The Red Badge of Courage Book Summary

The Red Badge of Courage
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The Red Badge of Courage was published by D. Appleton and Company in 1895, about thirty years after the Civil War ended.

Author

Born in 1871, Stephen Crane was in his early twenties when he moved to New York City to work for the New York Tribune. He was apparently fascinated and influenced by the people he observed living in the gritty art scene as well in the poverty-filled tenement housing. He is credited with being influential among the early American Naturalist writers.

In his two major works, The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane's characters experience internal conflict and outside forces that overwhelm the individual.

Setting

The scenes take place in the fields and roads of the American South, as a Union regiment wanders through Confederate territory and encounters the enemy on the battlefield. In opening scenes, the soldiers wake slowly and seem to long for action. The author uses words like lazy, quaint, and retiring, to set the tranquil scene, and one soldier claims, "I've got ready to move eight times in the last two weeks, and we ain't moved yet."

This initial tranquility provides a sharp contrast to the harsh reality that the characters experience on the bloody battlefield in chapters to come.

Main Characters

Henry Fleming, the main character ( the protagonist). He undergoes the most change in the story, going from a cocky, romantic young man eager to experience the glory of war to a seasoned soldier who sees war as messy and tragic.


Jim Conklin, a soldier who dies in an early battle. Jim's death forces Henry to face his own lack of courage and reminds Jim of the stark reality of war.
Wilson, a mouthy soldier who cares for Jim when he is wounded. Jim and Wilson seem to grow and learn together in battle.
The wounded, tattered soldier, whose nagging presence forces Jim to face his own guilty conscience.

Plot

Henry Fleming begins as a naive young man, eager to experience the glory of war. He soon faces the truth about war and his own self-identity on the battlefield, however.

As the first encounter with the enemy approaches, Henry wonders if he will be brave in the face of battle. In fact, Henry does panic and flee in an early encounter. This experience sets him on a journey of self-discovery, as he struggles with his conscience and re-examines his opinions about war, friendship, courage, and life.

Although Henry fled during that early experience, he did return to the battle, and he escapes condemnation because of the confusion on the ground. He ultimately overcomes the fear and takes part in courageous acts. 

Henry grows as a person by gaining a better understanding of the realities of war. 

Questions to Ponder

Think about these questions and points as you read the book. They will help you determine a theme and develop a strong thesis.

Examine the theme of inner versus outer turmoil:

  • What role does Henry's conscience play?
  • What does Henry learn from each soldier's death?

Examine male and female roles:

  • What role does Henry's mother play?
  • What does this novel suggest about our concepts of masculinity and courage? What does this novel suggest about our concepts of war?

    Possible First Sentences

    • Sometimes, we have to come face to face with our fears to learn something about ourselves.
    • Have you ever been really afraid?
    • The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, is a story about growing up.
    • What is bravery?

    Sources:

    Caleb, C. (2014, Jun 30). The red and the scarlet. The New Yorker, 90.

    Davis, Linda H. 1998. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephan Crane. New York: Mifflin.