'The Red Badge of Courage', by Stephen Crane (Book Club, June '22)

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (published in 1895) is a short novel set in the American Civil War, and has been described both as the first modern war novel and as a key modernist text. It is unusual for its time in that it depicts the psychological and emotional experience of war from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier.

Although Crane had no personal experience of war when he wrote the book, his portrayal of a soldier’s reaction to battle is seen as perceptive. Crane had apparently found existing tales of the American Civil war to be unrealistic, writing: “I wonder that some of those fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks.”

In the novel, eighteen-year-old Henry Fleming has enlisted in an infantry regiment. His romantic idealism dissolves as he awaits battle, and he fears that he may not be brave enough for the task ahead. In the event, he does indeed desert his regiment, but his subsequent encounters with wounded soldiers and death convince him to return to his post, and to fight on with true courage and more mature expectations.

Crane focuses on the inner struggles and fears of Henry Fleming, rather than on the war itself, and events are not placed rigidly in any specific historical engagement. Initially Fleming longs to earn a “red badge of courage” (or war wound), but the wound that he eventually receives is an accidental injury arising from his act of cowardice. Yet from that, he rises to heroism.

Is the novel pro-war or anti-war? On its publication, what made it more popular in England than in Crane’s native United States, where the action was set? Is it worthy of its rank in 30th place in The Guardian’s 2014-15 list of the hundred best novels in the English language? Read along with us, and share your opinions and impressions of the book.

You can download a copy of the e-book from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks, and there are a couple of audiobook versions at Librivox . But any unabridged edition (paper, digital or audiobook) is fine.

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The edition of The Red Badge of Courage that I have read is part of a “collected works” e-book publication in which the text is supplemented with relevant illustrations – for example, of early-edition book covers, posters of film adaptations, and so forth. I looked at these images after finishing the text, and it struck me that most of them show soldiers fighting alongside each other, or posing in thoughtful contemplation (solo or in company). Only one of the selected images clearly portrays a soldier running away from the action, a look of consternation on his face, while the rest of his regiment are pictured from the rear, advancing into the distance in the opposite direction to the main character. This image of the act of desertion appears to me to be infinitely more effective than the rather formulaic alternatives.

Intrigued to find that various publishers have chosen to portray the redemptive flag-bearing at the end of the book rather than the moral/physical dilemma that I feel is the central quandary, I went online to look at the cover art for other editions of The Red Badge of Courage. And in doing so, I came across Barnes & Noble’s “Reading Group Guide” which poses questions for discussion. A couple of these struck me as particularly interesting, one from a textual point of of view and the other rather deep and philosophical:

  • Why does the narrator never refer to the characters by name?” (emphasis my own)

  • “Should acts of bravery, as the term is commonly understood, be regarded as aberrations from our essential nature or as the fullest manifestations of it?”

What do you think? Not just about those questions, of course, but more generally as well, and about your reaction to the book. Did you enjoy it?

All the best,

As a reader, I am not generally a fan of transliterated accent or speech quirks, which I seldom find helpful in creating a realistic voice for the character represented. But I think Stephen Crane does it very well in The Red Badge of Courage.

I’ve probably got my US geography entirely wrong, but when I read text like the following, the voice that I imagine has exactly the same accent and cadence as that of the building foreman in the 1940s film Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (one of my favourites – you can’t beat a Cary Grant film :wink:):

“An’ allus be careful an’ choose yer comp’ny. There’s lots of bad men in the army, Henry. The army makes ‘em wild, and they like nothing better than the job of leading off a young feller like you, as ain’t never been away from home much and has allus had a mother, an’ a-learning 'em to drink and swear. Keep clear of them folks, Henry. I don’t want yeh to ever do anything, Henry, that yeh would be ‘shamed to let me know about. Jest think as if I was a-watchin’ yeh. If yeh keep that in yer mind allus, I guess yeh’ll come out about right.”

To my mind, Crane’s verbal representation of regional speech actually aids characterisation, rather than getting in the way of the reading as I often find to be the case.

All the best,

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Had you read The Red Badge of Courage before, or is it new to you? I suspect that the book might nowadays be better known in the US than it is in the UK, possibly reversing the apparent position at the time of of its initial publication. Before nominating it for our book club selection, I had heard of it only vaguely, so when I read it a few weeks ago it was for the first time. Julia (our Business and Marketing Director) studied it as a set text in her first year at university. A couple of people have told me that they remember seeing film versions but have never read the book.

Is it a novel that had already appeared on your radar? When did you first come across it? And if you have read it before, has your view of it changed since then?