Symbolism in the Red Badge of Courage

“Sometimes the most profound awakenings come wrapped in the quietest of moments” (Fusco 1).   In this quote, Richard Fusco sums up Steven Crane’s hidden messages within his novel, The Red Badge of Courage.  The Red Badge of Courage is well known for being a novel about the psychological battles of a young man and the realities of all wars, not just the Civil War, but what most young scholars consistently miss is message of the novel hidden beneath Crane’s many symbols.  The first and probably the most prevalent of the symbols in this marvelous novel are the many references to the red badge of courage itself  because the red badge of courage takes on many different forms and meanings throughout the book.  On top of the red badge, Crane utilizes each of his characters to reference to, or model, certain historical figures for the young Henry Fleming.  Finally, Crane describes nearly every aspect of his story with coloration.  This, in itself, contains more meaning than just the visual colors of the setting.   Stephen Crane has much symbolism wrapped up in his novel through the red badge of courage, characterization, and color descriptions.

The red badge of courage, as the book is so cleverly named after, has many hidden meanings throughout it.  Perhaps the clearest symbolism the red badge of courage holds is both physical and emotional wounds.  In the beginning of the story, young Henry Fleming approaches battle wounds in a very casual manner, but as the novel continues, this approach transforms, first into fear and later into a form of awe and worship.  Fleming goes from being a boy who is terrified of being injured to one who “regards the wounded soldiers in an envious way…He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage” (Crane 54).  Crane uses this psychological transformation within Henry to reference the red badge of courage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, Scarlett Letter. “He was continuing casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow” (Crane 54).  Fleming seems to have similar inner turmoil as Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s novel, in that he knows he has done something wrong, it is eating him alive, but no one realizes that he is at fault.  Although Henry does receive a physical wound of his own, most scholars would be willing to argue that the red badge of courage, whose name the novel bares, is referencing to Henry Fleming’s emotional trauma rather than physical.

As the symbolism of the red badge begins to increase, Crane takes this opportunity to make each of his secondary characters represent historical figures.  Jim Conklin, Fleming’s hero, becomes almost like a representation of Christ for young Henry.   Referred to as the “tall soldier” that immediately places more physical importance upon him, but the most influential part of Jim Conklin’s story is his death.  Staged much like martyrdom, Conklin’s death is an important turning point for Henry, eventually leading him to become a braver man, much like Christ’s death changed the world.  Henry’s comrade, Wilson, in the beginning, is described as the “loud soldier” and is characterized as immature and almost ridiculous. His character development is very similar to Henry’s in that he goes from boy to man, but in a very different way.  He almost becomes a shadow of Henry’s guilt when Wilson chooses to go into battle and come out a man while Henry runs.  Henry and Wilson view battle very similarly in the beginning envisioning it “in the terms of heroic struggles” (Fusco 15).  Henry seems to see himself as a sort of “modern-day Achilles”, but as reality sets in, “Fleming soon finds out that war is a ‘blood swollen god’ who gobbles down human flesh” (Fusco 15). Crane’s religious and historical background is shown very clearly through the development of his characters.

The descriptions of Crane’s characters are not the only descriptions within The Red Badge of Courage that include depth. Crane’s use of colors throughout the novel involves much deeper indications than just physical perspective.  One such obvious use is how Crane utilizes his color descriptions to show the inner turmoil of his characters. He “shifts in emphasis from reporting physical truth to constructing narratives that explored psychological truths” (Fusco 20). This is evident during the point in the novel when Henry Fleming is coming to the realization that life goes on.  He begins to understand that even if he does die a hero, he will not be remembered like Achilles, and the world keeps turning, even in grief.  “It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment” (Crane 38).  This beautiful description of nature, without the psychological representation would put the reader at peace, but because the reader understands the inner struggle the character is going through, this picture only increases the empathetic grief the reader is experiencing.  Crane creates an understanding between the characters and the readers by painting images with colors that reflect his characters’ psychological turmoil.

Crane takes advantage of every word he writes by giving them deeper meanings, especially when it comes to the symbolism of the red badge of courage, his character development, and his color descriptions.  The red badge of courage takes on many different meanings thought the novel.  The most prominent may be Henry’s guilt for not receiving a proper wound because he ran from battle.  The development of all of the characters comes to symbolize different historical figures, especially ones that have to do with Greek history or Christian religion.  To tie it all up, Crane utilizes physical color descriptions to bring the readers into the character’s minds and help them to empathize with the character’s psychological conflict.   Crane’s novel on the Civil War does not just represent the Civil War but all wars.  He does not write about justice or right and wrong, but rather faces the truth of how battle scars humanity.


Works Cited

  1. Crane, Stephen. Red Badge of Courage. Barnes and Nobles Books. New York. 1894. Print.
  2. Fusco, Richard. ”The World of Stephen Crane and Red Badge of Courage.” Barnes and Nobles Inc. 2003. Print.
  3. McDermont, John. “Symbolism and Psychological Realism in Red Badge of Courage”. University of California Press. 1968. Print.



One thought on “Symbolism in the Red Badge of Courage

  1. This was really good. Thanks for writing these. I enjoy reading your thoughts and summaries of different novels, and it makes me want to read them too.


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