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What Makes a Man – The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage explores the nature of courage in the midst of a war. Henry Fleming, a new recruit, is constantly thinking of the possibilities of him running away from the battlefield once the civil war commences with grazing shots and thunderous explosions. He joins the regiment, despite his mother’s protests, mainly for the glory that it would give to soldiers. When he arrives at the camp and finds out that there isn’t much to do aside from waiting and marching, his nagging inner conflicts would not let him rest until the battle actually begins.

This is a book that I approached with a little worry because I just picked this randomly through The Classics Spin. I am not in the mood to read a novel about soldiers advancing and retreating but I read it anyway seeing that it’s not too long. Upon starting it, I immediately got hooked because of the protagonist, Henry Fleming.

The youth, as he is referred to in the entirety of the novel, has fantastic visions of courage and romanticizes the death of soldiers with a hint of vanity. He is very eager to take part in the big drama of war. Since he is a new recruit, he is easily distinguished from the jaded war veterans who try to get it into his head that it is different out there, that all notions of being immortalized as a courageous soldier will not cross one’s head if one is too busy dodging bullets or too busy avoiding the dead bodies of fallen soldiers strewn across the battlefield.

Henry considers this as he starts to question his capacity to stick to his soldierly duties when his life is under the threat of war. What if his legs make him retreat out of the body’s sheer reflex to protect itself? What would others think of it? Would he be less of a man if he runs away?

He wished, without reserve, that he was at home again making the endless rounds from the house to the barn, from the barn to the fields, from the fields to the barn, from the barn to the house. He remembered he had often cursed the brindle cow and her mates, and had sometimes flung milking stools. But, from his present point of view, there was a halo of happiness about each of their heads, and he would have sacrificed all the brass buttons on the continent to have been enabled to return to them. He told himself that he was not formed for a soldier. And he mused seriously upon the radical differences between himself and those men who were dodging implike around the fires.

It is not rocket science to say that the novel is largely about courage. For Henry, courage is something that is glorious and that clings to one’s reputation. When he leaves his home to join the army, he is reminded by his mother to keep to his duties and responsibilities, that these are more important than earning any kind of commendation for the feats that he will perform as a soldier.

[He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part–a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country–was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee, no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.]

He undergoes a transformation as he takes part in the many skirmishes. He realizes that courage is far from his traditional beliefs. Courage, as displayed in this novel, is being able to come to terms with one’s faults and shortcomings. Two soldiers help Henry to finally understand the complex nature of courage. Conklin, a war veteran, reveals to the youth that he would run away if others would, but that he would also stay and fight if everyone keeps on fighting. Wilson, a boisterous soldier, quietly resigns himself to the possibility of death by handing the youth a letter addressed to his family should his life be cut short in action.

These two displays of vulnerability neither dent their courage nor stain their manhood. Rather, these become puzzles to Henry that he keeps on trying to resolve as the civil war goes on, a war like any other mercilessly taking the lives of many men. Death, the youth realizes after seeing many men dying and corpses rotting, is all but an integral part of nature’s cycle. Regardless of the glories and honors that one can get by being an exemplary soldier, death will make sure that everyone will return to the dust from we they came. Life for every living being will carry on. Survivors will try to keep on surviving and to protect their fragile lives.

[As he gazed around him the youth felt a flash of astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields. It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.]

All these are written in a language that is literally colorful. The author is fond of using colors to give life to his metaphors. Take note of the title alone. Also, the writing focuses on details and on creating impressions. Long and winding sentences are barely present; this terse writing allows the reader to quickly envision the images and understand the thoughts of the youth.

This novel may seem like it was written by someone who was actually in the war. On the contrary, the author has only witnessed a real war a couple of years after this novel was published, back when he was in his early twenties. He went out to see a war so that he could convince himself that what he had written was good enough.

Indeed, it is. For a first novel grounded mostly on historical books and precocious imagination, and for it being able to endure over a century, it really is good.

Dates Read: March 2 to 5, 2013

No. of Pages: 180

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



  1. I just finished RBC and agree it was “really good.” Crane is simply a fine and pleasant writer, if one can write pleasantly about war.

    Great review!

    My focus was on his warped view of becoming a man, but that by the end of the story he was able to admit his mistakes and accept correction as part of the process of manhood.


    • Thanks! I think I like Crane better as a poet and as a short story writer. But considering that he only wrote this when he was nearly in his twenties, it is indeed an achievement.


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