When I was asked to discuss The Red Badge of Courage with this year’s Academic Decathlon team, it had been at least thirty years since I’d read it. I figured another reading was in order if I hoped to be of any help to the team members. I had only remembered one scene with any clarity—that of the protagonist, “the youth” or Henry Fleming, coming to an opening in the woods to find a corpse. The reason I remembered it well was that there were ants crawling on the lip of the dead man. This was the first time I had read a book that realistically portrayed battle.
The fact that The Red Badge of Courage is one of the first American novels to portray battle realistically is part of the reason it has such staying power. Most critics wouldn’t call it a truly great book, and yet it was, artistically—stylistically–something new and striking when published in 1895. I believe it’s still worth reading and can be a great choice for several COHS projects.
The Red Badge of Courage will work for any assignment which requires historical fiction. If the assignment goes further—as does the Junior Project—in asking that you do research on the time period in which the fiction takes place, then the Civil War is a good choice. It’s interesting, there’s a lot of easily accessible information about it, and it’s one of the most important events in the history of the country. Equally, The Red Badge of Courage is a good choice for literary analysis. You can discuss Realism or Naturalism and examples abound. You can make a careful contrast to Romanticism if asked to write a paper comparing and contrasting.
Basically, The Red Badge of Courage details the events in one battle–presumably the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, near Richmond, in 1863. (Although the novel never states this, there are many geographical clues.) The battle is seen through the eyes of an untried young soldier. After a first skirmish, the youth becomes afraid and flees the battlefield, running through the woods. He is ashamed and doesn’t know how he will manage to return to his regiment. He is struck in the head with a rifle butt by another disoriented soldier and wounded. This ‘red badge of courage’ enables the youth to return to his regiment under the pretense that he was wounded in battle. He then has the opportunity to show his mettle.
In discussing the novel, you have many themes to choose from—man v. nature, the individual v. society, coming of age, appearance v. reality, and alienation and loneliness. However, the thought I’ll leave you with is from critic Sharon Cumberland: “The Red Badge of Courage is a study in what a rational person can do in an irrational situation.”