30 September 2009

The Red Badge of Courage

I think it would be fair to say that we’ve all had at least one moment of epic cowardice in our lives. You know…one of those moments where you totally wimp out and run away from your problem rather than facing it, whether your problem is the SATs or that big bully down the street. And, usually, that wimping out moment stays with you for life. You constantly berate yourself, “I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done it this way…” We’ve all been there, right? Well, welcome to Henry Fielding’s world.

The whole shame from cowardice complex is the major theme of Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage. In this novel, young Union soldier Henry Fleming runs from the battlefield in a moment of panic. He spends a lot of time agonizing over his actions, tries to justify his actions to himself, and then realizes that he can’t justify his actions. Henry is then motivated to redeem himself in battle to pacify his nagging conscience. I have always liked this novel. I first read it when I was eleven and recently decided to reread it. Crane is considered one of the first psychological realists in fiction, and for good reason: His description of Henry’s shame, halfhearted excuses, and mental self-berating is very believable, even if you have no way to relate to his battlefield experiences. Not to say that Crane isn’t adept at straightforward narration as well. Quite a few of the battle scenes are very intense. Crane also writes with a more direct style than most 19th century writers…you won’t get lost under a mountain of adverbs and adjectives with him. I love wordy writers, but Crane’s conciseness adds to the realism of his work and makes it much easier to read. My only issue was that some of the dialogue is a bit stilted and cliched, especially some of the officers. (Their lines sometimes sound like they come from a very stereotypical Disney cartoon about the Civil War.)

Although I liked this novel, I have talked to many people who can’t stand it. I believe you have to approach this novel with the right frame of mind. Don’t read this book expecting tons of dramatic action. The dramatic tension comes from Henry’s mental wrestling, not the battle. Therefore, there is a lot of narration dwelling on Henry’s thoughts, rather than his actions. I know this drives some readers crazy, but Crane is very effective at writing this kind of narration. I think Crane could be considered the forerunner of more complex, later psychological writers. If you like psychological novels, but find experimental stream of consciousness novels, a la Faulkner, impossible, try Crane. I really love Faulkner, but Crane is much more accessible.

The Red Badge of Courage is a powerful mediation on shame, courage, and cowardice. It’s easy to relate to Henry. If you go into this novel with the right frame of mind, you’ll find that a good book awaits.


Scott suggested I start giving teasers of my next reviews. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I am very excited to announce that next week I will be reviewing Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal! (I do always have a backup book, just in case I can’t get around to the one I want to review. If I don’t get to finish Going Postal, I’ll throw an Agatha Christie review together at the last minute.) But I hope I don’t have to resort to that, because I really, really, really want to review the Pratchett novel.

I also have a question for you guys. Well, several questions. Adding the previews led me to also consider adding some more gadgets to my blog, such as links to some of my favorite book websites and to genre specific websites (like mysteries, sci fi, fantasy, etc.), feeds from the NY Times’ Bestseller lists and prominent book awards (Man Booker Prize, National Book Awards, Penn Faulkner Awards, Pulitzer Prize Awards, etc.), more of my favorite book quotes, and maybe even a link where you can reach my via e-mail (someone wanted to comment but didn’t have a Google account to do so.) It will probably be some time before I can do any of this, because I like to plot, mull, ponder, scheme, and brood before I make a decision. But I’m a big believer in getting second, third, and fourth opinions, so I am interested in what you guys think. Would these features interest you or not? Any other suggestions to aid me in my plotting, mulling, pondering, scheming, and brooding? I really do appreciate all of you for reading and commenting and I want y’all to be happy with zellakate, so let me know if you have any ideas for things I could add to my blog!


  1. Go for it, Zella! I think you could definitely make the walls of this blog more colorful. Great idea.
    I like the Red Badge also. It was a good book and yes the action was pretty intense at parts. Didn't interest me enough to ever read again, however.
    OOOOOOOOHHHH I can't wait till you read Going Postal! Trust me, you will not be able to put this book down. :D Write a nice long review please please please.


  2. Scott, thanks! I'll try to add more things as I get time.

    By the way, I don't want to give my review away, but I have read the first 100 pages of Going Postal. You, my friend, deserve a whole pan of my grandmother's double chocolate fudge brownies for recommending that book to me. (This is saying something because we usually don't let those brownies leave the house.) So far, I LOVE Going Postal, and I will make the review as long as possible! Thanks again! :)