Sartor Resartus Revisited: Carlylean Echoes in Crane's the Red Badge of Courage

Article excerpt

That the writings of Thomas Carlyle have been widely influential is, of course, a truism. A reader with a close knowledge of Carlyle often finds echoes of him in unexpected places in the works of others. An example of this may he seen in the works of Stephen Crane. A close examination of The Red Badge of Courage side by side with the "Everlasting No"--"Everlasting Yea" chapters from Sartor Resartus leaves a reader with the impression that Henry Fleming's ordeal and eventual triumph in the Red Badge may well be a kind of subconscious reenactment of the ordeal and triumph of Diogenes Teufelsdrockh in that central portion of Sartor Resartus.

While it cannot be proven on the basis of presently available evidence that Crane had read any of Carlyle's works, the possibility of his having done so exists. In the one semester, in 1891, that Crane spent at Syracuse University, the only course for which he received a grade was "English Literature," in which he made an "A". Sartor Resartus had been directly available to American readers since its American publication in 1836. At least key passages of it. such as "The Everlasting No" and "The Everlasting Yea," might well have been included in that "English Literature" course. (1) In my own teaching of Carlyle, I have repeatedly observed the powerful impression that these two Sartor passages make upon students' minds--particularly young students. Because of this, I believe it possible that Carlyle's ideas could have remained in Crane's mind long after he had consciously forgotten about reading them. If this possibility is true then it is further possible that some of these ideas made their way into the Red Badge. Whatever the cause--subconscious influence, coincidence, Zeitgeist--the similarities between the two works do exist. They include not only similarities in situation, but parallel passages, similarities in phrasing, and the use of like images in like situations. Also, with few exceptions, the order in which these parallels occur is the same in the two works.

The initial similarities between the two works center around the early stages of the ordeal of each of the main characters. "The Everlasting No," Chapter VII of Book II of Sartor Resartus, begins with an explanation that Diogenes Teufelsdrockh has been suffering through a period of crisis, or transition in his life, and goes on:

   Such transitions are ever full of pain: thus the Eagle when he
   moults is sickly; and, to attain his new beak, must harshly
   dash-off the old one upon rocks. (2)

In Chapter 1 of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming, having heard the latest rumors that the army is about to move into combat, goes into his hut to think about the possibility of himself engaged in battle. Like Diogenes, Henry is at the beginning of his period of crisis, and undergoing the same feeling of being disappointed, mocked by destiny. Like Carlyle, Crane here also uses an eagle image in the description of the beginning of the main character's ordeal. "In visions he had seen himself in many struggles. He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess." (3) Before enlisting in the army, Henry had been distrustful of the Civil War, believing it to be a pale imitation of the "Greek like struggle" involved in ancient wars, and yet he had "burned" to enlist. "He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all" (p .241). Now with the possibility that actual battle may be imminent, Henry faces the fear that he may be afriad. He feels himself to be "an unknown quantity" (p. 246).

Again, in "The Everlasting No," further describing Diogenes' spiritual crisis, Carlyle writes that the most painful feeling

   ... is that of your own Feebleness (Unkraft); ever, as the English
   Milton says, to be weak is the true misery. And yet of your
   strength there is and can be no clear feeling, save by what you
   have prospered in, by what you have done. …