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Symbolism in the Red Badge of Courage

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Symbolism in The Red Badge of Courage
The term Symbolism can be defined as the use of symbols to represent ideas, natural objects or facts (Mork). Throughout history, Symbolism has been used as a means of uniquely conveying certain messages across a public spectrum. Take for example the Underground Railroad system before the Civil War. Many slaves made quilts containing several pictures and symbols as a means of secretly communicating with other slaves (Breneman). The use of symbolism can especially be seen in literature; a great example of this is Stephen Crain’s novel The Red Badge of Courage. Written in 1895, the plot mainly takes place in the Civil War, more specifically in The Battle of Chancellorsville. It is said that this battle was one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War (The New York Times). The story centers around a young man Henry Fleming, who is very much obsessed with fame and recognition. Part of this obsession makes him join the Union Army, as an attempt to die with honor and to be forever immortalized by fame. Crane makes use of Symbolism through his characters, such as Henry, and the environment in which these characters are placed in. Through the use of Symbolism, Crane is introducing and informing the readers about the concept of Naturalism in such a subtle yet effective manner.
Crane’s novel is filled with symbolism, take the title for example. Back in that time period, Civil War solders used the term red badge to describe a blood stain or wound attained through battle (McDermott). It was a symbol of courage, which is part of the reason why Henry wanted a wound so badly; he wanted to be seen as valiant to other Union solders. Henry’s wish did eventually come true, but that is where the irony lies. As it turns out in later in chapter 12, Henry receives an accidental head wound from his own fellow Union Solder after fleeing from battle. What at first seemed like a red badge of courage now seems like a red badge of cowardliness and fear. Using color as a means of setting the mood or portraying some sort of specific emotion is something Crain does very effectively in this novel. If one fails to recognize the true intent of color-use, then the story loses a meaningful interpretation that is needed to truly understand the main character, his feelings and actions. Take for example the color “red,” which is mentioned many times through out the story. Usually this color is used by Crain whenever he is trying to describe the enemies on the opposing side (McDermott). The character Henry often compares the enemy to red dragons; one can infer that by doing this, Crane is trying to show how vicious and blood-thirsty these enemies are, not to mention how helpless Henry feels (Marcus). Just as the color red is so important in setting the mood, so is the color yellow. It is said that the color yellow represents cowardliness and fear. Crane heavily used the color yellow in the beginning of the story, back when Henry was first learning what it really means to become a solder. A prime example of this occurs when Henry flees from his very first battle, where his feelings of confidence quickly switch into cowardliness. It is said that when Henry looked back at the battlefield he once avoided, he could see nothing but yellow fog, a representation of his cowardly feelings (McDermott). Another example of Crain’s use of the color yellow can be seen in Chapter three, where we see Wilson hand Henry a yellow envelope containing a “good-bye” letter for his family just before battle. By making this specific envelope yellow, Crane is subtly showing the fear of death associated with this specific battle. One thing to note is towards the end of the story, Crane describes the sun as being golden in color, instead of yellow as before. One can infer that Crane did this to show Henry’s character development from a coward to a brave man (Stone). As mentioned before, when trying to fully interpret Cain’s novel, it is important to analyze the true intent of color-use.
One unique ability that sets Crain apart from other writers of his time is his ability to describe a certain situations with such a straight-forward non-romantic approach, a common attribute found with many Realist writers. This is clearly seen when Crain is describing Henry’s experience in the forest with a dead corpse of a fellow Union solder. Almost immediately, without using any extra, unneeded verbiage or romanticizing the situation as an attempt to lighten the circumstance, Crain jumps straight into detail about how the dead corpse appears to look like in the eyes of Henry. After viewing ants crawl into its eye sockets and mouth of the corpse, Henry becomes a little weary. Prior to this incident, Henry once believed that a glorious death would give him infinite fame. This corpse however shows that the accomplishments one makes during a lifetime aren't all that significant when one is dead (McDermott). Some might say this single event is Stephen Crain’s way of subtly introducing Naturalism into the novel (Canada). Literary Naturalism can be defined as a style of writing heavily influenced by Realism, in which social conditions, heredity, and the environment have an inescapable force in shaping human character (Williams). It is quite obvious that the character of Henry is forever changed after this single event; it “kickstarts” the start of his maturation process.
