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Free Study Guide-The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane-Online Summary
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THEMES ANALYSIS

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage explores the effect of an extreme environment on a fairly typical individual. The Youth's indoctrination into the glories of warfare gets him to the battle, but what keeps him there is something much less based in ideas.

Crane's depiction of the battle stresses overwhelming sensory overload. The battlefront is so loud the soldiers cannot hear each other speak. The officers seem to scream incessantly and at times their orders are communicated in gestures. The visibility is also extremely compromised by smoke from the rifles. The Youth notes several times his difficulty even seeing the enemy at whom he is shooting. Visibility is also compromised by the mere fact that a foot soldier is on the ground. He can only see a few feet around him most of the time, the smoke only clearing occasionally. The Youth gets an entirely different picture of the battle with all its different skirmishes that make it up when he gains the vantage point of a hill. There he gets a general's eye view and the emotions which this view elicit in him are vastly different ones than those he feels while on the ground. When he can see the "big picture," he has a better understanding of the battle plan and a greater appreciation for his officers.

In addition to sound and sight, the soldiers also experience the immediacy of pain from long marches, intense advances, and minor wounds. They fight exhausted. Often they seem to rely on adrenaline to keep them advancing. All these sense impressions combine to present a realistic picture of war, a picture in which the glorified image of a warrior like Homer's Odysseus just does not fit. With this picture, it becomes much less easy to simplify battle in the ready-made categories of bravery and cowardice. Impulse, adrenaline, rage, fear, pain all work together to drive the characters to act in ways they might not have ever imagined they would.


If Crane had only depicted the injuries of war or the indignities of officers who care little for the men, he would not have written a realistic portrait. To make it complete, he had also to describe the thrill of success, the intensity of camaraderie, the strength of human beings to find inspiration to keep going against the odds. He writes two scenes in which the Youth leads his comrades in battle and feels a thrill of self-confidence and pride. Just as unaccountable as the reason why he ran the first day is the reason why he can fight so hard that he can distinguish himself as a leader on the field. Perhaps it results from his alienation from the others, the fact that he is a loner. Perhaps it results from his wish to die rather than continue living with the shame of having deserted while his comrades fought and died.

Crucially, Crane does not end the novel on a note of heroism. If he had, the novel would have lost its force as a critique of war and would have become yet another glorification of war. He ends on a quiet note of introspection. The Youth has given up his illusions about valor and heroism. He has forgiven himself his fear in running and has accepted that he is merely a man.

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