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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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The positive outlook with which the book concludes points to realism. Whereas naturalism would pit the soldiers against impossible odds, a certain victory "[shows] them that the proportions [are] not impossible" (191). Immersed in the sweetness of victory, "the past [holds] no pictures of error and disappointment" (200). At the book’s end, Henry reconciles himself with his feelings of guilt and shame. He abandons war, and "scars [fade] as flowers" (223). He retires to "an existence of soft and eternal peace" (223). A golden ray of sun at the book’s close symbolizes the ray of hope Crane has for mankind. However, the solitary beam is nearly lost amid a mass of dark thunderheads. Correspondingly, although traits of realism are very evident, ominous naturalism is always present and usually dominant. Naturalism, the practice of using scientific theory to develop and explain characters and events, is largely negative and pessimistic, often emphasizing man’s impotence in affecting his own destiny. Also, the ideas of evolution and natural selection figure prominently into naturalism.
The predominant reasons why The Red Badge of Courage represents naturalism rather than realism are the portrayal of nature as hostile (even more so than it is portrayed as indifferent), the application of science to war, and the emphasis on the impotence and lack of self-control of Crane’s characters. These themes are stressed so heavily that the scales tip toward naturalism. Crane frequently portrays nature as hostile to man. As Henry runs from the woods, "the branches, pushing against him, [threaten] to throw him" (81). "Trees, confronting him, [stretch] out their arms and [forbid] him to pass" (84). At many times in the book, characters are impeded and attacked by brambles and "cussed briers" (155). Nature’s foliage "[seems] to veil powers and horrors" (174). As the regiment moves through the woods, "the forest [makes] a terrible objection" (175). In these and many other instances, nature is personified as evil. It threatens, reaches out, and grabs at soldiers, taking an active, hostile role, as if it were a human enemy – even offering up a horrid, rotting corpse as a symbol of its evil (88). This is a central idea of naturalism.
Another tenet of naturalistic writing is the application of scientific theory to plot and character. Crane makes extensive use of scientific parlance and references prominent theories of science throughout the novel. For example, when wondering whether or not he will run from battle, Henry is called "an unknown quantity" and "obliged to experiment" and "accumulate information," as if he were a variable in a scientific laboratory procedure (17). He tries "to mathematically prove to himself that he [will] not run from a battle" and makes "ceaseless calculations" to determine whether or not he possesses sufficient courage (22). During a battle, Crane makes an allusion to Darwin’s theory of "survival of the fittest": while running, "[Henry feels] vaguely that death must make a first choice of the men who [are] nearest; the initial morsels for the dragons would be then those who [are] following him. So he [displays] the zeal of an insane sprinter in his purpose to keep them in the rear. There [is] a race." After he successfully escapes, Henry justifies his flight by comparing his situation to that of a squirrel. When threatened, the squirrel turns and runs, controlled solely by natural instinct. Nature, he claims, provides reinforcement to his argument with scientific "proofs" (79).
The most convincing argument that The Red Badge of Courage is a naturalistic novel is the repeated emphasis that Henry and his military companions are powerless and guided by forces beyond their control. A primary axiom of naturalism is man’s lack of free will; all is supposedly determined for them by heredity or environment. Crane places great emphasis on human inability to act for oneself. He makes references to mobs, crowds, and stampedes, pointing out how individual members are powerless to resist the will of the masses. "As [Henry runs] with his comrades he strenuously [tries] to think, but all he [knows] is that if he [falls] down those coming from behind [will] tread upon him…He [feels] carried along by a mob" (38). Desiring to leave the crowd, Henry sees "that it would be impossible for him to escape from the regiment. It [encloses] him. And there [are] the iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He [is] in a moving box" (38). This portrayal of man as trapped and incapable of resistance is central to naturalism. "[Henry] had not enlisted of his free will," Crane adds. "He had been dragged in by the merciless government" (38). Crane compares the regiment to "puppets under a magician’s hand" and "little pieces" that the officers "fit together" (76). This lack of control is infuriating to Henry, who complains, "‘We just get fired around from pillar to post and get licked here and get licked there, and nobody knows what it’s done for. It makes a man feel like a damn kitten in a bag’" (155). Later on, when fired upon, the soldiers "accept the pelting of the bullets" – to resist would be "to strive against walls…to batter themselves against granite" (184). Crane reiterates many times that Henry and his companions have no power over their situation. All is determined for them; resistance is futile.
In summary, The Red Badge of Courage is a naturalistic work with realistic tendencies. The convincing, believable characters, the authentic-sounding dialect, the complexity of Henry’s thoughts, the occasional impartiality of nature, and the optimistic ending are representative of realism. However, nature is far more often shown as evil or hostile. Scientific theory is applied to Henry and to the events that befall him. And neither Henry nor anyone else has any control over his fate. All these are traits of naturalism. The naturalistic elements are predominant throughout most of the book, and although the ending is curiously positive for a naturalistic work, it showcases Crane’s unique perspective as an author. The struggle between negative and positive, optimism and pessimism, and realism and naturalism parallels the battle between blue and gray described in the plot as well as humanity’s dual faces of good and evil. Rejecting pure naturalism as overly simplistic, Crane implies that although humans are subject to the savage forces of nature, there is still hope to eventually arrive at a better life. Adding a touch of realism to temper the morbidity of his naturalism, Stephen Crane will be remembered far into the future as the author of one of the most influential novels in American literature.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. 1895. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1975.