The Red Badge of Courage uses both color imagery and color symbols. While Crane uses color to describe, he also allows it to stand for whole concepts. Gray, for example, describes the both the literal image of a dead soldier and Henry Fleming's vision of the sleeping soldiers as corpses and comes to stand for the idea of death. In the same way, red describes both the soldiers' physical wounds and Fleming's mental visions of battle. In the process, it gains a symbolic meaning which Crane will put to an icon like the "red badge of courage" (110, Penguin ed., 1983). Crane uses color in his descriptions of the physical and the metaphysical and allows color to take on meanings ranging from the literal to the figurative.
Crane opens the novel with a description of the fields at dawn: "As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors" (43). The fog clears to reveal a literal green world of grass. It also reveals another green world, the green world of youth. Like schoolchildren, the young soldiers circulate rumor within the regiment. This natural setting proves an ironic place for killing, just as these fresh men seem the wrong ones to be fighting in the Civil War. Crane remarks on this later in the narrative: "He was aware that these battalions with their commotions were woven red and startling into the gentle fabric of the softened greens and browns. It looked to be a wrong place for a battlefield" (69). Green is an image of the natural world and of the regiment's fresh youth, while red, in the previous quote, is clearly an image of battle.
At the start, however, Crane uses red to describe distant campfir...
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...pon his face" (106). Obviously, when people die their faces appear gray. But Crane charges his use of gray so that it signals death and even comes to represent death within the text.
Crane's use of color allows for layers of meaning within each hue. Green, red and gray are used to describe the everyday physical objects in the text's world, and also the landscapes and metaphysical objects and ideas in Fleming's mind. Green is literally the color of the grass, but figuratively the freshness and youth of the soldiers and the purity of the natural world. Red is, overwhelmingly the color of battle, of courage and gunfire and bloodshed. Gray, however, becomes the color of human defeat. Because Crane uses each so carefully and selectively, creating for each several meanings, they take on a significance of their own; each can stand alone to have its own charged meanings.
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