The Red Badge of Courage as a Naturalistic Work with Realistic Tendencies

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The Red Badge of Courage as a Naturalistic Work with Realistic Tendencies

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, one of the most significant and renowned books in American literature, defies outright classification, showing traits of both the realist and naturalist movements. It is a classic, however, precisely because it does so without sacrificing unity or poignancy. The Red Badge of Courage belongs unequivocally to the naturalist genre, but realism is also present and used to great effect. The conflict between these styles mirrors the bloody clash of the war described in the book – and the eternal struggle between good and evil in human nature.

There are many characteristics in Crane’s novel that would more readily fit within the category of realism: the ordinariness of his characters, the use of dialect, the portrayal of protagonist Henry Fleming as a complex individual, the description of nature as disinterested in human affairs, and the positive ending of the story. Realism, often described as "slice of life" or "photographic" writing, attempts to portray life exactly as it is, without twisting it or reworking it to fit it into preconceived notions of what is appropriate or what is aesthetically pleasing. In this book, Crane relies on neither the oversimplified rationalism of classicist literature nor the emotional idealism of romantic prose. Instead, he offers realistic, believable characters with average abilities. The soldiers are presented neither as epic heroes nor as bloodthirsty killers; rather, their most noticeable trait is their overwhelming normalcy. The soldiers of Henry’s regiment curse, fight, and argue just like normal people. This down-to-earth, gritty, everyday style is characteristic of realism. A particular convention used by Crane in convincing the reader of his characters’ existence is dialect. The distinctive speech of the soldiers enhances the photographic effect of the novel, lending it authenticity. Another distinctive trait of realism is complexity of character – a trait readily evident in Henry Fleming. As he switches between cowardice and heroism, compassion and contempt, and optimism and pessimism, the reader observes that he is more than just a stereotype. He is a person with fears, hopes, dreams, and foibles.

Nature is often portrayed as indifferent or disinterested in the affairs of humankind. Whereas naturalism involves emphasis on the hostility of nature, realism lacks this trait. For example, after fighting a battle, "the youth [feels] a flash of astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields.
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