Millions of readers have seen the same forces at play in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage—the only Crane most people ever read, apart from the early free-verse experiment “War Is Kind.” (I’m not much better, mind you; I read “The Open Boat” in my sophomore year of college, but I don’t remember anything about it.) It’s not exactly a misreading if you read Henry Fleming’s army misadventures as his struggle against society, but it’s not entirely accurate, either.
Certainly Henry feels oppressed. Who wouldn’t? Crane never refers to any character in this novel by his Christian name. He gives us only “the youth” or “the tall soldier” or “the loud soldier,” leaving us to discover through dialogue that their names are actually Henry, Jim, and Wilson. These men—boys, really—are faceless and nameless, pieces of meat to catch the fire of the pieces of meat who fight for the other side.
The war itself doesn’t seem to be worth much. We’re never told in the novel that this is the Civil War, and while Shelby Foote reveals that the battle in which Henry disproves, then proves, his mettle is Chancellorsville, you’d have to be a Civil War historian of his magnitude to figure it out from the text, since there’s no reference to place or person. No deeper reasons are given for the war; the soldiers themselves seem innocent as to why it’s taking place, and all they want is personal glory, to prove themselves in the context of mythic warriors like Homer’s Achilles.
But, as Crane shows us, this glory is not forthcoming. Henry finds himself “merely as part of a vast blue demonstration. His province was to look out, as far as he could, for his personal comfort” (14). In such a vast and ugly machine as the Union regiment, personal glory is impossible, and all you’re left with is a base selfishness. Self-interest becomes self-assertion.
So when Henry runs away from his first battle, we’re inclined to think him an existential hero even as he is a traditional failure. We’re inclined, in other words, to read his desertion as a Heideggerian action, a rebellion against the cruel strictures of society. After all, before his desertion, he finds his Self nearly wholly subsumed into the machinations of his unit:
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee, no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.The pre-revolutionary reader—if such a person existed for a novel published in 1895—would no doubt see this subsuming of the self into a larger purpose as a good thing. A person reading after the October Revolution and particularly after the end of World War II would see it as an unequivocal evil, since it involves the utter lost of the self and the triumph of an oppressive and violent whole. Crane is somewhere in the middle.
Crane, it should be noted, wrote into a very specific cultural and literary milieu. The late 19th century was, in America, the heyday of naturalism, possibly the bleakest artistic movement in American cultural history. The movement began in the wake of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which took man’s unique place in the universe from him and made him an object among objects.
Thus these writers (Jack London, Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser are the most notable naturalists in America; Émile Zola is the most famous outside of the States) presented their characters as doomed by the machinations of their societies, destined to fail and to be destroyed by a culture that was much more powerful than them. It’s the bleakest parts of Calvinism without a benevolent deity calling the shots.
So Crane is neither valorizing nor judging the system; the naturalists, apart from Dreiser (who is more preachy than any Victorian novelist I’ve ever read), are notorious for their utter lack of moralizing. Instead, Crane gives us life as he sees it, with no harsh words for the society that makes Henry one of their own, nor any praise for the young man who deserts it out of fear for his life.
In fact, when Henry deserts his regiment, he’s no more acting from his own volition than he was when he was caught up in the collective heat of battle. Crane tells us that another deserting soldier does so from the call of “a revelation” (76), and when Henry himself runs, he does so “like a blind man” (77), mechanically and thoughtlessly. Henry, it seems, has been so conditioned by the social forces that have shaped his entire life to this point, to run; it’s not something he thinks about and not something he chooses. He’s not responsible for it, to bless or to blame. He’s an animal or a robot.
Henry’s problem, in Crane’s judgment, is that he can’t accept this state of things. He shifts between twin poles of total heroism (as when he enters the battle at the end of the novel and saves the American flag) and total debasement (as when he calls himself a worm for his desertion), when the truth is something else entirely. Henry, like the rest of us, is not responsible for his deeds or his misdeeds, and it’s society that makes him what he is.
That’s why I say that Crane destroys the human in The Red Badge of Courage. Henry is freed of responsibility by the narrator and by the reader, which is an attractive proposition, especially when he’s being let off the hook for his cowardice. But he’s done so at the expense of his individuality and his nobility—he’s let off the hook because he is little more than a cog in a vast machine, with no help of ever asserting any kind of authentic self. If his authentic self existed, it would be that of an animal, unthinking and instinctual. This is no way to live, but Crane shows us clearly that it’s the way man must live under a wholly naturalist system. And he does so better than Dreiser and London, perhaps better than anyone.