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Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having witnessed combat. However, his use of vivid imagery, color motifs, and his ability to describe the emotional highs and lows of an insecure soldier have earned the novel many accolades. While the novel only takes place over the course of a few days, it is a story of a lifetime for a young private named Henry Fleming during the American Civil War. The story of Henry Fleming and his journey from a young fearful boy to a bold young soldier highlights important themes that many students will encounter in their own lives, including overcoming fear, a soldier’s duty and honor, defining manhood, and finding redemption.

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One reason why Crane’s writing style is so successful is because it incorporates many elements of the Realism literary movement. Realism is defined as depicting the characteristics of everyday life in their truest form. Realism doesn’t concern itself with supernatural elements like its Gothic predecessor, nor does it try to get too exotic or fancy in its descriptions. It is often referred to as a “faithful representation of reality”. Crane utilizes Realism in his depiction of Henry Fleming’s thoughts and in his journey from coward to hero. Some important characteristics of Realism include:

  • Plausible events, conflicts, and characters
  • Emphasizes morality and honor
  • Character is more important than the plot
  • Intense attention to detail
  • A focus on the middle class
  • Characters’ motivations are based on real life, and can be empathized with by the reader

The Battle of Chancellorsville

While the 304th New York Regiment is fictional, it was thought to be inspired by the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which Stephen Crane utilized to prepare for his novel. The battle that Henry Fleming takes part in is thought to be based off of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in 1863. Students can find more information on the battle (and perhaps English and History classes can team up for this, too!) at the following resources:

Essential Questions for The Red Badge of Courage

  1. When can fear become overwhelming?
  2. What is courage? Why is it important?
  3. What are some reasons why people choose to enlist and fight in a war?
  4. Should desertion be considered a crime? Why or why not?
  5. What qualities make a good soldier? A bad soldier?
  6. What defines “manhood”?
  7. Is it possible to find redemption for our mistakes?

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