A General Semantics Approach to the Red Badge of Courage

By Mayer, Gary H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2009 | Go to article overview

A General Semantics Approach to the Red Badge of Courage


Mayer, Gary H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Though many interpretations of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage have been suggested, no one, to my knowledge, has analyzed the novel using the principles, ideas, concepts, etc., of general semantics. By studying the novel within the context of general semantics, one, perhaps, will gain a greater appreciation for and a better understanding of Crane's work.

It is interesting to note that the main character, Henry Fleming, can be analyzed in light of the intensional and extensional orientations. Fleming, indeed, progresses from a naive youth, who joins the Union army largely because he has a romantic concept of war, to a young man who learns, through observation and experience, something about the reality of battle. In essence, Crane points out problems inherent in being far too intensional; it is the extensional orientation that is desired.

As William V. Haney discusses in his Communication and Organizational Behavior, intensional individuals become "more concerned ... with the feelings, thoughts, suppositions, beliefs, theories, etc., 'inside their skins' than with the life facts outside" (p. 411). Obviously, those who observe outside facts first, then form beliefs, theories, etc., demonstrate the desired or extensional orientation. Stated another way, intensional individuals make maps before they examine the territory. Extensional people examine the territory first; then they make maps.

At the beginning of The Red Badge of Courage, Fleming clearly demonstrates the intensional orientation. What he knows of war he has gleaned from books: "He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all" (p. 7). (Interestingly enough, Fleming, wanting to experience it all, also demonstrates an allness attitude, which further indicates his immaturity and naivete.) Fleming, of course, is not unusual. Many boys play at being soldier, and perhaps dream of fighting battles, without knowing much about war. Fleming's preconceived ideas are his maps, for "he had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life--of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire. In visions he had seen himself in many struggles" (p. 7). After he joins the army, he learns that his books and dreams, steeped in romanticism, were faulty maps.

It is his mother who realizes Fleming's maps are faulty. She does not want him to enlist and points out that he would be more valuable working at home, on their farm, than fighting. Yet, Fleming does enlist, largely because of "the newspapers, the gossip of the village, [and] his own picturings" (p. 7). Again, maps, which give an inaccurate picture of the territory, mislead Fleming. At first, Fleming thinks that his maps are accurate. His regiment is "fed and caressed at station after station" (p. 10). Fleming, fancying himself a hero, "felt growing within him the strength to do mighty deeds of arms" (p. 10). However, once the regiment arrives at the field, he begins to realize that his maps were faulty. He does not experience the grandiose battles of his reading and dreams. Fleming now views life as being dull, drab, and routine.

Fleming is well on his way to becoming extensional, for he grows skeptical of all the horror stories veterans tell him of war. (It might be argued that earlier, before he enlisted, he would have believed just about anything regarding war.) In his attitude toward war, he moves from romanticism to realism, for now he worries about a real problem: Exactly how will he perform in battle? He considers the possibility that he might run; and in doing this, he acts intension-ally. He has yet to experience a battle; therefore, at this time he really does not know how he will behave. His fear of running becomes an obsession, a worry, and it might be surmised that whenever one worries, he is acting intensionally. He is concerned more about his preconceived ideas, notions, etc., than about reality. An extensional person, it seems, has a let-me-wait-and-see attitude. …

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