Red Badge of Courage


The Red Badge of Courage, by its very title, is invested in color imagery and color symbols. While Crane uses color to describe, he also allows it to stand for whole concepts. Gray, for example, describes the both the literal image of a dead soldier and Henry Fleming's vision of the sleeping soldiers as corpses and comes to stand for the idea of death. In the same way, red describes both the soldiers' physical wounds and Fleming's mental visions of battle. In the process, it gains a symbolic meaning which Crane will put to an icon like the "red badge of courage" (110). Crane uses color in his descriptions of the physical and the metaphysical and allows color to take on meanings ranging from the literal to the figurative.
Crane opens the novel with a description of the fields at dawn: "As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors" (43). The fog clears to reveal a literal green world of grass. It also reveals another green world, the green world of youth. Like schoolchildren, the young soldiers circulate rumor within the regiment. This natural setting proves an ironic place for killing, just as these fresh men seem the wrong ones to be fighting in the Civil War. Crane remarks on this later in the narrative: "He was aware that these battalions with their commotions were woven red and startling into the gentle fabric of the softened greens and browns. It looked to be a wrong place for a battlefield" (69). Green is an image of the natural world and of the regiment's fresh youth, while red, in the previous quote, is clearly an image of battle. At the start, however, Crane uses red to describe distant campfires: ". . . one could see across the red, eyelike gleam of the hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of the distant hills" (43). Obviously, the fires are red. But Fleming characterizes the blazes as the enemy's glowing eyes. He continues this metaphor in the next chapter: "From across the river the deep red eyes were still peering" (58). Crane then transforms this metaphor into a conceit used throughout the text: "Staring once at the red eyes across the river, he conceived then to be growing larger, as the orbs of a row of dragons advancing" (59). The red of the campfires comes to represent eyes of the enemy, of dragons. The monstrous dragons are, indeed, the opposing army: "The dragons were coming with invincible strides. The army, helpless in the matted thickets and blinded by the overhanging night, was going to be swallowed. War, the red animal, war, the blood swollen god, would have his fill" (130).
The color red also describes more literal objects in the text. Flags, as emblems of each army, are frequently described in red. In the text's final battle, "the youth could not tell from the battle flags flying like crimson foam in many directions which color of cloth was winning" (89). At a different point in the narrative, Fleming notices flags "here and there . . . the red in the stripes dominating" (89). Gunfire, as one should suspect, is usually described in red terms. "Knifelike fire from rifles is later referred to as "beams of crimson" (164). Anger, although more metaphysical than gunfire, also seems naturally connected with the color red. At the end of the text, Fleming is ashamed of his initial shortcomings as a soldier and emits "an outburst of crimson oaths" (209). Perhaps these are angry, impassioned words or perhaps they are promises regarding his courage in battle. Either way, Crane's use of red or crimson literally colors their intention for the reader. Earlier in the text, Fleming is in a "red rage . . . He wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers. He craved a power that would enable him to make a world-sweeping gesture and brush all back. His impotency appeared to him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast" (85). This "red rage" demonstrates the violent passion of this soldier's desire to fight. Thus far we have three elements of battle: flags, gunfire and anger. These things comprise the "red monster of war." I have, however, left out the most graphic and obvious thing that connects red