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The Red Badge Of Courage: Naturalistic Essay, Research Paper

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, and the emphasis on the impotence and lack of self-control of

Crane?s characters. These themes are stressed so heavily that the scales tip toward naturalism.

Crane frequently portrays nature as hostile to man. As Henry runs from the woods, "the

branches, pushing against him, [threaten] to throw him" (81). "Trees, confronting him, [stretch]

out their arms and [forbid] him to pass" (84). At many times in the book, characters are

impeded and attacked by brambles and "cussed briers" (155). Nature?s foliage "[seems] to veil

powers and horrors" (174). As the regiment moves through the woods, "the forest [makes] a

terrible objection" (175). In these and many other instances, nature is personified as evil. It

threatens, reaches out, and grabs at soldiers, taking an active, hostile role, as if it were a human

enemy ? even offering up a horrid, rotting corpse as a symbol of its evil (88). This is a central

idea of naturalism.

Another tenet of naturalistic writing is the application of scientific theory to plot and character.

Crane makes extensive use of scientific parlance and references prominent theories of science

throughout the novel. For example, when wondering whether or not he will run from battle,

Henry is called "an unknown quantity" and "obliged to experiment" and "accumulate

information," as if he were a variable in a scientific laboratory procedure (17). He tries "to

mathematically prove to himself that he [will] not run from a battle" and makes "ceaseless

calculations" to determine whether or not he possesses sufficient courage (22). During a battle,

Crane makes an allusion to Darwin?s theory of "survival of the fittest": while running, "[Henry

feels] vaguely that death must make a first choice of the men who [are] nearest; the initial

morsels for the dragons would be then those who [are] following him. So he [displays] the zeal

of an insane sprinter in his purpose to keep them in the rear. There [is] a race." After he

successfully escapes, Henry justifies his flight by comparing his situation to that of a squirrel.

When threatened, the squirrel turns and runs, controlled solely by natural instinct. Nature, he

claims, provides reinforcement to his argument with scientific "proofs" (79).

The most convincing argument that The Red Badge of Courage is a naturalistic novel is the

repeated emphasis that Henry and his military companions are powerless and guided by forces

beyond their control. A primary axiom of naturalism is man?s lack of free will; all is supposedly

determined for them by heredity or environment. Crane places great emphasis on human

inability to act for oneself. He makes references to mobs, crowds, and stampedes, pointing out

how individual members are powerless to resist the will of the masses. "As [Henry runs] with his

comrades he strenuously [tries] to think, but all he [knows] is that if he [falls] down those coming

from behind [will] tread upon him?He [feels] carried along by a mob" (38). Desiring to leave

the crowd, Henry sees "that it would be impossible for him to escape from the regiment. It

[encloses] him. And there [are] the iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He [is] in a

moving box" (38). This portrayal of man as trapped and incapable of resistance is central to

naturalism. "[Henry] had not enlisted of his free will," Crane adds. "He had been dragged in by

the merciless government" (38). Crane compares the regiment to "puppets under a magician?s

hand" and "little pieces" that the officers "fit together" (76). This lack of control is infuriating to

Henry, who complains, "?We just get fired around from pillar to post and get licked here and get

licked there, and nobody knows what it?s done for. It makes a man feel like a damn kitten in a

bag?" (155). Later on, when fired upon, the soldiers "accept the pelting of the bullets" ? to resist

would be "to strive against walls?to batter themselves against granite" (184). Crane reiterates

many times that Henry and his companions have no power over their situation. All is determined

for them; resistance is futile.

In summary, The Red Badge of Courage is a naturalistic work with realistic tendencies. The

convincing, believable characters, the authentic-sounding dialect, the complexity of Henry?s

thoughts, the occasional impartiality of nature, and the optimistic ending are representative of

realism. However, nature is far more often shown as evil or hostile. Scientific theory is applied to

Henry and to the events that befall him. And neither Henry nor anyone else has any control over

his fate. All these are traits of naturalism. The naturalistic elements are predominant throughout

most of the book, and although the ending is curiously positive for a naturalistic work, it

showcases Crane?s unique perspective as an author. The struggle between negative and

positive, optimism and pessimism, and realism and naturalism parallels the battle between blue

and gray described in the plot as well as humanity?s dual faces of good and evil. Rejecting pure

naturalism as overly simplistic, Crane implies that although humans are subject to the savage

forces of nature, there is still hope to eventually arrive at a better life. Adding a touch of realism

to temper the morbidity of his naturalism, Stephen Crane will be remembered far into the future

as the author of one of the most influential novels in American literature.

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