The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage (reread)
Stephen Crane
Published 1895

I read this when I was in grade school for required reading, then again for The Well-Educated Mind novels. This third time was with my children, and I included it in my Back to the Classics Challenge, for novella, under 200 pages. Each time I like it more and more. While there is not much of a plot, there is something more important being told. Also, the language is rather tricky, and it must be read carefully because it is not a common writing style. I almost want to call it poetic.

The Red Badge of Courage is a coming-of-age story of a youth eager to go to war and become a real man. The setting is the American Civil War over the course of three days, though several intense battle scenes. The main character, often referred to as the youth, undergoes consecutive contradicting emotions. And it is through these exposures and revelations that he discovers the true meaning of manhood. It is not an outward appearance that characterizes maturity, but something far deeper and internal, something eternal.

Here is an example of one of his changes:
It was revealed to him that he had been a barbarian, a beast. He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion. Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy. He had been a tremendous figure, no doubt. By this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be mountains. They had fallen like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process. He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight. 

The Battle of Dry Wood Creek

Another example, not only of his metamorphosis, but also of the beautiful language used by the author:
Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty  and invulnerability. It was a goddess, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power. He kept near, as if it could be a saver of lives and an imploring cry went from his mind.  
And I love this, too:
It had been necessary for him to swallow swords that he might have a better throat for grapes. Fate had in truth been kind to him; she had stabbed him with benign purpose and diligently cudgeled him for his own sake. 
Henry, or the youth, struggled with fear and inexperience. He made mistakes. But he found courage enough to be accountable for those mistakes, and it made him better -- a better version of himself. He had time to "study his deeds, his failures, and his achievements." According to his memory, he "felt gleeful and un-regretting, for in it his public deeds were paraded in great and shinning prominence," and "he saw that he was good."
With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, non-assertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death and was for others. He was a man. 
 Should You Read This?

If you have an interest in American Civil War stories, or stories about coming-of-age, this is perfectly short book to read. It doesn't require a great commitment. Also, if you appreciate unique and beautiful complex writing styles, give this one a try. You won't be disappointed.

Stephen Crane, 1895


  1. I had to read this story in high school and I didn't like it, but I think that is because I had a teacher who could suck any joy out of reading I might have had. I do like Civil War stories and I should probably read it again to get the bad taste of the previous experience out of my mouth.

    I know exactly what you mean by beautiful language. I could read almost any story if the language is beautiful.

    The coming of age aspect reminds me of War and Peace with Natalia's little brother who finds war exciting until he realizes that he's being shot at.

    1. That may be a great idea, to reread it now. You'll have a different perspective. I read it in grade school and forgot everything. When I read it as an adult, it mattered to me. And even rereading it a few years later, I got new ideas and experiences from it.

      I suppose that was really common for young boys, especially during the American Civil War...to join the military b/c they so badly wanted to be considered a man.