Crane’s Use of Literary Devices in The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane was the first writer to realistically portray war, which had previously been promoted as full of glory and honor. Partly influenced by his experiences as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War, Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage to disillusion the masses who did not know of war’s cruelty. In this novel, Crane uses imagery, color symbolism, and language to graphically depict the horror of war.

Much of Crane’s imagery uses animals to enhance the brutal aspects of war. When describing battles and retreats, Crane sometimes creates the feeling of scampering squirrels, or diving birds of prey. This helps to portray the soldiers and their actions more fully than a direct description because it causes the reader to associate them with the most common qualities of that animal; with this, the enemy becomes “flies sucking insolently at his blood” (93). The repeated use of animal imagery is used to show the inhumanity of war, bringing out its savageness. Crane also uses imagery to describe the movements of the forces, sometimes as waves, with “sprays of light” (119) to bring out an image of a powerful, brutal ocean. In addition, the image of a machine dominates descriptions of the army. Crane often brings the whole of Henry’s regiment into one being, portraying the individual as an expendable part of the whole. This aspect of naturalism, that man is insignificant, adds to the impersonality and harshness of war by depicting battle as a mechanical, inhuman process.

The recurring colors in the novel serve to bring out certain characteristics of war, from fear and danger to hope and purity. In the earlier parts of the book, red, yellow, and gray dominate, bringing out fear and foreboding especially. Immediately preceding one skirmish, Crane describes the “faded yellow of their facings…” (69) to evoke foreboding of the danger in the battle to come. This also occurs in the first paragraph of the novel, where a “river, amber-tinted” and a landscape that “changed from brown to green” (1) bring out fear and foreboding concerning Henry’s regiment, which will soon be exposed to the brutality of war. Throughout Henry’s experiences with the war’s unrelenting harshness, these kinds of descriptions occur frequently; Crane uses them to evoke fear, danger, and foreboding. As Henry progresses through the war, the dominating colors change to blue, purple, and gold. There are many descriptions of the Union soldiers as “the men in blue” (124), “the blue whirl of men” (124), or something of that nature, which are used to illustrate the soldiers’ purity and strength as they move forward into battle. This color fades on some men’s uniforms, especially those of the dead, representing the fading of the characteristic it brings out. There are also several places toward the end where Crane uses purple or gold to represent the hope and triumph of the Union soldiers.

Crane’s word selection also serves to show the brutality of war, bringing out man’s powerlessness and the harsh inhumanity of battle. After emerging from the shocking savageness of battle, Henry “turned, with sudden, livid rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist” (57). Crane’s phrasing effectively brings out Henry’s passionate feelings, telling the reader that Henry is angry at his utter helplessness in the face of war, where he is subject to forces he cannot control. Crane does the same sort of thing when describing actions, manipulating verbs to give the reader an accurate, clear picture of the action. He also brings the artillery to life with his wording, often depicting their firing as “a mighty altercation” (69) through his use of words describing arguments. Crane’s diction provides effective, clear representations for the reader, capturing the essential qualities of events and people in metaphors and expressive verbs.

Crane’s novel brings out war’s features of naturalism with man’s insignificance, fear and foreboding, impersonality, and animal-like brutality. As Henry experiences these through the novel, Crane’s use of imagery, color, and wording show how Henry’s perspective changes to encompass a certain understanding and acceptance.

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