Critical Essays The Use of Figurative Language in The Red Badge of Courage


Stephen Crane consistently uses figurative language to create images that vividly describe all aspects of war. For example, in the passage, "The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting," an example of personification, the cold, the fog, and the army are described as persons with specific behaviors, feelings, and needs. In addition, Crane uses personification to create a personality for the combatants, both collectively and individually. The clauses, "brigades grinned" and "regiments laughed," are good examples. When Henry's voice is described "as bitter as dregs," this simile allows the reader to experience the voice of an individual soldier.

The imagery developed for an impending battle uses similar techniques. The battle is "the blaze" and "a monster"; the combatants are "serpents crawling from hill to hill"; Henry's regiment is a "blasting host" (a killing machine); "red eyes" (enemy campfires) watch across rivers. All these images contribute to an ominous mood of foreboding.

The regiment is sometimes identified as a person, sometimes a monster, and sometimes a reptile. These images cause the reader to lose sight of the fact that the regiment is really a unit of men — of individual soldiers. The continued use of personification draws the reader to a feeling that a battle is a battle of regimental monsters, not of individual men.

In Chapter 5, Crane continues the use of figurative language, including simile, personification, and metaphor, to paint images of war. For example, he writes that "A shell screaming like a storm banshee went over the huddled heads of the reserves," a simile, and "They could see a flag that tossed in the smoke angrily," a personification, and that "The composite monster which had caused the other troops to flee had not then appeared" a metaphor. The enemy is still not visible. The wait for that "composite monster" continues. Just as the troops experience the dreadful wait, the reader feels the same emotions that all the soldiers are feeling. Crane develops this fear by using figurative language to create monster imagery.

Crane employs similes and personification to draw pictures of soldiers and their weapons. For example, a soldier's "eyeballs were about to crack like hot stones"; "The man at the youth's elbow was babbling something soft and tender like the monologue of a babe"; "The guns squatted in a row like savage chiefs." Crane uses both personification and simile in the line, "The cannon with their noses poked slantingly at the ground grunted and grumbled like stout men, brave but with objections to hurry." This line makes the weapons appear to be living creatures. The use of personification in the line, "The sore joints of the regiment creaked as it painfully floundered into position," turns the regiment into one large, tired soldier. Crane's similes describe groups and individuals in these examples: the rebel forces were "running like pursued imps" and Henry, at first, "ran like a rabbit" and, later, "like a blind man."

Crane develops imagery, using metaphor and personification, to make it clear that Henry has lost all his rational powers and that he is in a total state of panic. For example, to Henry, the enemy soldiers are metaphorically "machines of steel," "redoubtable dragons," and "a red and green monster"; the men who were nearest the battle would make the "initial morsels for the dragons"; "the shells flying past him have rows of cruel teeth that grinned at him." These images clearly show Henry's fright of the enemy.

In Chapter 9, Crane continues to use figurative language to support the war motif. He turns machines of war into people by using personification in the line "a crying mass of wagons." He changes Henry by using a simile, "His [Henry's] face would be hidden like the face of a cowled man," by using metaphor. Henry (in his own mind) is a "worm" and "a slang phrase." Crane also paints a picture of the battlefield using metaphoric description of battlefield action, examples being, "the heart of the din" (the battle) and "the mighty blue machine" (the Union Army).

In Chapter 11, Crane uses metaphoric language to describe both the enemy and war in several ways, including "The steel fibers had been washed from their hearts," the enemy is the "dragon," "They [the enemy] charged down upon him [Henry] like terrified buffaloes," and war is "the red animal, the blood-swollen god."

In describing the exhaustion of both Henry and the other soldiers, Crane uses a series of similes, including "Henry remained on the ground like a parcel, " and the men were so tired that they appeared "like men drunk with wine." In addition, when Henry finally lies down, he is so tired that Crane describes the action as "The youth got down like a crone stooping," and when the soldiers do sleep, they sleep under a night sky, a sky with "a handful of stars lying, like glittering pebbles, on the black level of the night."

In Chapter 14, Crane's use of simile to describe the sounds of war is very effective. Examples include, "This din of musketry, growing like a released genie of sound, expressed and emphasized the army' plight." His use of personification to describe the batteries' need to breathe, as seen in the line, "The guns were roaring without an instant's pause for breath," leaves the reader longing to take a breath.

In Chapter 12, 13, 14, and 22, Crane includes several more instances of figurative language to describe the enemy, Henry, himself, the weapons of war, the officers, the troops, the battlefield, and the flag. The enemy becomes "a hound taking a mouthful of prisoners." Henry is described in two similes as not "going to be badgered like a kitten chased by boys" and "When the enemy seemed falling back before him and his fellows, he went instantly forward like a dog." Regarding weapons of war, examples of figurative language include Henry's "[rifle] was an engine of annihilating power," "his [Henry's] rifle was [also] an impotent stick," and "the voices of the cannon were mingled in a long and interminable row."

