Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2011

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had

The Spouse came home with an interesting book the other day: it’s called The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.  The author, Susan Wise Bauer, offers a sort of self-education course in reading the Great Works (which I suspect doesn’t include any by Australian authors).  But in an idle moment I picked it off his (mini) Mt TBR on our coffee table and found myself browsing Chapter 3: ‘The Story of People, Reading Through History with the Novel’.  It was a relief to find that I had read all but 6 of the 31 novels listed, and may yet qualify for a ‘well-educated mind’.  Of the six I hadn’t read, the title that intrigued me into hunting it out from Project Gutenberg was The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by American author Stephen Crane (1871–1900).

It’s only a novella, so it didn’t take long to read, and as a study of fear, bravery and accidental heroism it made an interesting coda to my listening of Faulks on Fiction in which Faulks discusses the way fictional heroes soon abandoned the old notions of the mythical hero as good and noble by default.

Henry is a young Yankee farmboy who enlists in the Civil War against his mother’s will, but her only advice is to him is to keep away from bad influences and ‘do what’s right’.  Other reactions, however, conspire to make him believe in his own heroism: having made a triumphant farewell to his classmates at school, his regiment is ‘caressed and fed at station after station’ en route to Washington and he is ‘patted and complimented by the old men’.

And so he waits impatiently for the excitement of battle, frustrated by constant rumours that there is about to be action at last. But as time goes by his ideas about ‘Greeklike’ struggles-to-the-death fade in the monotony of camp life and its endless drills.  In their place comes self-doubt: what if in panic he runs? He is reassured to learn that it’s not uncommon, and then vacillates between believing that all his comrades would be ‘runners’ when the time came, and believing that he might yet be the only one while all the rest are heroes.  An attempt to discern a like-minded soul assailed by similar doubts causes offence and he feels himself very alone.

Then suddenly he finds himself kicked awake by a regiment in flight.  The regiment marches off to their engagement and a battle finally erupts.  Henry to his own amazement acquits himself as a soldier should, joining in the fighting and calmly scrutinising others who flee.  His smug self-satisfaction takes a battering, however, when the battle resumes in the morning and his comrades flee.  This time Henry runs with the others ‘like a blind man’  leaving only an ‘imbecile line’ to withstand the onslaught.   He cringes when he learns that this remnant won the engagement; he justifies his cowardice by blaming everyone else for mismanaging the battle.  He shrinks from his culpability when he walks like a fraud among the wounded.

Henry’s ‘quiver of war desire’  competes with his fears but is soon vanquished when he joins a column of retreating soldiers, which is soon overwhelmed by a new attack.  In the panic he assails one of the soldiers to find out what’s happened, but the soldier clubs him on the head with his rifle butt.  When eventually reunited with his regiment his pride makes him lie about this, claiming to have ‘a red badge of courage’ i.e. a war wound.   Indeed, he is able to rationalise his flight as dignified and discreet whereas the way the other soldiers ran was ‘more fleet and more wild than was necessary’.  Although Crane’s irony is never far from the surface, today’s readers recognise the 24-year-old author sitting in judgement as a young man might:  Had he been an adult Henry’s rationalisations would merit scorn, but he is only a boy and a contemporary reader feels we must treat him kindly…

In the next battle however Henry’s confusion gets the better of him. He hides behind a tree and fights like a madman, shooting every which way. He earns the admiration of his regiment for his courage, and carries the colours of his regiment.   The narrator begins to refer to the boy by his surname, Fleming, as if he has now passed some rite of initiation and become a man.   Henry has become a hero, but he is the only one who knows it is by chance.  Perhaps this self-awareness of his dubious heroism is what it means to be a man…

It’s a very interesting book and I can see why Bauer chose to include it in her canon.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Stephen Crane
Title: The Red Badge of Courage
Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Availability of books discussed:

Fishpond: The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.

 


Responses

  1. Have downloaded it straight away from PG – thanks for the recommendation!

    • Isn’t it amazing that we can do this, on impulse!

  2. Whaddya mean, “only” a novella!? Seriously though, this has been in my virtual TBR for a long time now. You’ve inspired me to add it to my Kindle library.

    • *chortle* I should have known I’d get into trouble for that!

  3. Lisa, with your wealth of knowledge, you should write an Australian version.

    • I should clarify that I meant the Australian version of the Well-Educated Mind, I meant…not Crane’s novella.

      • Ah, I think I might write The Great Australian Novel first – so that I could include it in the canon…

  4. I did enjoy Karen’s clarification! But what I was going to say was that this sounds like a wonderful novella. I’m familiar with the title but I have never felt motivated to make a real effort to seek it out until now. A big thanks for that :)

    It was interesting that having done the Faulks you immediately found an application. I had the same experience with my Eco, and found it really exciting, recognising concepts I had only just grasped. I like this narrative theory thing…

    • I’m finding Faulks fascinating – great when I’ve read the book he’s discussing, and when I haven’t, it’s making me want to.
      Today I came to his section on ‘snobs in literature’, discussing Jane Austen’s Emma and Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s so good, it’s making me want to buy the book as well as the audio book.

  5. […] published last month, appealed to me because of a couple of synchronicities. One is that Lisa of ANZLitLovers reviewed Crane’s The red badge of courage a few days ago, reminding me that I have yet to read Crane. […]


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