Crane is perhaps the greatest of the naturalists, however, precisely because his works transcend their genre. While works such asThe Red Badge of Courage and "The Open Boat" depict men struggling against a natural world that is both destructive and indifferent, they also explore subjects such as fraternity, an individual's role in community, psychology, art, and initiation into manhood. What is more, unlike Dreiser and London, Crane treated his subjects in a highly lyrical style. Indeed, in addition to writing some of America's most famous stories, he produced a substantial body of poetry. A particularly noteworthy aspect of this style is Crane's use of imagery, which has earned him the title of a literary impressionist. Scholar Shelby Foote has called The Red Badge of Courage "a succession of sharply outlined pictures which pass before the reader like a panorama, having each its definite impression" (ix).
Writing possessed Crane, who told fellow author Willa Cather: "You can't do it by rule any more than you can learn to dance by rule. You have to have the itch of the thing in your fingers, and if you haven't--well, you're damned lucky, and you'll live long and prosper, that's all" (Foote xx). Dying of tuberculosis before he reached the age of 30, Crane did not live long, but he did prosper, at least in the sense of producing several literary masterpieces. The Red Badge of Courage, the British novelist H.G. Wells wrote, drew an "orgy of praise" in England (Foote xxv). Later, American writer Ernest Hemingway called the novel "one of the finest books of our literature" (Foote vii).
- The story appeared in an 1899 collection called The Monster and Other Stories.
Issues and themes
- Scully, owner of the Palace Hotel in Nebraska, persuades a Swede, a cowboy, and an Easterner to stay at his hotel.
- The Swede and three locals play cards.
- The Swede acts as if he is paranoid, eventually accusing the hotel owner's son, Johnnie, of trying to kill him.
- The Swede goes upstairs to pack his bags, but Scully talks him into staying.
- The men begin playing cards again, but the Swede accuses Johnnie of cheating, and the two go outside in the swirling snow to fight.
- The Swede wins the fight, gets drunk, and enters another saloon, where he pesters a gambler.
- The gambler stabs the Swede.
- One of original players explains to another that he noticed that Johnnie was cheating and failed to speak up; he takes partial responsibility for the Swede's death and explains that all of the men had a role in the tragedy.CommunityStudy questions
- Five men in the Palace Hotel constitute a small community sharing the basic needs of shelter and warmth while nature threatens them from the outside.
- Although these needs are satisfied, they spiral out of control because of aspects of civilization: the quest for victory leads Johnnie to cheat, and the Swede's need for law and order drives him to challenge Johnnie.
- Easterner: "Oh, I don't know, but it seems to me this man has been reading dime novels, and he thinks he's right out in the middle of it--the shootin' and stabbin' and all" (175).
- Scully tries to overcome the Swede's stereotypes by showing him pictures of his family and sharing whiskey with him (173).Control by environment: Swede is victim of culture, is taken in by stereotypes.
Control by chemicals and our own bodies
- Swede to Johnnie: "I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room" (169).
- When men become annoyed by his peculiar accusations, the Swede cries: "I don't want no fight!" (169).
Control by inner nature
- Alcohol makes Swede brash and leads him to start a fight with the gambler.
- Fragility of human body: "It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon" (191).
- The Swede's pride causes him to start the fight with Johnnie; he says: "Maybe you think I can't fight! Maybe you think I can't! I'll show you, you skin, you card-sharp" (180).
- The Easterner's cowardice leads to fight: ". . . Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man" (193).Control by nature: The swirling snow and cold air create a menacing presence.
- These details of nature become symbols of larger nature's control of humans in the wind's effect on the playing cards: "Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall" (181).
- "One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smitten, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb" (188).
- Control by circumstances: Characters lack individual power; nonetheless, their actions have collective effects; the Easterner tells the cowboy that the Swede's death was the apex of all five card players' actions: "Every sin is the result of a collaboration" (193).Limits on control: the Easterner's guilt over allowing events to proceed suggests that one is not purely a victim of forces. If all truly were predetermined, why then would the Easterner feel responsible for the Swede's death?Technique
- Darkness and cold outside frame these events in the saloon: "He might have been in a deserted village. We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth" (188).
- Realistic details: When the saloon door opens, the wind hurls some of the playing cards against the wall.
- Analyze the role of setting in the story. Consider, for example, this passage: "We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth" (1641).
- Are the characters well-developed or are they merely types? Defend your answer.
- What is a dime novel? How has it colored the Swede's ideas about the West? In what way is this detail a comment on literary realism and romance?
- What is the role of women in the story? Why do you suppose they appear only once, in a brief scene after the fight between the Swede and Johnnie?
- How does the Swede change over the course of the story? What is the significance of this change?
- Analyze the character of the professional gambler. How do the other citizens regard him and why?
- Describing the gambler's stabbing of the Swede, Crane writes: "There was a great tumult, and then was seen a long blade in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon" (1644). What does Crane mean?
- Interpret the story's conclusion. Why does the Easterner say that the gambler was "a kind of adverb"? Why does he say that he and the other bystanders collaborated in the murder of the Swede?
- Identify some features of Crane's style. What do they contribute to the story's meaning or effect?
- Consider the blue hotel as a symbol. What might it represent? Cite details from the story to support your interpretation.
- What is naturalistic about this story?
© Mark Canada, 1997
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