The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Realism

Infantry, artillery, cavalry, panic-stricken cattle, accompanied with the shrieks of the wounded and groans of the dying, with a hail of shells from Jackson's guns and serenaded by the rebel yell, with officers cursing in a chaotic state, was an experience I will never forget."

Private Nathaniel Bierly, 148th Pennsylvania at Chancellorsville on the United States Civil War Center, a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts

"The Red Badge impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before…"

Harold Frederic, London editor of the New York Times, January 12, 1896 on the Red Badge Home Page of the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia

One early reviewer declared that The Red Badge of Courage "impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before." Many readers recognized something new in Stephen Crane's depiction of war. The point of view—telling the tale through the eyes and thoughts of one soldier—contributed to the effect, but was not novel. As told by Crane, the experiences of a single soldier in the field (Henry Fleming) are reflected in a stream of impressions and images that communicate the chaos and movement of war and the lack of certainty day to day. Like his readers, Crane's expectations of "actual truth" had been shaped by newspapers and documentary reports, especially in photographs and the drawings of witnesses. The novel's success reflects the birth of a modern sensibility; today we feel something is true when it looks like the sort of thing we see in newspapers or on television news. Gone are the trappings of romance and poetry and all the old ways of memorializing battle that had come to seem increasingly artificial, unreal. Increase your students' understanding of Crane's influences and how the novel's style helped convey a new realism.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lesson The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Courage.

Guiding Questions

What connections can be made between "The Red Badge of Courage" and paintings, photographs, and first-hand accounts of the Civil War? 

What elements of Crane's style in "The Red Badge of Courage" created a sense of realism?

Learning Objectives

Compare specific excerpts from The Red Badge of Courage to first-hand accounts of Civil War battles, in text and images.

List elements of Crane's style in The Red Badge of Courage that contribute to its realism.