What kind of moral universe does Stephen Crane create in The Red Badge of Courage? Is his a traditional values system, or does he challenge the idea that right and wrong exist in the first place?
In contrast with the many morally ambiguous wars in American history, the Civil War is often spoken of as a conflict with clear, if complex, ethical issues. Yet The Red Badge of Courage argues that, for the soldiers actually fighting the war, traditional ideas about honor and courage, right and wrong, are a silly and irrelevant indulgence. In his reserved and opaque way, Crane criticizes a conventional moral code according to which soldiers are always heroes, real men fight bravely and die willingly for their country, and the horrors of battle turn boys into veterans. Indeed, by dramatizing the experience of one typical young man, Crane makes the dark argument that traditional morality is a dangerous delusion.
Crane points to the gap that yawns between glorified ideas about war and the actual experience of fighting a war. At the beginning of the novel, Henry wonders how his experiences will measure up to those of Greek war heroes. When he starts fighting, however, he encounters not the lofty, meaningful battles of Greek mythology, but pointless, inexplicable marching, cranky peers, embarrassing gaffes, and perplexing fights. Crane suggests that while presidents, generals, and the American public have the luxury of imagining war as a moral combat between right and wrong, the soldiers on the ground know it to be a confusing, mostly meaningless series of dangers and annoyances.
While Crane uses Henry’s experiences to show us war’s lack of morality, in a crucial sense, Henry doesn’t matter much to the story. It is by being pointedly vague about the individual soldiers and the two opposing sides that Crane emphasizes the essential amorality of war. Rather than referring to characters by their proper names, he calls them, for example, “the loud soldier,” or, in Henry’s case, “the youth” or “the young soldier.” Instead of writing about the Union army and the Confederate army, he writes about the blue army and the gray army. The soldiers are not heroes, but a mass of indistinguishable men; the armies are not representatives of opposing moral positions, but vague groups set against each other at random.
Crane shows Henry to be a coward and a braggart, but then he shows us that we would be fools to condemn him. Henry’s behavior might not square with traditional ideas about morality and bravery—in fact, much of his behavior is repugnant. But is he wrong to run from danger? Is he weak because he steels himself for battle in the only way he can, by falsely convincing himself that he is courageous? Crane wants us to take these questions seriously. He wants us to see that while conventional morality prizes selflessness and bravery, and while we might enjoy reading about a selfless, brave character, those qualities are precisely the ones that lead to death. And the decaying corpse Henry encounters in the forest suggests that death is meaningless. As Henry realizes, one soldier’s death does not cause the world to stop, or nature to pause, or a war to be won. To die, as the soldier did, is one choice; to run from battle, as Henry does, is another. In the moral world of The Red Badge of Courage, neither choice is “right” or “wrong.”
Henry’s essential stasis indicates Crane’s impatience with traditional morals. While some critics argue that Henry does undergo a change, others insist that he ends the novel exactly as he began it: as a self-important, deluded, cowardly boy. The latter interpretation fits with Crane’s general stance on the amorality of war. He isn’t interested in teaching us a lesson about the importance of courage, or showing us the familiar journey of a character from naïve boyishness to worldly manhood. By pointing to Henry’s unchanged nature, Crane emphasizes that difficult experiences don’t always force us to learn and grow. War is not a crucible in which cowards become heroes, he suggests, but a mess that men survive however they can.
Crane suggests that men are never motivated by love of their country or other lofty ideals. But get them sufficiently fired up by fear of embarrassment, or hatred of their superior officers, or daydreams about impressing women back home, and they might triumph in battle. In the end, amorality, not morality, leads to victory.