Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

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At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way…He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage. Stephen Crane

Spoiler Alert

Though it’s been reduced to retail sales, barbecues and the unofficial launch of summer, Memorial Day is supposed to be a way to remember and honor soldiers who’ve died in war. Many books, films and games glorify war by focusing on the victories while ignoring the cost. But there is a cost and since the American Revolution over one million American soldiers have paid with their lives.

I debated reading books like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, both irreverent looks at the military and war written by veterans. I started each, but the cynicism just didn’t feel like a good fit for the holiday. But I wanted to review a book that portrayed war realistically without trivializing the aftermath. So, I chose The Red Badge of Courage which fulfills the Classic Book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). It’s a compelling look at war through the eyes of a young soldier learning the difference between what he imagines war to be and what war really is.

The short novel follows young Henry Fleming, a naïve glory-seeking Union soldier eager to prove himself on the battlefield during the Civil War.

When the story begins, Henry and his companions wait for battle.  So far, the glory Henry seeks alludes him since his company has not seen any skirmishes. The quiet before the storm gives Henry’s fear and doubt a chance to thrive as he wonders how he’ll react if the chance to fight finally comes. Will he fight bravely? Will he flee? Will he survive?

When war finally comes to him, he does in fact run. Crane delves into the psychology of the main character and doesn’t hold back from presenting him in a negative and sometimes foolish light. Henry’s guilt and self-loathing come out in obnoxious and sometimes cruel ways. We see the toll Henry’s desertion takes on his character.  When he finds himself alone with ample time to recount his misdeed, he transforms from romantic dreamer to bitter cynic. And once he meets up with actual wounded soldiers paranoia sets in as he fears his shameful secret will be revealed.

While things happen around Henry and impact his choices, the novel is less about the war and more about the mindset of this young man as he witnesses the horrors of war nobody talks about. He eventually redeems himself and not only makes peace with his earlier actions but embraces them for their part in making him the man he eventually becomes. Side note: The edition of the book I read included the sequel “The Veteran” published a year after The Red Badge of Courage. In this micro story (eight pages) an older Henry reflects on the war with his young grandson and in fact readily admits to running.

 

 

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Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1946

 

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There was nothing there now except a single commandment. Orwell  © Image Alyssa Yerga-Woolwine

Spoilers

For the Book with Non-Human Characters challenge (2018 Book Challenge ) I decided to try Animal Farm, a book I somehow didn’t have to read in high school.

A book where animals run their own farm? How cute!

Just kidding.

While the premise does sound like it would make an adorable pop-up book, Orwell’s scathing anti-Stalinist fable takes the reader through the realistic rise and fall of a political movement.

Manor Farm is owned by the abusive Mr. Jones. Tired of his drunken incompetence and cruelty, the animals revolt, driving him off the land.  The exhilaration of victory bonds the animals and inspires them to keep control of the farm. More knowledgeable and industrious than Jones, they take over operations, yielding a successful harvest. The dream of a better animal-run tomorrow inspires loyalty and a willingness to work harder.

And then corruption rears its porcine head in the form of Napoleon (only because calling him Joseph Stalin would have been too on the snout).

What starts out as an organized workers’ paradise crumbles and is rebuilt into a dictatorship.

The anthropomorphized characters have the frightening characteristics of their human counterparts, all in some ways complacent in Napoleon’s rise to power. Literal work house, Boxer, blindly follows Napoleon despite obvious exploitation. Stubborn mule Benjamin takes pride in staying uninvolved while complaining about everything. There’s also spin doctor, Squealer, master of propaganda, nameless sheep who bleat what they are told. There’s even a canine NKVD, comprised of dogs indoctrinated from puppyhood to follow Napoleon’s orders.

Orwell’s novella is a quick read, written in a flat matter-of-fact tone that brings out the absurdity of the images and situations. He takes his time portraying the eventual destruction of a benevolent dream. Napoleon uses subtle betrayals, plausible lies and unquestionable patriotism as tools to dismantle the government the animals thought they were working toward. In one of the most disturbing scenes Napoleon orders a purge. What follows is a montage of forced confessions and the subsequent slaughter of the confessors. Dozens of animals, pigs included, are struck down in the bloody massacre while the others look on, horrified.  By the end, Animal Farm is so unrecognizable that most can’t remember what life was like before.

