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Steven Crane’s A Red Badge of Courage Essay

Literary impressionism is exemplified by the writer Steven Crane. Though many themes of writing styles writing styles such as realism and naturalism lend themselves to Crane’s works, it is the combination of components from these styles with impressionism that gave Steven Crane his own unique panache. An understanding of of many organic features of impressionism and Crane’s personal writing style are needed to bring full enjoyment out of Crane’s literary works, including the masterpiece of all impressionistic novels The Red Badge of Courage. These include: Backgrounds of Impressionism, Narrative Method, Theme, Characterization, Structure and Imagery.

Impressionism has often been viewed as having a large impact on many arts, especially painting, but the most significant and overlooked impact has been impressionism’s impact on literature. The modern employment of the term “impressionism” to identify an artistic inclination comes from Claude Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise. The reason that impressionism isn’t seen as having a major impact on literature as some of the other major writing styles is because there was no need to name a style that didn’t exist until critics saw the difference between impressionism and naturalism. “Certain critics, looking primarily at Maggie, George’s Mother, and the Bowery Tales concluded with some justification that they closely resembled works of naturalism.”(Nagel p. 6).

Until Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, most his works could be categorized under the school of naturalism without an excessive amount of argument, but even though The Red Badge of Courage portrays many naturalistic qualities, through it’s depiction of perception of truth being more important than truth itself shows Crane’s style is not limited to naturalism and merits a name that suits it. “The impressions of the perceiving mind is quite distinct from the phenomenon stimulating the impression, and although impressions may be the only source of human knowledge, the perceiving intelligence in recognizing the stimulus apprehends it in terms formulated by the mind itself.” (Nagel 26).

The foremost element of an impressionist novel is the narrative methods used. Typically an impressionist novel is narrated in third person to give the novel a sense of things happening in the present. Impressionism thrive on the basis that the novel feels as if everything is happening veryquickly. Impressions only happen in experiences, not when recapitulating. In The Red Badge of Courage from the time Henry Fleming is introduced, all the story that is told is that which revolves around Henry, or maybe that which Henry revolves around. “Fleming’s mind is seldom analyzed in an objective, omniscient way; very few incidents are extensively told. Practically every scene is filtered through Fleming’s point of view and seen through his eyes.” (Nagel 53).

In the novel Henry is in a constant struggle to piece together all of the information around him and construct a reliable interpretation. Very few times does he actually have time to look back and reflect on what has happened, and those few times he does his thoughts are soon redirected because of another change of perception. Henry will consistently provide the reader with distorted perceptions until chapter 18 in which Henry reaches his epiphany, that will be discussed later. After reading Henry’s somewhat distorted perceptions of the uncontrollable situations around him, it is easy to see why much of Crane’s works were mistaken for works of naturalism.

The theme The Red Badge of Courage is not simply Henry’s struggle to control his fear, but the confrontation of his inability to contrive and sustain a realistic perception of himself and the conflicts around him. The first manifestation of Henry’s problem is his desertion. Because Henry comes to the point where he is driven by fear, his mind has again changed his perceptions of his enemies into metaphorical dragons, so he blindly runs away saying that his actions are empowered by much more wisdom than the actions of his comrades.

For a little while it appears Henry is winning the conflict in his mind when he returns to his unit, but when a new battle begins, his perceptions again constrict and his mind is thrown back into irrational thought and chaos. It isn’t until after the battle in the middle of the second half of the novel that Henry will reach the defining moment in his struggle, his epiphany. “His mind was under-going a subtle change. . . . Gradually his brain emerged from the clogged clouds and at last he was able to more closely comprehend himself and circumstance. . . . Later, he began to study his deeds – his failures and his achievements. . . . At last, they marched before him clearly.”

(Colvert p.vii)

The characterization of impressionist novels – specifically Crane’s novels – is one of the defining attributes. The reader of The Red Badge of Courage barely knows any background information on the protagonist of the story, much less the minor characters. All the reader knows about Henry at the beginning of the novel is that he was a farm boy and had a mother when he enlisted. Later in the book it turns out that Henry is well educated in Grecian and Roman history, but other than that nothing more is known about Henry. Some critics believe that the lack of background information of the protagonist takes away from the novel, but in fact it encourages to gain more than information about the protagonist but a greater understanding of the inner workings of hiss mind by examining how Henry responds to situations he is put in. Because Henry is a normal human being – as are most impressionistic protagonists – he is frequently “engaged in unfamiliar actions and realizations” (Nagel 117) Henry Flemming is the “positive” character of this impressionistic novel.

He is the dynamic character that generally grow and “develop new realizations; these characters are often set against more “negative” character who are morally or cognitively blind and unreceptive to experience.” (Nagel p. 117) The great defining quality of an impressionistic protagonist is the epiphany. The major plot in most impressionistic novels revolves around the moment of epiphany by the protagonist. The minor characters are also set apart from any other school of literature in that they are almost always described by a physical or tangible quality, a tag name, or their rank. . Originally Steven Crane wanted to give all the characters names in his first draft of Maggie but in one of the final revisions he had all the names of minor characters taken out and replaced by descriptive epithets, showing his commitment to form.

Another tribute to Crane’s commitment to form is the structure of his novels. The Red Badge of Courage is about a symmetrical as a story can get. The twenty-four chapters of the novel divide cleanly into quarters. The first six chapters lead up to Henry’s desertion; they focus on his internal battle of fear and not wanting to be a slacker. The next six chapters cover Henry’s flight and attempt to justify himself as wise for running away. From┬áthe half-way point to chapter eighteen, Henry struggles with his fears until he reaches his epiphany and the last six chapters show how he and his perceptions of reality have been changed by his new found enlightenment.

Last is the imagery used by crane to paint pictures with words. Impressionism focuses all of its descriptive power on providing a vision of what the narrator perceives. The first paragraph of the book exemplifies the way an literary impressionist paints a picture.

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills.” (Crane 1)

An obstruction of reality that is the fog in the first sentence really sets the tone of this entire novel. It is unwilling to leave the hills and uncover the troops much as the truth of reality is being hidden from Henry’s mind. The use of color is very important to imagery in impressionism. Colors represent different moods or tones. The use of color in combination with words not usually used to describe a certain object give Crane his unique imagery style

Though a casual reader can enjoy one of Steven Crane’s impressionistic novels, a greater understanding of the ideas and motifs behind literary impressionism can bring a great deal of even more enjoyment from books such as The Red Badge of Courage. The great impact on literary impressionism Steven Crane had in twenty-eight years of life is astonishing. He changed literature forever and will continue to be attributed with being the greatest literary impressionist for a long time. His works will continue to have a lasting effect on literature as we know it today.


Crane, Steven The Red Badge of Courage e-book courtesy of Project Gutenburg (www.gutenburg.org)

Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980, 190 p.

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