Virtually every page of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage explodes with color. This is apparent not only from the novels title but from its opening lines as well:
As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors . . . . A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills (Crane 5).
Because Crane employs such images so extensively in The Red Badge of Courage, it is not surprising that there has been a great deal of critical comment on Crane's use of color. Moreover, there is little doubt that this color use is highly symbolic. But Crane's particular kind of symbolism may not necessarily fit traditional critical notions.
The conventional approach to interpreting colors in The Red Badge of Courage tends to be very schematic. Black may be seen as suggesting war and evil. Red may be seen as the color of the sacrament. Yellow may be seen as representing cowardice or death. These conclusions are not necessarily the most pertinent ones. Indeed, this sort of analytical approach has come under fire during the last couple of decades. As Edwin H. Cady writes in his critical study, Stephen Crane,
. . . in the end, the trouble with a "symbolic" reading of The Red Badge is that it assumes some sort of operative attitude toward the referential reality on the part of the artist. No matter how one qualifies it, a literary symbol must somehow be an image which points to something else, something usually conceptual (Cady 196).
This describes the problem very well. Moreover, the critic must preserve such a symbolic scheme, and this requires much explaining and rationalizing. The color symbolism in The Red Badge of Courage is far too comple...