When I wrote about The Scarlet Letter I mentioned that is was part of a project I began (and then ended) to reread a number of the books I read in high school and have not read since. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was the other book I read in the project. When I began reading it I was already wavering on the project and the book cemented my decision to not continue. I figure if I have not read a book since high school there was probably a good reason for that.
So, Red Badge of Courage. One of the few books I read in high school that I recall not liking at all. I hoped with time and maturity the reread would reveal the book to be amazing. Nope. While I can certainly appreciate it in a way I did not when I was 14, I still found it to be a very dull book.
First published in 1895, the book is a shining example of realism. Told from the limited third person perspective of Henry Fleming, a young man who joins up to fight in the American Civil War. His idea of what war is does not match the reality. Before he leaves, and even for a long time before he experiences battle he thinks,
It must be some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greek like struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid.
When his regiment is finally sent out into the field they spend quite a lot of time walking and walking and walking, camping, walking some more as they are ordered to a new position, camping, waiting, waiting, waiting, only to have to move again. It is a tedious affair and the longer Henry has to wait for a battle the more he begins to worry that he will be a coward and turn and run. He becomes so obsessed by this worry that he starts asking his comrades probing questions in an attempt to find out what they think of the matter and succeeds only in annoying them.
When the battle finally comes, Henry does fine on the first assault but the enemy regroups and charges and breaks part of the line. Henry, seeing some of his comrades falling back in retreat, panics and turns tail and runs as fast and far away as he can.
He spends quite a long time wandering and berating himself for running while also trying to justify his actions. Eventually he falls in with wounded soldiers who are moving away from the lines because they can no longer fight. Among them is his friend Jim Conklin who was badly wounded, delirious, and eventually dies. During this time Henry is repeatedly asked where his wound is but avoids answering the question.
He does eventually get a wound but it doesn’t come from battle. He is whacked in the head with the butt of a riffle when he gets mixed up in a column of retreating soldiers. When he makes it back to his own regiment they all think he has been grazed in the head by a bullet and treat him kindly. Henry does not tell them the truth.
All this takes up a large portion of the book and I was beginning to think that perhaps this was an anti-war novel since the horrors are so brutally graphic and revelatory in just how much the lives of men like Henry are mere fodder.
But then the final part of the book is battle after battle and Henry, in an attempt to atone for his previous cowardice and desertion, fights valiantly and even becomes standard bearer when the previous one falls, leading his regiment to victory. During this time Henry acts almost entirely on fear, adrenaline and rage. He needs to prove himself and prove that he and his comrades are not useless and good for nothing like he overheard some officers saying they were.
And suddenly the book does not seem so anti-war any longer. It is blood and courage and glory. Henry survives the battle. His regiment regroups and gets new marching orders. As they march off, Henry thinks:
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
And it rains. And they trudge through mud. And the book ends:
Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks–an existence of soft and eternal peace.
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
What the heck are we supposed to make of that? Is Henry just as delusional now as he was before he went to join the army? Does he think the tranquility is going to be real? Or has he faced death and, knowing there are more battles ahead and he is likely to die, looking forward to a heavenly reward? I apparently am not the only one to wonder as the interwebs tell me scholars have been debating the ambiguous ending for a very long time. Well and so.
The thing I remember most from high school about this book was my teacher going on and on about Christ figures. I had misremembered it as being Henry and while reading I was so confused because I just could not see it. Turns out, the Christ figure is supposedly Henry’s friend Jim Conklin, the one he finds wounded and delirious. I am almost 100% certain that when I read that, I made the same face I did in high school when my teacher said as much.
The difference between then and now (ok there are a lot of differences, but don’t quibble with me on this) is that then there was only Cliff’s Notes and now there is the all-knowing Google. I don’t recall Cliff as being especially helpful in this case. Google, however, tells me this whole Christ figure thing is hotly disputed because no one seems to know what the book means and so a group of scholars decided it was an allegory even though the evidence for this is thin. I don’t remember if Cliff says anything about this or not, but since my entire class realized early on in the first semester that the teacher was cribbing almost everything from Cliff, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
It also goes a long way in explaining why I was so garsh durned baffled about this idea and how it set me up for repeated “Christ figure” traumas throughout my freshman, and most of my high school, English classes. When mixed with the basic narrative conflicts drilled into my head (man against nature, man against society, man against man, man against self) it made for a pretty murky five-paragraph essay soup. How I survived high school English and majored in English literature at University is a mystery I will never be able to solve. My only guess is that I loved reading and books so much before I got to high school that there was nothing they could do ruin it for me. And thank heavens for that!