The Red Badge of Courage

The Dynamics of Egotism and Naturalism in The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage follows the enlistment of the protagonist Henry and his struggle to mature from a youthful vanity that drives most of his actions through the novel to a final acceptance of the uncaring reality of war and society and the inevitability of death. Though the novel ends on an optimistic note that Henry has at last become a “heroic” man, I argue that Henry’s change from naiveté and vanity to selflessness and maturity is not a simple and thorough shift, but subtle and largely an incomplete thought at best that leaves readers to question where to draw the line whereupon Henry’s egotism ends and naturalism takes over. This “gray” area Henry is in between selfishness and a recognition of death’s inevitability despite human intervention ultimately shows the two concepts more entangled than it appears at face-value. Henry’s shift, then, is illustrated as a complicated process with no exact “endpoint” in which readers must extricate which “side” Henry falls on at the end of the novel.

From the onset of the novel, readers can immediately note Henry’s youthful naiveté and romantic conception of military life and war. Despite his mother’s ominous words, “I know how you are… you are jest one little...

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