Part of what makes Crane a Naturalist is the fact that nature and the environment is so heavily involved in the plot, that it often changes the individuality of certain characters. In Chapter five we see that amidst the battle and chaos, Henry notices that the natural setting around him does not change. More specifically, he notices the bright blue sky and the shining sun. Symbolically speaking, when we view “death,” we often think of a very monochromatic dull setting, not that of bright blue skies and warm weather. This itself adds to what Crain is trying to convey; no matter how bad of a situation man creates for himself, nature will continue to live and act the way that it has done for thousands of years (Canada). After witnessing such a phenomena, we see Henry’s character act more like Naturalist. This is just another great example of how Crane incorporates the environment, as a character shaping force, into the plot of one of his novels.
It is interesting to note how Crain uses religious imagery when portraying certain characters in the book. Growing up with a father who was a Methodist minister, and mother who was heavily involved in the church, one can say Crane is quite familiar with the concept of Christianity (Hunter). Although he was surrounded by Christans throughout most of his life, Crane himself was not very religious. In fact he started smoking and took up cursing as an attempt to rebel against his mother’s religious beliefs (Hunter). Crane’s negative view on organized religion is partly why he portrays Christianity in a negative light in this novel. The story involves Jim Concklin, an experienced Union solder, and promotes him as sort of a “Christ-like” figure (Stone). Just looking at his initials “JC”, one can infer that this directly correlates with the initials of Jesus Christ. Even Jim’s injury to his side are similar to that of Jesus Christ’s wound when stabbed by a spear. In the final moments of Jim’s life, he dies a horrific death; some even argue that Crane did this to prompt his readers to question the existence of a loving God (Stone). Crane presents Jim’s death as very graphic and horrific in nature, that it infers there is no purpose or Resurrection for this Christ-like figure; Jim is just as dead as the corpse found in the forest, with no distinction or honor in his name. This very action prompt some readers to believe that Crane was sort of making a ironic comparison between the death of Jim Concklin and the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is critical for the reader to understand just how important these symbols are to the plot of the story. As mentioned before, Crane makes use of Symbolism through his characters, such as Henry, and the environment in which these characters are placed in. Through the use of Symbolism, Crane is introducing and informing the readers about the concept of Naturalism in such a subtle yet effective manner. Without recognizing the significance of these symbols, with most of these symbols pertaining to Naturalism, it will be quite difficult for the reader to understand what ideals and viewpoints Crane is trying to explain and express. It is important for the reader to look outside of what is written in text, and to really be attentive to the symbolism found in any novel, not just A Red Badge of Courage; only then will the reader be able to accurately interpret what message the author is trying to convey.

Works Cited
Breneman, Judy Anne. "Underground Railroad Quilts & Quilting for Abolitionist Fairs."Womenfolk. 2001. Web. 08 Dec. 2011. <>.
Canada, Mark. "Stephen Crane and Naturalism." The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. 1997. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.
Crane, Stephen, Donald Pizer, and Eric Carl. Link. The Red Badge of Courage: an Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008. Print.
Hunter, T.J. "Stephen Crane (1871-1900): A Brief Biography." California State University, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.
Marcus, Mordecai. "Animal Imagery in The Red Badge of Courage." Modern Language Notes 74.2 (1959): 108-11. Print.
McDermott, John J. "Symbolism and Psychological Realism in The Red Badge of Courage." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 23.3 (1968). Print.
Mork, Rachel. "What Is Symbolism in Literature?" Life123. 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2011. <>.
Stone, Edward. "The Many Suns of The Red Badge of Courage." American Literature 29.3 (1957). Print.
"The Great Battle of Sunday." The New York Times 3 May 1863. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords a Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1988. Print.

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