Though Orwell targets Stalinism, this could be any form of government that favors the strong over the weak. Napoleon is no different than any other despot, human or animal. The bleak ending is predictable partly because it’s the inevitable conclusion to what has happened before, partly because history has repeated itself enough for us to know what to expect.

It’s strangely reassuring to see that the same political issues we face to day have been going on for decades and that maybe this isn’t really the end of days. Fake news, rewritten histories, silenced opposition… Apparently, some things will never change.

Thoughts that linger

There’s a scene where a drunk Napoleon runs a lap around the farm while sporting a bowler that still cracks me up.

The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942

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“…When I’m stretched out on my bunk, I see the sky and that’s all I see.”

Spoiler Alert

Continuing with the 52 week book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge ). This book falls into the Book I’ve been meaning to read category. I’ve started and stopped this book several times in my life, usually not getting past the funeral.  The main character’s disinterest was a turn off. If he doesn’t care, why should I?  I didn’t know much about the plot, and having read it twice now, I still feel like my copy of the book is missing a few chapters.

The story begins at the seemingly uneventful funeral for Meursault’s mother. Upon his return home, he spends a pleasant Saturday with new girlfriend Marie, and at the end of the weekend sums up his life to this point as, “…one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work and that, really, nothing had changed.” His neutral observation carries no tinge of sadness, regret, happiness or relief. This neutrality represents Meursault’s attitude toward every other aspect of his life as well.  He describes major events with the same disinterest, for example:

About marrying Marie: “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.”

Refusing a possible job promotion: “I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.”

Striking up a friendship with Raymond: “I don’t have reason not to talk to him.”

Meursault prides himself on his detachment the way a pessimist congratulates herself for “seeing the world the way it is.”  Some of his favorite phrases include “It doesn’t make a difference” and “It doesn’t matter”. He shows a touch of disdain for people who do care about anything.  But the passivity he values so highly ultimately leads to his downfall.

His friendship with Raymond proves to be the catalyst that leads him to commit murder. Through a bizarre yet plausible chain of events Meursault finds himself on a beach with a gun, alone with the man who slashed Raymond with a knife earlier that day. The man holds up the knife and Meursault fires, killing him.

In prison, the insular Meursault realizes the way things really work. He’s a slow learner when it comes to the importance of social mores and can’t fathom how his indifference could be viewed as anything but rational. The prosecution, however, sees it as cold and calculating and treat it as evidence.

I should point out that The Stranger is a work of absurdism and so the trial goes a little off the rails. A character witness admits to offering Meursault a cup of coffee during his mother’s vigil. The prosecution uses his acceptance of that coffee against him, claiming that “beside the body of the one who brought him into the world, a son should have refused it”.  Seeing a comedy in a movie theater a day after his mother’s funeral becomes proof that he’s capable of murder.  Though he did commit murder, no one seems interested in the motive or even the crime itself. His crime seems to be breaking away from society-approved behavior that offer safety and security to the rest of us.

Meursault realizes too late that human interactions are “a game”. When he finally does learn, he ultimately chooses not to play at his own expense.

What makes The Stranger so difficult is that Meursault, though guilty of murder, isn’t wrong about “the game”. If his life to that point as been filled with the mundane and the meaningless, why pretend otherwise? Why ask forgiveness of sin when you don’t believe in God? For me, the outrage is that no cares about the murdered man and while Meursault will be put to death by guillotine, it will be for not conforming to the court’s standards, not for ending a life.

These are the things that still linger in my mind:

Not knowing much about the colonization of French Algiers in the forties, I wonder if Meursault could have gotten a way with killing “the Arab” if he simply would have acted sorry.

There’s much debate as to whether Meursault is psychopathic: Perhaps, but I think someone with psychopathy would have known how to play the game and played it to save themselves.  However, he may be the most accurate portrayal of high functioning autism I’ve seen. A sincere inability to lie, even to help himself and a searing bluntness that isn’t meant to hurt. I don’t know if Camus was going for that, but he pulled it off well.