To describe the officers' actions in preparing the soldiers for an offensive, Crane uses a simile to make an understandable comparison: "[The officers] were like critical shepherds struggling with sheep." Crane describes the regiment while resting as, "The regiment snorted and blew." (This is what horses do after running. The horse metaphor works very well for a regiment that has just run across a battlefield.) The regiment is also described as being "the dejected remnant," "the depleted regiment," "a machine run down." These images provide a picture of a tired group of men.

Crane, through Henry, identifies the flag metaphorically in the following manner, "It was a goddess. . . . It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes" (examples of metaphor and personification).

Crane also combines a simile with the use of personification to describe Henry's run across a battlefield: "The youth ran like a madman to reach the woods before a bullet could discover him." This sentence combines a clear simile ("like a madman") with a personification of the bullet — the bullet tries to "discover" Henry, discovery being a very human endeavor.

The use of personification in describing the smoke as "lazy and ignorant" helps the reader to feel the frustration of the troops. The use of smoke, haze, fog, and clouds as symbols for the confusion of war, for the atmosphere surrounding war, are constant throughout the novel.

At the same time that Crane describes the ugliness of war metaphorically, Crane also uses descriptive vocabulary words and figures of speech to highlight the beauty of nature in the midst of death and destruction. The reader should note the use of a flower metaphor in the image, "the shells looked to be strange war flowers bursting into fierce bloom."

The reader sees repeated use of images of nature, particularly color images, to make the various settings in the novel more vivid. Examples include, "The clouds were tinged an earthlike yellow in the sunrays and in the shadow were a sorry blue" and the flag was "sun-touched." Crane also uses clouds as a symbol for the confusion produced by war.

In Chapters 11 through 13, Crane creates graphic images by combining colors with concepts, settings, attitudes, and individuals. For example, Henry experiences "the black weight of his woe"; he is both "a blue desperate figure" and "a blue, determined figure"; he fantasizes that he "stood before a crimson and steel assault"; he "soared on the red wings of war"; the army was "a blue machine." Battlefield examples include "blue smoke," "blue haze," and "pink glare," and war is described as a "red animal." Evening is described in terms of "orange light," "purple shadows and darkness," and "a blue and somber sky."

Crane's color imagery creates significant contrasts between dark and light, death and life, and drab and colorful. For example, the faces of the sleeping men are "pallid and ghostly"; Henry confronts a "black and monstrous figure"; the campfires gleam of "rose and orange light"; the leaves of the trees were "shifting hues of silver with red"; and "the stars [are] lying, like glittering pebbles, on the black level of the night".

In Chapters 17 through 19 Crane makes use of color imagery to bring the battle alive visually. The rifles being fired released "beams of crimson fire," and "the blue smoke-swallowed line curled and writhed like a snake stepped upon". The reader also sees the regiment face "yellow flames" and "yellow tongues" (rifle fire), "crimson fury" (cannon fire), and "a blue haze of curses" (the lieutenant's exhorting his troops to cross the clearing).

In Chapter 18 and 20, Crane also uses color to create moods and to reveal attitudes. For example, "There was a row of guns making gray clouds . . . filled with large flashes of orange-colored flame." This is a beautiful, but sinister, image that leaves the reader anxious. Equally sinister is the description of a burning house, set afire by a cannon barrage. The burning house is described as "glowing a deep murder red." A "murder red" can be nothing less than a blood red. In creating this red imagery for a burning house, burning as the result of battle in war, Crane reveals his strong feelings about war.

Color imagery also supports a somber mood in Chapter 20 as Crane uses dark and fog imagery to describe the men as they continue their retreat, their "black journey." As they retreat, they are pursued by "a brown mass of troops, troops whom the regiment now fires at through "a rolling gray cloud."

In Chapter 22, Crane uses color imagery and figurative language when describing the battles and the combatants. This helps the reader to identify the combatants, both physically and emotionally. The Union forces are described as "dark-blue lines," "a blue curve," and "a magnificent brigade." Henry's regiment is "the emaciated regiment," "the blue men," "grunting bundles of blue," and "the robust voice . . . growing rapidly weak." Crane's combination of descriptive phrases and figurative language shows the deteriorating status of the regiment. Even the lieutenant is down to "his last box of oaths." This also shows a regiment in desperate straights. At the same time, Crane's describing the rebel forces as "dark-hued masses" and as "hounds taking a mouthful of prisoners" paints a picture of an ominous enemy.

Crane concludes the novel with a series of color images to support the various stages of thinking that Henry experienced on the walk back to the camp. Henry had been "where there was red of blood" and "black of passion," a vivid contrast. Henry's exploits in battle are now etched in his memory as "gilded images" in "purple" and "gold." (These colors are colors of kings.) At the end of this chapter, as the rain begins, Henry walks through "a trough of liquid brown mud,' and he rids "himself of the red sickness of battle." Crane employs these images to make Henry's thoughts more vivid — thoughts of battles and the environment that successfully engage the imagination of the reader.