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Symbolism in the ”Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane

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In most classic American literature, symbolism is ingenuously present and undoubtedly praised. In the novel The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane depicts the Civil War in a blatantly authentic manner. At the same time, he purposely creates a much deeper message through the usage of symbols. The novel is seemingly plot less, but when read thoroughly it is a truly remarkable personal account of such a milestone in United States history. Crane uses Jim Conklin, the flag, and even the title to establish more clearly the struggle, pride, and human nature that is revealed in battle.

Jim Conklin, or the “tall soldier,” is a close companion to Henry throughout the entire novel. In the Red Badge of Courage, there are very few references to religion. Conklin’s general attitude and death, however, was written to be a religious allegory. Crane intends for him to be a Christ-like figure. On the scene of his death, “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer,” (51). In the Catholic ceremonies, a wafer is taken at communion. The author states, “His spare figure was erect; his bloody hands were quietly at his sides,” (50). His position and wounds at death are very similar to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Crane subtly used the wafer, and significant parts of his death, to create the effect of Christianity personified in Jim Conklin.

Outwardly, the flag in this novel, as in other typical war situations, represents how the regiment stands in battle. When looking deeper, those soldiers risked their lives to keep the flag standing. In the novel, “The youth’s friend went over the obstruction in a tumbling heap and sprang at the flag as a panther at prey… swung up its red brilliancy with a mad cry of exultation…” (115). The flag hitting the ground was a sign of failure, and the soldiers would stop at nothing to keep their sense of pride and honor symbolized by the flag. The youth stood “… jubilant and glorified, holding his treasure with vanity…” (116). Each man immensely respected the flag, and held it as an emblem of what they were doing.

In the second battle in the book, Henry is ashamed of his behavior, and desperately wants a “red badge of courage”. He wants a wound to prove that he is something more than he truly is. The wound is seen as a symbol of courage and bravery. “At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way… He wished that he, too, had a wound.” He felt almost ostracized army after he runs from battle and has no visible proof of gallantry. Ironically when Henry finally receives his “red badge of courage” it is from arguing with a fellow Union soldier. “He adroitly and fiercely swung his rifle. It crushed the youth’s head.” He was left with exactly what he wanted, but can’t be satisfied, because he didn’t truthfully earn it.

Jim Conklin, the flag, and the “red badge of courage” were all huge elements of the novel. Crane used these symbols, and others, to further the meaning, and to help us to understand what it is like to go through the hardships of battle. Symbolism in the book supplements the message significantly and accurately describes America’s least favorite past time, war. It is beautifully written and critically acclaimed to be such a great American classic not only for its content, but for its incredible use of symbols.

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