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The instincts of a hero in The Red Badge of Courage

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Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage abandons the idea of war as glorious and ideal, and instead shows war as rough and arduous, able to break an idealistic but untested person. The novel also departs from tradition by depicting its protagonist Henry Fleming, not as a towering hero but as an ordinary person given to fear and cowardice not befitting a hero. Looking at Henry’s development in the novel, critic Charles C. Walcutt sums up Henry Fleming thus: “He may have been fearless for moments, but his motives were vain, selfish, ignorant, and childish… He has been through some moments of hell during which has for moments risen above his limitations, but Crane seems plainly to be showing that he has not achieved a lasting wisdom of self-knowledge” (Walcutt 278).

Rather unusually, Walcutt goes on to describe the book’s action in terms of a geometric shape, that of the equilateral triangle. Walcutt sees the three points of the equilateral triangle representing instinct, ideals and circumstance which he claims are the three forces that guide Henry’s path throughout the novel. Walcutt’s model of the equilateral triangle correctly identifies these three forces as the main guiding forces of the novel but the model needs revision the three forces do not impact Henry equally and the larger role that instinct plays in the novel must be acknowledged. This can be reflected through the use of an isosceles triangle as a model.

Walcutt sees Henry running along the sides of the triangle, driven by one of the three forces, but stopped by another of three forces: “Ideals take him along one side until circumstance confronts him with danger. Then instinct takes over and he dashes down the third side in a panic. The panic abates somewhat as he approaches the angle of ideals…” (278). Henry displays ideals when he dreams of Homeric war and enlists, much against his mother’s wishes. He pictures himself as a hero respected by his comrades and adored by females Once he arrives in the army and realizes how straining it is on his mind, circumstance drives him to follow his instinct which is to be fearful, even cowardly, on the actual battlefield. It causes him to run from a battle and justify doing so by by comparing himself to a squirrel. Throughout the novel, Henry is affected by all of these three forces, each of which drives him to act.

Of course, no theory is without its flaws and so too is Walcutt’s. In an equilateral triangle, the three points are of equal value and always constant. These two factors make the model not fit The Red Badge of Courage well. The first problem with the model is that it does not take into account Henry’s growth through the novel. Henry starts by being driven by ideals, and faces shame and cowardice but reaches some level of maturity at the end. Walcutt’s model does not take Henry’s growth into account. At the beginning of the novel, it almost seems inevitable that he would join despite his mother urging him against doing so: “At last, however, he had made firm rebellion against this yellow light thrown upon the color of his ambitions” (5). The harshness of war confronts him and he runs away and lives in private shame as the war continues. At the end of the novel, he is a stronger man: “He felt a quiet manhood, non-assertive, but of sturdy and strong blood” (Crane 103).

Henry’s instinct saves him and keeps him alive and stronger. That is not to say that ideals and circumstance are unimportant in the story. However, the entire story revolves around Henry’s inner conflict regarding battle. His base instinct and desire are to flee from battle but his idealistic self says that he must stay and fight. Henry justifies it by observing a squirrel running away and concluding that because “[t]he squirrel, immediately upon recognizing danger, had taken to his legs without ado”, that cowardly behavior of the type he exhibited was the right thing to do’(37).

Thus the logical shape to represent the flow of Red Badge of Courage’s plot is not the equilateral triangle that Walcutt suggests but the isosceles triangle. Walcutt’s three points of the triangle are instinct, ideals and circumstance, all of which he values equally; hence the equilateral triangle. However, the flow of this story merits instinct being valued over the other two forces. Instinct should be regarded as more important because it is more fundamental and is what keeps Henry alive at the beginning. However, it prevents Henry from making any sort of meaningful contribution to the war effort. This is something that Henry is ashamed of and he works on conquering it throughout the story. He finally manages to overcome this fear and at the end of the story, he reflect: “He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point…He was a man”. This sentence perfectly sums up his development: he started as a body who fled from confrontation. Towards the end, he manages to overcome this instinct and return to his ideals. However, the outsized influence that instincts have had in his development as well as the plot’s development cannot be understated; hence the isosceles triangle with instincts as the all important third, unique side.

Works Cited

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl. Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Walcutt, Charles. Stephen Crane: Naturalist. Ed. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl. Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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