The Red Badge of Courage: Naturalistic


Word Count: 1533The 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 unequivocably 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 Cranes 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 Henrys
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.

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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. Lastly, 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. It is
surprising that Nature has gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much
devilment” (64). Later, when Henry takes refuge in the woods, the sanctuary of the natural
world seals out all sounds of the human conflict taking place: “It seems now that Nature has
no ears” (79). During a different battle, “the day grows more white, until the sun shines with
his full radiance upon the thronged forest” a symbol of purity amid the bloody affairs of man
(156). Similarly, the smoke of deadly battle is contrasted with the unadulterated innocence of
nature: “A cloud of dark smoke, as from smoldering ruins, goes up toward the sun now bright
and gay in the blue enameled sky” (165). Crane detaches the war from the rest of the world,
stating that “the world is fully interested in other matters. Apparently, the regiment has its
small affair to itself” (172).


Lastly, 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 books 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
books 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 mans 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
Cranes 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). Natures 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 Darwins 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 mans 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 himHe 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 magicians
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 its 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 wallsto 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 Henrys
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 Cranes 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 humanitys 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.

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