For last few weeks, I am oscillating between the literature of two great nations – Russia and America, amazed by sheer brilliance of narration, abundance of techniques and diversity of plots produced by the time tested stalwarts of these countries. The moment I finished reading The Great Gatsby, I was enamored by Crime and Punishment. No sooner had I recovered from the pompous style of Fitzgerald and the analytical depth of Fyodor, than Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy blew the war-trumpet. And, once again, I was left wordless with the colloquial ease of one and the meshy emotions of another. It seems as if a Russo-American War is going on in my bookshelf, with Russian and American authors fighting zealously.
If you are wondering as to why I am talking in terms of war, battle and fight, well, it possibly is the after effect of a moving war novel, I have just finished, as the latest bandwagon to jump into the foray is none other than Stephen Crane, a celebrated American writer who had penned an eloquent narrative unparalleled in beauty and rhythm.
Yes, I am talking about ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ by Stephen Crane, a simple story about a young soldier Henry Fleming, who unwittingly enrolls himself in the army against his mother’s wishes. The young lad had been carried away by false notions of bravery and heroism that often infect people in war times. However, Henry’s romance with war dissipates into thin air as soon as he reaches the battle ground. Even before, he is able to wear his uniform properly, he is shoved to the front, engulfed by the raging clouds of Civil War, forced to face an invincible enemy through the hazy curtains of brown dust and scarlet sky.
Henry realizes that war is not only about bold action, but also a long insufferable silence, idle sitting in the most uncomfortable situations, with constant threat of danger lurking around. In the beginning, he is hot blooded and impatiently waits for the War-siren to be sounded, but, at first sight of enemy infantries, his courage vaporizes and he runs away from the battleground, taking shelter in woods.
However, in the forest he encounters the dead body of another coward like himself. He realizes that a gallant death at the front would be much more honorable than a slow painful death from hunger and thirst in the midst of nowhere. To avoid a horrible fate, he decides to go back to his regiment and fight till his last breath. But, just then life throws another googly at him, his side had been victorious in the first day battle, and he is possibly the only deserter in his entire Brigade.
He is ashamed of his cowardice and thinks of numerous excuses for his defection, even death seems more attractive to him than being alive, branded as a run away soldier. And, while he is lost in his meandering thoughts, he gets his first battle wound- his own Red Badge of Courage- ironically delivered by one of his own soldiers, who is irritated beyond senses by Henry’s continued haranguing. This battle wound, or, rather, a sad reminder of a pathetic street scuffle brings about another transformation in Henry. He is mentally prepared for the war, and stung by callous remarks of a senior officer, he becomes adamant on proving his valor. He fights heroically and at the end of the novel, the young hesitating lad is transformed into a mature gallant soldier.
In essence, the novel traces the psychological transformation of Henry Fleming through the war. I am sure, the theme has been tackled a hundred times before and there is hardly anything new contributed by Crane in this war novel. But, I liked the fact that the story is written from the individualistic point of view of a single soldier, who is not some bold figure placed on the high pedestals of valor and courage, but, a common man, with his mortal fear of pain and death and Stephen made use of some brilliant figurative imagery to show the emotions of his protagonist. What ensures Crane in the list of classic authors, is his unique treatment of the subject. He concentrates on a single individual, expressing his thoughts in such a manner that the reader could empathize with him at a personal level.
More than anything, I was impressed with the figurative language and powerful imagery used by Stephen Crane. The entire narrative is littered with red color – a strong reminder of blood and gore associated with wars. The theme of battle is recurrent, not only in the pithy dialogues of soldiers, or the emotionally charged swears of officers, or in the tragic silent deaths of the wounded ones, but also in the strange transmutation of a loud callous soldier and submissive surrender of war prisoners. The entire novel is a steady stream of never ending similes and metaphors, with red and blue color being contrasted brilliantly against the dead brown color of battle ground. I am yet to see a better usage of motif, as Crane has done with the red color. And, as a student of literature, I think The Red Badge of Courage is one of the best ways of learning the usage of literary devices.
However, as a reader, I am not impressed with Stephen Crane’s excruciating work. After a certain time, his flowery language hindered my connection with the narrative. I, no doubt, enjoyed his detailed poetic visual imagery, but, at times, I felt the story was needlessly stretched and the plot seemed stagnant, forcing me to count the remaining pages at regular intervals. I almost felt like Henry, desperately waiting for the real action to begin!
The climax was good and it did alleviate the narrative a bit. But, at the end of the day, it was too late too little for me, especially, as I had just experienced Tolstoy’s expressive world of Anna Karenina, throbbing with emotions of life and pathos of death. And, I would readily give up Crane’s strategic interplay of words, garlanded with the choicest metaphors for a massive Leo creation, laden with the intricacies of life. Needless to say, I am more impressed with Russian authors, but, I have two more American classics left in my kitty, Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd. Lets see if they can uphold the American reputation or not!
Edition : 2008
Published by : Bantam Dell (Random House)
No. of Pages : 155