The Red Badge of Courage: Naturalistic

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, one of the most significant and renowned

books in American literature, defies outright classification, showing traits of both the realist and

naturalist movements. It is a classic, however, precisely because it does so without sacrificing

unity or poignancy. The Red Badge of Courage belongs unequivocably to the naturalist genre,

but realism is also present and used to great effect. The conflict between these styles mirrors

the bloody clash of the war described in the book – and the eternal struggle between good and

evil in human nature.

There are many characteristics in Crane’s novel that would more readily fit within the

category of realism: the ordinariness of his characters, the use of dialect, the portrayal of

protagonist Henry Fleming as a complex individual, the description of nature as disinterested in

human affairs, and the positive ending of the story. Realism, often described as "slice of life" or

"photographic" writing, attempts to portray life exactly as it is, without twisting it or reworking it to

fit it into preconceived notions of what is appropriate or what is aesthetically pleasing. In this

book, Crane relies on neither the oversimplified rationalism of classicist literature nor the

emotional idealism of romantic prose. Instead, he offers realistic, believable characters with

average abilities. The soldiers are presented neither as epic heroes nor as bloodthirsty killers;

rather, their most noticeable trait is their overwhelming normalcy. The soldiers of Henry’s

regiment curse, fight, and argue just like normal people. This down-to-earth, gritty, everyday

style is characteristic of realism. A particular convention used by Crane in convincing the reader

of his characters’ existence is dialect. The distinctive speech of the soldiers enhances the

photographic effect of the novel, lending it authenticity.

Another distinctive trait of realism is complexity of character – a trait readily evident in Henry

Fleming. As he switches between cowardice and heroism, compassion and contempt, and

optimism and pessimism, the reader observes that he is more than just a stereotype. He is a

person with fears, hopes, dreams, and foibles. Lastly, nature is often portrayed as indifferent or

disinterested in the affairs of humankind. Whereas naturalism involves emphasis on the hostility

of nature, realism lacks this trait. For example, after fighting a battle, "the youth [feels] a flash of

astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields. It [is]

surprising that Nature [has] gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much

devilment" (64). Later, when Henry takes refuge in the woods, the sanctuary of the natural

world seals out all sounds of the human conflict taking place: "It [seems] now that Nature [has]

no ears" (79). During a different battle, "the day [grows] more white, until the sun [shines] with

his full radiance upon the thronged forest" – a symbol of purity amid the bloody affairs of man

(156). Similarly, the smoke of deadly battle is contrasted with the unadulterated innocence of

nature: "A cloud of dark smoke, as from smoldering ruins, [goes] up toward the sun now bright

and gay in the blue enameled sky" (165). Crane detaches the war from the rest of the world,

stating that "the world [is] fully interested in other matters. Apparently, the regiment [has] its

small affair to itself" (172).

Lastly, the positive outlook with which the book concludes points to realism. Whereas

naturalism would pit the soldiers against impossible odds, a certain victory "[shows] them that

the proportions [are] not impossible" (191). Immersed in the sweetness of victory, "the past

[holds] no pictures of error and disappointment" (200). At the book’s end, Henry reconciles

himself with his feelings of guilt and shame. He abandons war, and "scars [fade] as flowers"

(223). He retires to "an existence of soft and eternal peace" (223). A golden ray of sun at the

book’s close symbolizes the ray of hope Crane has for mankind. However, the solitary beam is

nearly lost amid a mass of dark thunderheads. Correspondingly, although traits of realism are

very evident, ominous naturalism is always present and usually dominant.

Naturalism, the practice of using scientific theory to develop and explain characters and

events, is largely negative and pessimistic, often emphasizing man’s impotence in affecting his

own destiny. Also, the ideas of evolution and natural selection figure prominently into naturalism.

The predominant reasons why The Red Badge of Courage represents naturalism rather than

realism are the portrayal of nature as hostile (even more so than it is portrayed as indifferent), the

application of science to war,