The notion that war is an exciting, romantic endeavor full of glory and heroism has existed for centuries and continues to some extent today. One hundred years ago, however, Stephen Crane set out to destroy these myths through his novel The Red Badge of Courage, which traces the experiences of a young soldier in the American Civil War. Crane shows the true nature of war by contrasting Henry Fleming's romantic expectations with the reality that he encounters.
This contrast between romantic vision and cold reality can be seen early in the novel, with Henry's departure from home. Driven to a "prolonged ecstasy of excitement" by the rejoicing crowd, Henry enlists in the army and says good-bye to his mother with a "light of excitement and expectancy in his eyes" (709). He anticipates a romantic, sentimental send-off reminiscent of Spartan times and even goes as far as preparing remarks in advance which he hopes to use "with touching effect" to create "a beautiful scene" (710).
However, Crane presents a more realistic view. At the news of Henry's enlistment, his mother simply says "The Lord's will be done" and continues milking the cow, having previously urged Henry not to be "a fool" by enlisting (709). She then destroys his hopes by offering sensible, practical advice in her good-bye speech. Her send-off is so different from what Henry expects that he is irritated and "impatient under the ordeal" of the speech (710).
The contrast is again evident in Henry's army experiences before going into battle. His treatment before leaving town only serves to increase his romantic expectations as his former classmates "[throng] about him with wonder and admiration" (710). Henry's regiment is then treated so well on its journey to Washington that he is led to believe "that he must be a hero" with "the strength to do mighty deeds of arms" (711). In keeping with his romantic beliefs, Henry imagines that his regiment will be involved in "a series of death struggles with small time in between for sleep and meals" (711).
Yet again, Crane presents a more realistic view in Henry's actual experiences. Instead of "automatically" being a hero, as he had anticipated, Henry faces uncertainty and "a little panic-fear" as to his own ability to withstand battle (712). Filled with self-doubt, Henry dreams of "a thousand-tongued fear that [will] babble at his back and cause him to flee" (718). In addition, Henry must put up with "months of monotonous life in a camp," not the constant action he anticipated (711). Even when his regiment does move out, it moves "from place to place with apparent aimlessness," leaving a frustrated Henry to feel that he is merely one part of a "vast blue demonstration" (722).
It is in the scenes of battle and death, however, that the contrast between Henry's romantic expectations and his actual experiences is most striking. All his life, Henry has dreamed of and longed to see battles, those "great affairs of the earth" (708), where men attain glory and perform "breathless deeds" (709). Yet even during his periods of self-doubt, Henry looks forward to the opportunity to experience the "blaze, blood, and danger" of battle (714). He is envious of the wounded, believing that they are somehow "peculiarly happy," and wishes to have a "red badge of courage" himself (739). As for death, Henry views it merely as an end to his troubles.
Again, Crane presents a stark contrast when Henry actually experiences battle. Instead of the "vague and bloody conflicts" which he longed to see (709), Henry encounters the "foul atmosphere" of war, with its choking smoke and deafening noise (729). The first round of fighting suffocates Henry and leaves him "reeling from exhaustion" (731). Contrary to his romantic visions, he discovers that in real battle there is "a singular absence of heroic poses" (728). Henry also discovers that being wounded is not something to be envied. He witnesses the "cursing, groaning, and wailing" of his fellow soldiers (737) and then is wounded himself; he sinks "writhing to the ground" with "numbing pain" (749). Death is also portrayed very realistically, with vivid descriptions of the "ghastly forms" which lay motionless, "twisted in fantastic contortions" (729). Henry experiences the true horror of death as he watches in anguish while his friend Jim suffers and dies.
Today, many of the romantic myths about war have been destroyed through television and movies such as Born on the Fourth of July, which shows war with all its suffering, pain, and death. Yet it was Stephen Crane who, a century ago, deglorified war through the experiences of Henry Fleming. With his frequent contrasts between romantic vision and cold reality, Crane clearly portrays the true horrors of war.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Geroge McMichael, et al. 5th ed.Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1993. 707-87.