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Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage is known for its vivid imagery and gruesome depictions of the Civil War from the point of view of a young soldier. Crane often uses realism and impressionism to make these images come alive to the reader. By describing things in extreme detail while using words and symbols that inflict emotion into the reader, Crane manages to create a scene that encompasses not only what the war looked like, but also what it felt like. This intense imagery is why Crane has been accredited for writing the most realistic – yet still artistic and symbolic – representation of war (Norton 181).
In Chapter XXIV, Crane describes the narrator’s internal growth and progression of character as it parallels his literal movement away from the battlefield, saying that “as he trudged…his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility… Scars faded as flowers” (Crane 104). He uses the conjugation of the terms hot plowshares and clover tranquility, and scars and flowers to show the reader how much Henry has changed, and that this change was incredibly positive. It inflicts a prideful emotion into the reader, who has followed Henry’s story from the start and has experienced his insecurity and embarrassment alongside him, and is thus proud of the man that Henry has become. This symbolic and emotional description is a prime example of impressionism and how impressionism can help the reader better understand a story. The connections made within the text to Henry’s journey as a person help the reader see the big picture and therefore the overall change that has occurred within Henry’s character. Impressionism accomplishes this so efficiently though its use of emotion, as the reader better understands Henry because of his/her emotional attachment to him that has developed over the course of the novel.
Crane often uses strong sensory images to create an even more realistic depiction of war for the reader. An instance in which he does this is in Chapter XIV, when he writes, “a distant bugle sang faintly. Similar sounds, varying in strength, came from near and far over the forest. The bugles called to each other like brazen gamecocks. The near thunder of the regimental drums rolled” (Crane 64). This powerful description of the sounds gives the reader the sense that they themselves are hearing the same thing as the narrator, thus creating an even more vivid description of the battle scene. Crane overloads the reader with sensory images, using intense descriptions of each sense all within a paragraph or two, which simulates the sensory overload of a person experiencing war – so much is happening at once that it is hard to take in. The hectic image that Crane creates also helps the reader understand why so many soldiers are compelled to run; it’d be difficult for one to face everything that is happening within the scenes that he describes. The extreme details that he gives each description makes the scene even more vivid and overwhelming for the reader.
Impressionism and realism are used consistently throughout the novel and are even used to describe the same event or object to make it all the more graphic. Crane does this in Chapter XI when describing Henry’s desire for death, describing his imagined self as “a blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with one knee forward and a broken blade high – a blue, determined figure standing before a crimson and steel assault, getting calmly killed on a high place before the eyes of all” (Crane 48). Using the synesthesia of a blue figure and a crimson assault creates an image of good versus evil, as that is the general association of these respective colors. Inclusion of the phrase “on a high place before the eyes of all” show that Henry’s death wish is rooted in pride. Crane’s use of realistic, descriptive language in the first part of this quote allows the reader to imagine Henry’s image of himself just as he does. Crane also does this in Chapter III when describing one of the fallen soldiers,
“Once the line encountered the body of a dead soldier. He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies the poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends” (Crane 18).
The in-depth realistic description of the soldier’s dead body creates a detailed image for the reader, while the intense focus on the soles of the soldier’s shoes is both an example of naturalism and impressionism in its extreme, yet emotion-evoking description.
Crane’s heavy use of impressionism and realism are what allow his descriptions of war to be so accurate. His use of a narrator “whose visual representations are less descriptive and emblematic than theatrical” (Norton 286) creates an emotional atmosphere for his audience, while still “[extending] realism down to the society of soldiers…their distinction as tall soldier, loud soldier, and youth takes precedence over their individual names, their language designates their identity as soldiers rather than individuals” (Norton 316). This lack of individualism for the characters also allows for the reader to feel more connected and involved in the story, as if he too is a youth at war. His use of impressionism to describe the narrator’s personal growth throughout the story is fairly similar to Equiano’s narrative in his autobiography, as both are narrated in such a way that the reader develops an emotional connection to the narrator through their sympathy and shared experiences. Both Equiano and Henry experience a phase of childlike wonder/innocence that later evolves into a more educated sophistication. Equiano experiences this through his adjustment to American culture and society, while Henry experiences this through his adjustment to life in the war.
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