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Use of Naturalism and Impressionism in Crane’s Red Badge of Courage

In his novel “Red Badge of courage” Crane follows two narrative techniques namely impressionism and naturalism. Through his technique of impressionism Crane tries to give picture of the battlefield as well as the effects of the wars on the nature. By using his method of naturalism Crane mainly tries to portray Henry’s character.

Impressionism is a method of writing in which the author presents characters, scenes, and moods as he visualizes them at a particular moment rather than as they are in reality. The term comes from the French impressionist painter who painted an object in a few strokes thus suggesting the form rather than delineating it realistically. They were chiefly concerned with the effect of various kinds of light on an object or scene.

Crane was one of the chief impressionists of his day. Like the painters he had little sense of line. He characterized his people by giving an impression of a loud soldier, a tall soldier, a tattered soldier, or a cheerful soldier. Although the reader knows a great deal about Henry Fleming he does not know what he looks like physically.

Crane had the same concern as the painters for the effect of light on color. In the book the landscape and objects change their colors as the light changes. A river is “amber-tinted” in the early morning. Green trees and bushes appear blue in the distance. Crane describes troops on the battlefield as follows.

These battalions with their commotions were woven red and startling into the gentle fabric of softened greens and browns.

Crane has used impressionism as a painter but he also has carried this art beyond the physical level by creating images which are impressions of the mind rather than just impressions of line and color. Many of the seemingly disconnected images in the book are relevant to the emotional experiences of Henry. For instance in chapter 11 Crane repeatedly creates the image of the regiment as an insect.

1-It was now like one of those moving monsters wending with many feet.

2-There was an occasional flash and glimmer of steel from the backs of all these huge crawling reptiles.

3-They were like two serpents crawling from the cavern of the night.

4-But the long serpents crawled slowly from hill to hill without bluster of smoke.

Henry, as part of the “moving monster,” feels very much alone with his thoughts and problems. The army is like a monster to him which forces him to be part of it against his will and which makes him obey orders he cannot understand.

Naturalism is a theory of fiction which approaches life with a detached, objective, almost scientific outlook. Man is portrayed as an insignificant and helpless creature who acts according to his instincts in response to the conditions of his environment. He does not exercise his individual intelligence and free will to any great extent. He is like a puppet at the mercy of the physical conditions which surround him.

Nature is conceived of as being serene and indifferent to the troubles of mankind. Nature is not a person with attitudes, feelings, and intelligence. It is simply the natural environment and the physical forces which surround man.

Crane reflects these naturalistic concepts in The Red Badge of Courage. To Crane war is part of nature, a condition that is part of the physical environment. Crane many times repeats the idea that the individual loses his identity in the collective regimental personality. He writes of the military units as insects or machines. In the early march to the front Henry wants to run away but cannot do so.

He saw instantly that it would be impossible for him to escape from the regiment. It enclosed him and there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.

Henry discovers, in his flight from the battlefield, that he cannot fond refuge and consolation in nature. He goes into the dark forest seeking comfort. Instead he comes upon a ghastly corpse hidden in a “natural chapel” made of the boughs of trees. As he runs away from the scene panic-stricken, the bushes and trees seem to him to be impending his progress. Here is a picture of a youth who is helpless against his environment which is indifferent to his problems.

Crane points out the serenity of nature in contrast to the fighting that is taking place.


As he gazed around him the youth felt a flash of astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields. It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.

Crane has attempted to portray a “natural” man in the person of Henry Fleming, and “natural” actions. Henry follows his instincts when he runs from the battlefield. He later discovers that no harm was done by this action as no one knows about it and he comes to the following conclusion:

In the present, he declared to himself that it was only the doomed and the damned who roared with sincerity at circumstance. Few but they ever did it. A man with a full stomach and the respect of his fellows had no business to scold about anything that he might think to be wrong in the ways of the universe, or even with the ways of society. Let the unfortunates rail; the others may play marbles.

Later when Henry acts with great bravery he discovers that the heroic actions, too, are natural. In looking back at his actions he reflects the naturalistic conept.

He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion. Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy. He had been a tremendous figure, no doubt. By this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be mountains. They had fallen like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process. He had slept, and, awakening, found himself a knight.

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