No passage of The Red Badge of Courage has been subject to as much interpretive debate as the novel’s ending. Some critics have argued that the book ends with Henry’s psychological maturation, while others have said that Henry remains as vain and deluded at the end of the book as he is at the beginning. Which is the case? Has Henry really gained perspective, or is he still the same unfailingly self-centered boy?
During the first half of the twentieth century, The Red Badge of Courage was often accepted as a novel of triumph, in which Henry overcomes his innate human weaknesses and emerges as a hero. Given the sardonic tone of much of the narrative and the novel’s extraordinarily complex psychological exploration, this interpretation seems far too simplistic. Henry does mature, but he does not simply transcend his youthful weaknesses; he is still vain and self-obsessed at the end of the novel. As a result of his experiences, Henry has gained some perspective on his situation and confronted some hard truths, but his realization that he is free of the “red sickness” of battle is most likely an excuse for him to relapse into some of his old illusions about himself. What advances personal insight in The Red Badge of Courage is the threat of death; with that threat removed, Henry can return to considering himself to be special, heroic, and even invulnerable. It is worth noting that a crossed-out passage in one draft of the novel found Henry musing at the end that “the great death” was only for other people. Henry will be better for his experiences, but he will not be free of vanity and illusion, which the book portrays as survival mechanisms of the human consciousness.
One of the most important themes of the novel is that nature is indifferent to human life. How does the book convey this theme? What are some of its most important symbols? What does it mean for the universe to be “indifferent?”
Henry’s first inkling of nature’s indifference comes after his first battle, when he sees that the sun looks pretty in the treetops, and feels surprised “that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.” Later, Henry sees the corpse of the soldier in the chapel-like glade in the forest, its face swarming with ants. After Jim’s death, Henry wants to make an impassioned speech, but he is cut off in the novel by Crane’s description of the uncaring sun “pasted in the sky like a wafer.” Each of these images serves as an important symbol of the fundamental indifference of nature to human affairs: the universe neither knows nor cares what happens to individual human beings. In his short story “The Open Boat,” Crane imagines that men in mortal danger want to confront fate, nature, or God on one knee and say “Yes, but I love myself.” In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry does exactly that, and finds that fate, nature, and God say nothing in return.
An ongoing critical debate exists as to how Stephen Crane should be classified. Some critics argue that he is a naturalist, some that he is a symbolist, and others that he is an impressionist. What is the difference between these different movements, and to which, if any, does Crane belong?
The question of a writer’s identity is always far more complicated than simply lumping him or her into a single movement. Every writer is an individual, and in creating his individual vision, Stephen Crane employed elements of naturalism, symbolism, and impressionism, while not fitting perfectly into any of them. His work is extremely realistic in its development, its graphic depiction of battle, and its intent. This places him with the naturalists. However, unlike most naturalists, he invested the minutiae of his novel with symbolic meaning, and to that extent he is a symbolist. Nevertheless, his vivid, poetic descriptions of battle seem to refrain from overusing symbols in favor of creating an impression of experience, and to that extent he is an impressionist. There is no right answer to this frequently asked question; Stephen Crane is all and none of these things.