The Red Badge of Courage
by Stephen Crane
A “youth” enlists in the Union Army during the American Civil War with visions of glory in his mind, but he runs away like a coward in the first skirmish. As he moves as far as he can from the battlefield, he encounters wounded men headed toward the hospital. He hears their stories of courage, noting that they wear a “red badge” of their own blood. He is ashamed but finds ways to excuse his behavior in his own mind. He has an altercation with a fellow soldier, who gives him a minor wound on his head. At last he finds his way back to his own regiment, joining them again, pretending that he got his wound in battle. The next day when the regiment begins to move forward into battle again, the youth wonders if he will have the courage to stand and fight this second time.
I really hated the graphic descriptions of violence and dead bodies and disgusting wounds. It’s very descriptive and made me nauseated.
I thought that the exploration of cowardice and courage was very interesting. I definitely related to the way that the youth excused his own bad behavior, as we all do sometimes when we can’t face up to the shame of something we have done. He made up all sorts of fantasy scenarios in his head with his “reasons” for why he ran away and deserted the fellow soldiers who were depending on him. But those flimsy excuses did not stop him from feeling shame for his cowardice, and a deep fear that someone would find out. He is extremely selfish and immature, but he has a little bit of character growth towards the end.
Most of the book is full of despair and misery, but it ends on a little bit of hopeful note as the youth begins to believe that he can be courageous in the future.
I didn’t enjoy reading this. It’s just not at all the sort of story that I enjoy. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, partly because they are rarely referred to by name. It’s almost always “the youth” or “the tall soldier”. The only time that names are used are in the dialogue when the soldiers are speaking to each other. I felt like that put this weird distance between the reader and the characters. Maybe that was the point though. To step back and realize that “the youth” could be any youth. It could be anyone. It could have been you. A powerful point, but it doesn’t make for an enjoyable read.