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The Red Badge of Courage is a novel by Stephen Crane about a young man who enlists in the army to distinguish himself and earn respect. During the bloody battles of the Civil War, young Henry Fleming must adjust to the horrors of war, and learn to overcome his own self-doubt. It is a story of Henry’s transformation from boy to man, from naive coward to honorable war hero. Crane illustrates this journey expertly through vivid imagery. The book is filled with imaginative descriptions of the landscape, animals, and brutal battles. Crane’s use of nature imagery greatly enhances the book in several ways. He is able to successfully create a realistic setting that is easy for the reader to imagine using nature and war imagery, as well as employ that imagery to contrast the natural world with the war taking place. This powerful juxtaposition is a key aspect of the book.
Crane describes nature throughout the novel with similes, metaphors, and colorful adjectives. The story begins at a campsite where Henry’s regiment is waiting impatiently to be summoned for battle, but the setting soon changes to a rich green forest where the youth participates in deadly encounters with the enemy corps. Crane is a skilled writer and he paints a life-like picture of the forest so realistic that one may become engrossed in the text as if they were there watching the battles and observing the natural surroundings. When the men first begin their trudge to the forest, Crane remarks that the grass underfoot “rustled like silk” and that the air was “heavy with dew” (Crane, 11). His use of imagery enhances the book by giving the reader insight into what the soldiers felt, heard, saw, and smelled.
One of the major themes in The Red Badge of Courage is the reality of war. Henry enlists in the army with an extremely skewed perspective of war. He believes that it is a glorious thing, a rite of passage. He associates it with honor and valour and he is completely ignorant of the ugly aspects of battle. Crane portrays the terror of warfare through the eyes of naive Henry. He gradually realizes how dangerous and cruel it is, as does the reader. The author is very blunt in describing the consequences of war. He writes of a man who was “grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face” (26) and a pile of dead bodies that “lay in twisted in fantastic contortions” (27). His descriptions of battle are jarringly real and exposes the grisly side of war that is sometimes ignored.
Crane’s un-sugarcoated war descriptions contrast sharply with his depiction of nature. Warfare is presented as ugly, while nature is presented as beautiful. Nature is a symbol of peace in the book. The author uses images such as “fairy blue” skies (11) and “peaceful pines” (15) to create a tranquil setting in which a very opposite event takes place. This juxtaposition serves to highlight the negative aspects of war; the bloody deaths, the loud, thundering guns, and the painful injuries. Crane frequently breaks from describing the battles to remark on the sky, or the surrounding trees. During his first battle, Henry runs away into the woods in fear and is astonished by the pristine condition of the forest, despite the battle going on. “It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment” (28). He uses imagery gold because it is beautiful and valuable like nature, whereas nature’s opposite, war, appears to be base and dark in comparison.
Most authors use imagery to make their stories more realistic and captivating. Stephen Crane, a master of this particular literary device, applies it to his work in a more powerful way. The brilliant imagery in The Red Badge of Courage accentuates the foulness of war by contrasting it with the bright innocence of nature. Crane is painting a stunningly realistic setting for the book, while is simultaneously making a statement about war through his descriptive writing.
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