Red Badge of Courage and Nabokov on Essay

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Red Badge of Courage and Nabokov on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"

One of the easiest ways to understand how literature can implicitly function as propaganda in the service of the powerful is to imagine Henry Fleming, the main character of Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage, if he had chosen to return home following his desertion rather than stay with the military. Crane's novel is a shameless piece of propaganda glorifying war by actively maintaining the myth that refusing to engage in state-sanctioned murder is somehow ethically wrong. If Fleming had escaped battle and gone home to live in peace instead of buying into this myth, his story would have been progressive, disruptive, and would have ultimately served to elevate the American consciousness by celebrating a disavowal of war and violence. However, Crane chose to write a story that comfortably fit into the assumption that war is inherently noble, and thus earns himself contempt in the eyes of any marginally ethical reader, a contempt that should only grow when one considers the ongoing atrocities only made possible due to the continued influence of that very assumption.

In The Red Badge of Courage, the only character who displays any reasonable response to the prospect of war is Henry's mother, who "had affected to look with some contempt upon the quality of his war ardor and patriotism," but Crane treats her with a similar contempt, describing her entreaties as a "yellow light thrown upon the color of [Henry's] ambitions" (Crane 6). Henry's mother serves to deflate some of Henry's initial excitement for battle, but the attention paid to him as he leaves for war inflates his ego again, as he gloats internally about "the gulf now between" he and his friends who have chosen not to fight and enjoys the attentions of a girl who watches him march by (Crane 10). As the reality of war sets in, Henry's "emotions made him feel strange in the presence of men who talked excitedly of a prospective battle" because "it was often that he suspected them to be liars" (Crane 20). Nonetheless, even as he begins to feel that war is not nearly as glamorous or glorious as it is made out to be, Henry "did not pass such thoughts without severe condemnation of himself" (Crane 20). Nonetheless, he momentarily begins to realize the truth of the situation, that "he had been dragged by the merciless government [….] and now they were taking him out to be slaughtered," but this fact never takes hold, because even after his desertion he seeks to gain a titular "red badge of courage" in order to live up to the twisted ideal of masculinity and honor presented by Crane (Crane 36).

Crane's novel is only one in a long line of texts which equate death or murder in the service of economic and political elites with honor, and Crane is relentless in his efforts to portray those who reject this notion as somehow less than human. In the span of three pages, Crane manages to compare the frightened Henry with "a jaded horse," "a rabbit," and "a proverbial chicken" (Crane 67-69). Thus, it is almost impossible to imagine Crane writing a different story, in which Henry does not ultimately buy into the lie of an honorable war, but attempting this imaginative feat does at least offer one a means of understanding how fully Crane functions as a propagandist, and how revolutionary the story might have been had it ended differently. Had Henry returned to the farm, the story would have served as a potent attack against the reigning ideology that manages to convince so many naive men and women to die in the service of the powerful (who rarely, if ever, actually have to fight themselves).

One way to appreciate how much better, both ethically and entertainment-wise, the story would have been had Henry opted to reject war altogether is to imagine this alternate story being told now, in the context of two official American wars and countless other semi-covert military actions which fall under the larger rubric of the War on Terror. In this context, an alternate version of Henry's story would serve to undermine the very same ideology espoused by Crane, and one may easily imagine this story being told by one of the countless service members who, having fulfilled their contractual obligations, have come out as staunch opponents of war in general and America's wars in particular (although this implicitly gives almost too much credit to Crane himself, because like most propagandists, he did not actually have any experience with war when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage). In fact, the most convincing evidence against the utility of war is the reality of war itself, because it becomes far more difficult to justify the attendant atrocities of war when they are experienced firsthand (although Henry does manage just this after watching countless men die pointlessly).

The Red Badge of Courage serves to reinforce an old and pervasive lie regarding the nobility of war, and imagining an alternate version of this story allows one to see this fact all the more clearly. Of course, Stephen Crane did not write this alternate story, because he was so enamored with the appeal of war as seen from afar, but one can easily imagine this alternate version being told by any of the traumatized veterans of America's current wars abroad.

When Vladimir Nabokov claimed that "the boy who cried wolf' was the first novelist," he was not merely making a clever joke, but rather was using this joke to highlight one of the most important and often overlooked aspects of novels and narratives in general. By suggesting that Aesop's famous liar was the first novelist, Nabokov implies that novelists are liars and that novels are lies, but this should not be taken to mean that novels are not useful or are even untrustworthy; instead, Nabokov's claim challenges the original "moral" of Aesop's fable by implying that fiction and lies, rather than obscuring the truth, actually serve as a means of reflecting and predicting the truth such that the recipients of these novels (or lies) may recognize it when it appears.

In Aesop's original fable, "a shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out 'Wolf! Wolf!," and when the villagers came and realized there was no wolf, he laughed at their credulity (Aesop 80). In the end, however, when a wolf does appear, the boy shouts "in an agony of terror: 'Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep," but the villagers do not come to help, and the wolf kills all the sheep (Aesop 80). The moral, then, is that "there is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth" (Aesop 80). Bearing Nabokov's statement in mind, however, reveals a far different moral that serves to challenge Aesop's ultimately useless entreaty, because it reveals the utility of lies and fiction in helping to identify the truth.

All novels, despite their stylistic or generic classification, reveal something about the real world, if only because no product of human consciousness can escape the limitations of that consciousness. If one views the "boy who cried wolf" as the first novelist, then, one may see his initially false claims about the wolf as instructive to the villagers, because he is essentially training them in the proper response should a wolf appear. In this way, the fact that the villagers did not appear when the wolf really arrived does not reflect poorly on the boy, but rather on the villagers, because even after learning the ways in which the boy manipulated reality through his lies, they failed to recognize the truth when it appeared. This failure is all the more glaring considering the difference noted in the boy's cries; when he is lying, he simply shouts "Wolf! Wolf!," but when he is telling the truth, his voice changes and his cries for help become more detailed and intense. Thus, the villagers end up as the morally reprehensible characters in the story, because not only are they too dense to realize a lie, they are also too jaded to recognize the truth.

By characterizing "the boy who cried wolf" as the first novelist, Nabokov is implicitly criticizing readers who engage with novels but fail to realize the truth present in the fiction. The villagers represent the ignorant, arrogant reader who assumes that because a text is labeled as fiction (or the work of a "liar"), it necessarily has nothing to say about reality or truth. Thus, Nabokov is not diminishing his own profession, but rather critiquing the passive reception of fictional works. In the same way that the villagers failed to recognize the truth of the boy's final calls for help, so too do a majority of readers fail to appreciate the critical and predictive work done by fiction. Aesop's original moral,…[continue]

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