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The Red Badge of Courage, by it’s very title, is infested with color imagery and color symbols. While Crane uses color to describe, he also allows it to stand for whole concepts. Gray, for example, describes 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 Henry’s mental vision of battle. In the process, it gains a symbolic meaning which Crane will put an icon like the ‘red badge of courage’. Stephen Crane uses color in his descriptions of the physical and the non-physical and allows color to take on meanings ranging from the literal to the figurative.
Stephen Crane begins the novel with a description of the fields in the morning: “ As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors” (1). The fog clears to reveal the literal green world of grass. It also reveals another green world, the world of the youth. Like school children, the young soldier tells rumors within the regiment. This natural setting provides an ironic place for killing, just as these men seem to be the wrong ones fighting in the Civil War. Stephen Crane says something on this 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 the battlefield” (26).
Green is an image of the natural world and of the army’s youth, while red in the previous quote is clearly and image of battle. In the beginning, however, Crane uses red to describe distant campfires: “…one could see across the red, eye-like gleam of the hostile campfires set in the low brows of the distant hills” (1). Obviously, the fires are red, but Henry characterizes the blazes as the enemy’s glowing eyes. He continues this metaphor in the second chapter: “ From across the river, the deep red eyes were still peering” (15). Crane then transforms this metaphor into arrogance used throughout the text: “Staring once at the red eyes across the river, he conceived then to be growing larger, as the orbs of a row of dragons advancing” (16). The red campfires come to represent eyes of the enemy, of dragons.
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The color red also describes more literal objects in the novel. Flags, emblems of each army, are frequently described in red. In the novel’s final battle, “the youth could not tell from the battle flags flying like crimson foam in many directions, which color of cloth was winning” (46). At a different point in the narrative, Henry notices flags “here and there…. the red in the stripes dominating”(46). Gunfire, as one should suspect, is usually described in terms of red. “Knife-like fire from rifles is later referred to as “beams of crimson”(12). Anger, although more non-physical than gunfire also seems naturally connected with the color red. At the end of the novel, Henry is ashamed of his initial shortcomings as a soldier and emits “an outburst of crimson oaths”(166). Perhaps these
are angry, impassionate words or perhaps they are promises regarding his courage in battle. Either way, Stephen Crane’s use of red or crimson literally colors his intention for his readers. Earlier in the novel, henry is in a “red rage…he wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers. He craved a power that would enable him to make a world-sweeping gesture and brush all back. His impotency appeared to him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast”(42). This “red rage” demonstrates the violent passion of this soldier’s desire to fight. So far Crane has shown us three elements of battle: flags, gunfire, and anger. These things comprise the “red monster of war”. However, the most graphic and obvious thing that connects red to battle is the red blood of every soldier stands to shed. Physical injury is introduced most clearly in the novel’s title. Henry wishes for “a wound, a red badge of courage”(67). To face wounds in battle is every soldier’s sentence. Henry, however, thinks that a wound will somehow bring him into true soldier-hood, and combat his youthful anxiety. He idealizes the brave veterans who he imagines have “red, live bones sticking out through the slits in the faded uniforms. These images of red wounds are saved for the quick; dead men are never described in red, but rather in gray. The red badge of courage is for those who survive. Ironically, even after henry’s initial injury, he does not receive the metaphorical bandage that he wants; his “wound” is never described in red.
In fact, Henry finds his courage in the end with out bodily injury. He avoids death in battle and dispels his fear of flight from his regiment: “ he had been where there was red of blood and black of passion and he was escaped”(166). By the end, “he had rid himself of the red sickness of battle”(169). The red sickness is not an angry emotion, but rather a
fear. Red works, here, towards a new meaning. He finds courage by overcoming his fear of the “red animal of war” and therefore being able to face death. It had been the red sickness that had previously kept Henry from his red badge of courage. Although the acceptance of death comes with the red badge, the novel explains that death is in no way courageous. (Ms. Blackwell) While the blood of the injury and battle are red, all imagery of death is a lifeless gray. The first corpse that Henry finds, in the forest, has gray skin with little ants running over it (58). When Jim Conklin begins to show the wear of his injury, “his face turned to a semblance of gray paste”(69). He collapses and dies moments later. Shortly after that episode, Henry watches another die: “His face was of a clammy pallor”(89). Finally, Stephen Crane announces the connection between gray imagery and death: “ another had the seal of death already upon his face”(63). Obviously, when people die their faces appear grey.