Henry's Quest for Narrative in 'The Red Badge of Courage'

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Author: Joseph M. Meyer
Date: Autumn 2017
From: The Midwest Quarterly(Vol. 59, Issue 1)
Publisher: Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,022 words
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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An ongoing debate surrounding Crane's The Red Badge of Courage concerns the validity of Henry Flemings language at the end of the novel: should we or should we not believe that the young soldier has in some way matured, or does Crane s permeating irony--along with Flemings romanticized views of war--automatically make us skeptical of any insights that he may have gained about what it means to be mature? John J. McDermott is one of the few critics who believes that the young soldier experiences a genuine movement "from sham heroics to genuine heroics for immature reasons, to a final pattern of courageous action performed primarily in response to his own matured demands on himself' (330). On the other side of the debate, Donald Pizer argues that Fleming's assertions at the end of the novel are an "exercise in sliding-door conscience" that "would appear to cast much doubt on the legitimacy" of his claims to maturity (2). One of the problems with this debate as it stands is that, as Charles Swann notes, "both readings are possible" (95). The ending of the novel certainly elicits strong reactions and invites us to carefully consider the evolution of Fleming's maturation. Rather than claiming my preference for one reading over the other, I would like to consider the impetus for the young soldier to say anything at all.

In light of the more recent research on PTSD and the use of narrative construction therapy, it is time for us to reconsider this debate. At the heart of the discussion is our judgment of Fleming's language and interpretation of the events he experiences--the story that makes up Red Badge . However, perhaps it is not the story itself that we should be evaluating. Instead, I propose that we think about Red Badge as a type of narrative construction therapy. This study focuses on the premise that what Fleming says at the conclusion of the novel is not as important as why he says it, or that he says it at all. The young soldiers sudden ability to make sense of the world around him may not sit well with many readers, but it does make sense in terms of his need to create a coherent narrative for his experiences, to give purpose to the chaos of his emotions. By viewing Crane's novel from the perspective of narrative construction and trauma, we begin to see that The Red Badge of Courage is not simply about the evolution of Fleming, the person--when we read it for this reason we are indeed left with the kind of ambiguity that critics have been writing about since the novel was published. Instead, if we read the novel through the scope of the trauma of personal narrative construction, we can see that Fleming's final thoughts are not an ending at all; they are a beginning. It is my contention that what we are reading in the The Red Badge of Courage is not the story of Henry Fleming; it is an...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A513009140