By way of illustrating exactly what Crane's unusual narrative strategy accomplishes, let us measure The Red Badge of Courage against another work of fiction depicting combat between Western armies in the mid-nineteenth century, Leo Tolstoy's The Sebastopol Sketches. Tolstoy's book presents three fictional "sketches," of short-story or novella length, set in the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. It is, says J. C. Levenson, "The most important book that lies behind The Red Badge."1
Some of the similarities are immediately apparent. In Sebastopol the sun lingers indifferently or rises accusingly, thereby providing raw material for the industry created by R. W. Stallman's famous claim concerning the significance of the last sentence in Chapter 9, "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer" (RBC 99).2 Of more significance, in Tolstoy's sketches, death is distributed just as randomly as it is in The Red Badge of Courage. In both works, officers neglect "to stand in picturesque attitudes" (RBC 59), though Tolstoy's Russian Imperial officers at least strive to do so and are sometimes embarrassed when they think they have been caught out. In both works, in Levenson's precise phrase, "the controlling purposes of characters do not shape the action," although Crane's American infantrymen do manage to impose their wills upon a part—admittedly, a minute part—of the action on the battlefield of May 3, 1863.3
1. Levenson, "Introduction," xl.
2. R. W. Stallman, "Notes toward an Analysis," 251–53.
3. Levenson, "Introduction," xlv.