “blue curve”, “spray of light forms … in houndlike leaps” etc.) and blurred togeter as forces bigger than themselves. Sounds live as forces of a universe that is indifferent to the actors within it, the war becomming “the whirring and thumping of gigantic machinery, complications among the smaller stars.” (197). Individuals do appear from out of the smudge, mad with purpose, yet mocked for their purposeless: “Men were running hither and thither” follows just after “A congregation of horses, tied to a long railing were tugging frenziedly at their bridles.” (196) This is our condition (is the word ‘congregation’ meant to have religious connotations?). We struggle against the constraints and limits of our existence, uselessly for the most part.
This three page description is preceded by the information that Henry’s “vision being unmolested by smoke from the rifles of his companions, he had opportunities to see parts of the hard fight. It was a relief to perceive at last from whence came some of these noises which had been roared into his ears.” (195)
For the first time he can see himself in the context of the whole fight.
When his regiment is ordered in, it is this new insight that gives him his courage. He is part of a larger force, “a catapultian effect”, a “thunderous crushing blow” (203).
Abandoning himself and his ego, he becomes part of that greater force, directing his vanity, which had previously made him run for his own safety and lie for his reputation, into an “enthusiasm of unselfishness” (202)
His individual conscience, consciousness and ego are the obstruction to courage. He abandons his pride-in-self for pride-in-the-regiment and the flag and becomes one of a number.
In the end, a pointless heroism?
The experience makes him – he has tested himself against death and “found that after all, it was but the great death” (211) but there is no conviction, no discussion of principles, no hatred or love for one cause or the other. To understand his mother’s view that “he was of vastly more importance on the farm than on the field of battle” (46), a view which is outlined “from a deep conviction” and out of contempt for “his war ardour and patriotism”, he has to go to that field of battle himself and return, longing for peace.
And that’s that. Written in his early twenties in Jamesian style. The unfolding of a perspective, meticulously told, encompassing (in the third person) only Henry Fleming’s comprehension, involving lots of abstract noun phrases (“glow of regret”, “a great and correct confidence”, “a feverish desire”, “a thrill of amazement”, “a sad silence”, “a fine bitterness” etc etc). The narrative voice is Crane’s not Henry’s it seems to me, and the reader must accept it as objective of his protagonist’s psychology. It is modernist despite its date of writing; more James than Joyce.