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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is a short but powerful classic American Civil War novel about the horrors of war, the loss of innocence and self-assurance in the face of mortal danger, and the futile quest for honor and glory on a battlefield of senseless destruction. Stephen Crane's vivid and sometimes gory stream-of-consciousness battle scenes (men losing limbs, being cut down by whizzing bullets and canon fire) and piercing psychological analysis reveal the moral questions and deeply troubling human cost of modern warfare, exposing the disconnect between the soldiers risking their lives and the decision-makers sending them to fight. This compelling novel is a landmark in American fiction that's often assigned in school and remains relevant for today's readers.
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What's the story?
THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, written by precocious American author Stephen Crane in 1895, is a short novel about an unnamed Civil War battle (based on the Battle of Chancellorsville, in which Crane's brother fought. It's told from the perspective of a young enlisted intellectual who's terrified that he may not be brave enough to stand and fight when the time comes. As the multi-day skirmish unfolds, "the youth" is confronted with mortal danger at every turn, throwing his fragile psyche into turmoil as he tries to prove his manly credentials and preserve his honor in the eyes of his peers. Fighting to survive, blinded by the fog of war, and boxed in by expectations of chivalry and masculinity, the young men of the regiment are tried and tested again and again, losing many to gunfire, until "the sultry nightmare was in the past."
Is it any good?
Crane's evocative, stream-of-conscious descriptions of the emotional turbulence and all-around mayhem of battle is incredibly compelling. Henry is a dynamic main character capable of moments of laudable bravery as well as detestable egotism. The hazy morality of combat is a central theme, with Crane almost mocking the soldiers who continuously pat themselves on the back and assure themselves that they are becoming "men" by confronting the terror of the front lines. In reality, Crane is skewering these foolhardy notions of honor and courage, highlighting just how fickle and contradictory such characteristics can be. While The Red Badge of Courage does provide an illuminating depiction of the experience of a massive 19th-century battle, the true focus is on the internal conflicts people must face when swept up into the desperate and deadly maelstrom of war. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War, military history, or the development of American literature.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the Civil War is portrayed in The Red Badge of Courage. How did the conflict affect the course of United States history? How could things have turned out differently if there had not been such a devastating clash?
"The youth" in Stephen Crane's novel is wracked by guilt and fear that he may not be brave enough not to run when his enemies attack, though he realizes he won't be sure of his bravery until he faces a mortal challenge. Do you think traditional notions of honor, valor, and courage are still applicable in the 21st century? How might social expectations be different now than they were in Civil War times?
The U.S. Civil War has had more books published about it than any other topic in history. Why do you think historians and novelists keep returning to the subject? Do you have a favorite book or film about the Civil War? Are there any stories from the period you'd like to learn more about?
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