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The American Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865, pitted brother against brother, The North against The South, causing the bloodiest and largest amount of casualties ever faced on American soil. Two people that have great pieces of literature based on events of the American Civil War are Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman. Crane's novel, The Red Badge of Courage, written in 1895, is considered one of the most influential pieces in American literature. The novel follows young Henry Fleming through his experiences as a Union army soldier during the American Civil War. Also, it shows how Henry must find his inner-self and overcome his initial fears to become a hero on the battlefield. Though Crane was born after the Civil War and did not have experience in the war, The Red Badge of Courage is still considered an example of Realism. Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" was written in 1865. The poem tells the story of a fallen ship captain that just returned from a victorious battle and shows the feelings that the speaker has for the captain. There are many metaphors throughout the poem that reference President Lincoln and the troubles American Civil War. Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage and Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" compare on the theme of coming of age as demonstrated by the authors' use of allusion, imagery, and symbolism.
A theme is the insight about human life that is revealed in a literary work, and Crane's novel and Whitman's poem both have the theme of coming of age. A coming of age novel/poem is one that has a young character or characters who, by the end of the story, have developed in some way, through the undertaking of responsibility, or by learning a lesson. This theme of The Red Badge of Courage is shown in an article about the novel's themes. In the article it says, "Prompted by a naive sense of patriotism and heroism to enlist" ("Red" 1). Henry is very immature at the beginning of the novel. At first he does not really understand the true meaning of being a hero and believes that a uniform is all it takes. Throughout the novel, Henry witnesses many gruesome events, which cause him to change the way he thinks and acts. By the end of the novel, Henry becomes more mature and truly understands what it takes to be a hero. This theme of coming of age is also shown in Whitman's poem, "O Captain! My Captain!" In the poem, the speaker says, "But I, with mournful tread, / Walk the deck my Captain lies," (Whitman lines 21-23); the poet shows the speaker's loneliness and fear. The Captain's guidance has helped the speaker survive, and now the speaker is left on his own to fend for himself. These lines are also talking about the country of America as the speaker, and Abraham Lincoln as the Captain. President Lincoln had given a lot of guidance to America when he was in office, much like the Captain in the poem; when he died, America was left without his guidance anymore and would have to "come to age," much like the speaker of the poem.
Allusion, a reference to someone or something that is known from history, literature, religion, politics, or some other branch of culture, is used by Crane and Whitman in both the novel and the poem to convey to theme of coming of age. One of the greatest images from the novel The Red Badge of Courage came in chapter 9, when Henry's good friend, Jim Conklin, dies. In the case of The Red Badge of Courage, Crane's allusion is a reference to religion: "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer" (Crane 56). The usage of "wafer" from this quote refers to a Eucharistic wafer, a thin disk of unleavened bread, also known as the host. In the Christian faith, they are used to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sun's likeness to a wafer draws an allusion to the Bible and Christianity. In Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" one of the key devices used is allusion. The allusion used by Whitman in this poem is a reference to history. The speaker says, "The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won; / The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting," (Whitman lines 2-3). Even though the dangers are over, the speaker is unprepared because he fears the loss of the Captain since he's the one that has provided so much guidance. This is an allusion to President Lincoln serving as the Commander in Chief and winning the American Civil War by ending slavery.
Crane and Whitman use imagery, a word or phrase in a literary text that appeals directly to the reader's taste, touch, hearing, sight, or smell, to convey the coming of age theme in both the novel and the poem. One of the best examples of imagery in The Red Badge of Courage is when Henry comes across a dying man in the forest after deserting his regiment. Crane shows this great imagery when he says, "He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that had once been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of greenâ€¦ One was trundling some sort of bundle along the upper lip" (Crane 46). When he sees this dying man, he is faced with the horror of death, which is one of the key events that changes the way Henry thinks and acts. With all of the descriptive words used, the reader can create a realistic image in their head and feel like they're in the scene. Imagery is used many times in Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" to enhance the reader's vision of the events going on. "My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still; / My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;" (Whitman lines 17-18). The use of great description in this part of the poem gives the reader a good image of the captain lying dead on the ship deck. With the Captain being dead, this means that the speaker will have to grow up and become a man without the guidance and leadership of the Captain. This part of the poem also represents President Lincoln, the great orator and leader, no longer being able to address the Union and lead the great country of the United States.
Symbolism, the use of a word or object that stands for another word or object, is used to convey the theme of coming of age by Crane and Whitman. One symbol in The Red Badge of Courage is the red badge. A red badge is a blood stain which for most soldiers was a sign of courage, but for Henry it was not. For Henry, his red badge was a sign of cowardice because he received it after deserting his regiment. In the novel, Crane says, "The new silence of his wound made much worriment" (Crane 69). Henry wants a wound to prove that he fought bravely and sacrificed himself, but when Henry gets his own wound, it comes when a fellow Union soldier strikes him with a rifle butt to get Henry out of his way and Henry must then lie to his regiment about the wound's origin. Two of the key symbols in Whitman's poem "Oh Captain! My Captain!" are the ship and the prize: "The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won; / The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting," (Whitman lines 2-3). When the speaker says "The ship has weather'd every rack", the ship symbolizes the Civil War and when it says "the prize we sought is won", the prize it is talking about the Civil War. This makes sense because Lincoln was the Commander in Chief of the American Civil War.
Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman both have great wartime novels based on events from the Civil War that also convey coming of age themes. Readers of the novel and poem need to learn that at some point in life, people must grow up and become adults, even when they aren't ready to. Like the Bible says, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11). When people are young, it is okay for them to be childish, but when they get to a certain age or are faced with certain situations, they must put the childish things behind them and come of age.