The Red Badge of Courage | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Red Badge of Courage | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, is a classic of American war fiction. Although Crane did not serve in battle himself, his book has become one of the most iconic texts on the American Civil War. Whereas many war novels of the time were written in a grandiose style, clearly crafted to convey a political message or testify to American patriotism, Crane incorporated brutal realism into The Red Badge of Courage.

Crane's aim was to show the fears and psychological torment felt by the common foot solider in battle. He did this by capturing the mentality of a young man, Henry Fleming, suddenly torn from the monotony of daily life and thrust into scenes of chaos and violence. Crane's careful research on Civil War regiments allowed him to write through the eyes of a soldier whose ideals of glory on the battlefield are marred by the disturbing realities of combat. The realism with which Crane portrays war earned his novel fantastic reviews and critical acclaim upon publication and cemented its legacy as one of the finest works of American Civil War fiction.

1. Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage in nine days.

Crane apparently had the idea for the novel in his mind since his youth and had always wanted to write war fiction "since he was out of knickerbockers." While living in New York City, he finished the tale in just nine days. One critic noted that for Crane, the story "came to him in just that way," with "every word in place, every comma, every period fixed."

2. Some critics have called The Red Badge of Courage a Christian allegory.

Although Crane never confirmed or denied it, some find reason to believe that the novel carries undertones of Christianity. Henry Fleming's friend Jim Conklin, in particular, has been compared to a Christ figure who martyrs himself despite his initial fears of combat. Crane's line at the end of Chapter 9, "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer," also introduces an image of the Eucharist, also called Holy Communion.

3. Crane had never been to war, but reviewers claimed he wrote like a veteran.

Though Crane was born six years after the end of the Civil War, reviewers of The Red Badge of Courage were stunned by how well he articulated the brutal realities of war. A New York Times review claimed the novel "strikes the reader as a statement of facts by a veteran." The Atlantic Monthly stated, "So vivid is the picture of actual conflict that the reader comes face to face with war." As a result of his realistic depiction of war, Crane was hired to work as a war correspondent during the Greco-Turkish War and the Spanish-American War.

4. The fictional battle in The Red Badge of Courage was heavily influenced by a real battle of the Civil War.

Crane used the events of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, as the basis for his dramatic conflict. Many of the trials Henry faces in battle were based on real actions in Chancellorsville, and many characters in the novel were inspired by soldiers and officers present at the engagement. A few similarities:

  • Both battles were the first major fights of the calendar year.
  • Both battles had heroic charges and dramatic moments.
  • Both battles were futile, ending with the two sides no closer to victory.

5. Crane interviewed a regiment of Civil War veterans while writing The Red Badge of Courage.

Since Crane had never been to war himself, he conducted a lengthy interview with veterans of the Battle of Chancellorsville, which began around May 1, 1863, and in which both sides suffered massive casualties. He spoke to the men of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who were commonly called the "Orange Blossoms" because they hailed from Orange County, New York. His conversations helped him gain a greater understanding of what it was like to be present for the chaos of combat.

6. Crane was inspired by a Civil War general who used a literal "red badge."

The men of the First Division, Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General Philip Kearny, wore a red diamond-shaped badge on their uniforms. Their badges were not symbolic, as in the novel, but instead very practical, so that the men fighting could easily recognize each other on the battlefield and avoid incidents of friendly fire.

7. Sales of The Red Badge of Courage surged after the United States entered World War I.

While the Civil War was still relatively fresh in the minds of Crane's audience when it was published in 1895, the novel saw a great rise in popularity shortly after the United States joined World War I in 1917. A special edition was published that year with an introduction written by Sergeant Arthur Guy Empey, an American who fought with British forces in the trenches during the earlier years of World War I. Critics have noted that Empey's introduction was grandiose and patriotic—a sharp contrast to Crane's realism and irony.

8. A 1951 film adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, which had the same title as the novel, faced extreme problems in development.

The film version of The Red Badge of Courage was written and directed by John Huston, who saw his feature-length film cut to 70 minutes because of a power struggle with the producers. Though Huston was furious about how the film turned out after the cuts, critics who saw the full version claimed that the extra footage did not improve the film's overall quality.

9. The Red Badge of Courage satirizes historical novels about the American Civil War.

Crane purposely isolated The Red Badge of Courage from its historical context by creating fictional battles—even though they were very clearly based on real events. The purpose of this choice was to create realistic fiction instead of a true-to-life war story, despite the realism he used in depicting the conflicts. Instead of writing another Civil War novel of heroism and patriotism, Crane wanted The Red Badge of Courage to stand as a "psychological portrayal of fear."

10. Crane wrote a short story narrated by Henry Fleming as an older veteran.

Crane reused Henry Fleming from The Red Badge of Courage in his 1896 short story "The Veteran." The story features Henry, now an old man, recalling his youthful experiences. "The Veteran" is notable for directly referencing the historical battle that inspired the novel's climax, as Fleming remembers, "That was at Chancellorsville."

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