This four-and-a-half hour reading of the
complete text of Crane’s celebrated novel proved extremely beguiling, proving beyond all doubt the author’s ability
to narrate a story in an ornate style, with abundant use of metaphor, which nonetheless portrays human beings as victims of
the world they live in.
Basically the story is straightforward:
the central character Henry Fleming goes into battle, but runs away. In the forest he meets some bedraggled troops who have
emerged victorious; and immediately feels guilty for not having fought himself. He returns to his regiment, but before arriving
he obtains a head injury caused by another soldier hitting him on the head with a gun. His comrades think he has been hit
by a bullet grazing him in battle. In the next battle he discovers that his regiment has a lacklustre reputation as “mule
drivers” and “mud diggers;” but they have to fight as there are no other troops left. In the final battle
Henry becomes one of the best fighters as well as a flag bearer, proving beyond all doubt that he has earned the “red
badge of courage” – i.e. a wound of battle.
More importantly, however, Crane’s
novel is a naturalistic portrayal of the sheer hellishness of war, in which men lose their humanity and become akin to wild
animals in their desire to kill. This might be due to enthusiasm; more likely it is due to sheer terror. They have to fight
for their lives to sustain their individuality in an indifferent universe. If they are killed, they believe that destiny has
caught up with them. This is especially evident in a famous sequence involving the soldier Jim, who achieves a certain nobility
in death, but as he does so admits that he has been “a devotee of a mad religion” – the religion of battle.
War is inevitably wasteful; but human beings apparently have to engage in it, in order to ‘prove’ themselves.
At the same time, The Red Badge of Courage also venerates the individual – the person who rises above the indifferent universe
and proves his heroism. This is precisely what Henry does at the end of the novel; only by showing his ‘manhood’
in battle can he escape what he perceives as the humiliation of escaping from the first conflict. Crane is only interested
in the male individual (there is no place for females in the main body of the novel); but he shows how such individuals can
obtain eternal peace for themselves through the honour of battle.
While the novel is written in elaborate
language, it is nonetheless beguiling to listen to; one becomes quite seduced by the endless sentences in which the young
author is clearly experimenting with the possibilities of the language. In Sean Pratt’s reading this came across very
clearly: one did not have to listen to all the sentences to understand the mood of the piece. At their best audiobooks have
an educational as well as an entertainment value, helping listeners to understand classic works in greater detail by foregrounding
their linguistic possibilities. This was certainly the case with Crane’s work.