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The language in The Red Badge of Courage is unusually important. The way things are described-that is, the way Henry Fleming sees them-tells us most of what we know about how Henry is growing and changing. Not that much actually happens in the book; Henry's changing perceptions are its main action.
Crane uses two styles in The Red Badge of Courage. One is the straightforward realism of the dialogue. Most of the characters in the book talk like country people, and their speech is reproduced accurately, dropping final g's and d's and using words like yer for your. But although the dialect is accurate, he leaves some things out. Crane never lets us hear his soldiers swearing-he only tells us that they do.
The book's other style is also realistic, but it is a special kind of realism. Crane usually does not tell us what a thing "really" was, but rather what it looked like to an observer, usually Henry Fleming. In the opening lines of the book, for example, the landscape didn't really change from brown to green, but the rising sun made the fields look green rather than brown. In the same way, campfires across the rivers are dragons, the marching army is a serpent; a line of guns are Indian chiefs at a powwow, because they look that way to Henry. Instead of giving us details about the characters, Crane simply gives us an impression of them-"the loud soldier," "the youth," "the tall soldier." It is like a line drawing rather than an oil painting.
Crane writes in short sentences and paragraphs, and generally uses a simple vocabulary. He usually turns to fancy words only when he is making fun of a character's pretensions.
POINT OF VIEW
The Red Badge of Courage is told in the third person; that is, the narrator says "he," not "I." Someone other than Henry Fleming is telling this story, but it is still Henry Fleming's story. Henry is present in every chapter, and most chapters are about him (those that aren't are about his observations of other characters). So we can say that the novel's point of view is that of Henry Fleming.
Events in the book are described as they appeared to Henry. This technique is very effective in the battle scenes. The narrator may have read books about the Civil War, and known what was really going on, but Henry didn't. Because we see only what Henry saw, we get a very vivid view of war, with exploding shells, puffs of smoke, the screams of the wounded, and the constant noise of the guns. The chaos and confusion of war are presented through this focus on sometimes confusing details, and the short paragraphs add to the confusion.
But Henry Fleming is the only character we know from the inside. We know what he is thinking and feeling at every minute-even the weather changes with his moods! But we never find out what is going on in the minds of Jim Conklin or Lieutenant Hasbrouck or Wilson. Some readers have said that these other characters become almost extensions of Henry's personality. They are in the novel to provide comparisons and contrasts with Henry, but unlike him, they are not real people.
The narrator rarely says anything in his own voice. During Henry's flight, for example, we are inside Henry's head, seeing the dragon approach, and we understand why he runs. We also understand his rationalization and experience his shame and guilt. Sometimes the narrator makes a little fun of characters, as when he tells us in the first chapter that the tall soldier "developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt." This comment does not tell us what Jim looked like, but gives the narrator's opinion of him. The narrative voice tells us what it thinks only a few times. The most important of these is in Chapter 19, when it defines courage as "a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness." This isn't the way Henry Fleming talks or thinks, but he would probably agree with the definition.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
The Red Badge of Courage consists of twenty-four brief chapters; except for the first, longer one, they are all about the same length. Each chapter has an easily identifiable subject and a clear bearing on Henry's acquisition of courage and coming to manhood.
Readers like to divide the chapters into sections according to their theme. The only problem is that everyone likes to do it a different way. Do the four sections consist of chapters 1-6, 7-12, 13-18, and 19-24? Or does it make more sense to talk about chapters 1-4, 5-6, 7-11, 12-14, and 15-24? Or how about chapters 1-3, 4-8, 9-15, 16-20, and 21-24? Any way of dividing up the chapters that makes the book's meaning clearer to you makes sense.
A number of readers have pointed out that the chapters alternate in various ways. The army marches forward in some, and waits in others; the soldiers alternately charge and rest. This gives the book a kind of seesaw rhythm. Another reader claims that the chapters alternate between hope and despair in Henry's mind.