Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, Crane personifies the weather, describing changes in the rural landscape as originating from human motivations. This is evident from Crane’s description of sunrise at the opening of the novel:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
The cold fog, which moves “reluctantly,” is described as a thinking and feeling entity here. This personification continues throughout the book: fog lies “wallowing in the treetops,” the sun rises “serenely,” and the sky is “wretched” during a particularly long and difficult march.
This figurative language creates rich images that immerse the reader in Henry’s experience; because Crane describes ordinary weather patterns in surprising ways, the beautiful landscape feels especially tangible and immediate. This ongoing personification also paints the natural environment as sentient and potentially sympathetic to human concerns. When the fog, the sky, or the sun exhibit human attributes, it seems like there is some emotional or spiritual connection between the landscape and the soldiers fighting their way through it.
But no matter how brutal the battle becomes or how many men die, the weather and Crane’s descriptions of it remain the same. The environment’s tranquil beauty forms a jarring contrast with the battle playing out: in fact, the sun rising “serenely” does so during a terrifying exchange of gunfire. At one point, Henry even marvels that “Nature had gone on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.” By showing how the weather retains its beauty despite the ongoing war, Crane ultimately dispels the idea that there is any spiritual connection between humans and the natural landscape around them. Paradoxically, the personification of the weather reinforces a key thematic point of the novel: That nature is indifferent to human concerns and therefore cannot provide a meaningful refuge from the horrors of war.
When Henry encounters battle for the time, he becomes terrified and flees into a nearby forest, where he discovers the body of a dead Union soldier. As Henry leaves the forest, hearing the noise of a new battle outside it, Crane uses personification to characterize the foliage and create an urgent, eerie atmosphere:
Sometimes the brambles formed chains and tried to hold him back. Trees, confronting him, stretched out their arms and forbade him to pass[.]
Words like “formed” and “confronting,” as well as the comparison between branches and “arms,” imply that the brambles and trees have human attributes and motivations. In Henry’s imagination, the forest feels “hostility” towards him and doesn’t want to allow him to pass. The figurative language gives the reader a visceral sense of the closeness of the forest and the difficulty of navigating it.
The personification at play here also reflects the novel’s broader ambivalence about natural beauty. For the most part, Crane characterizes nature very positively; he describes the weather in elegiac terms and even compares the forest to a peaceful church. When Henry leaves the battlefield, he instinctively enters the forest, believing he can find safety there. Indeed the forest does provide temporary refuge; but Henry also stumbles upon a soldier’s body, coming face-to-face with a corpse for the first time. The spectacle of the corpse, which is decaying and being eaten by bugs, shows Henry that nature will not protect him. The passage quoted above occurs when Henry, terrified by the corpse, runs out of the forest; his faith in nature jeopardized, he now imagines that the forest is hostile to him.
Henry’s fantasies about the hostility of the forest prove short-lived. The placid tranquility of the landscape, which remains beautiful and unchanged despite the carnage of battle, shows Henry that nature is neither benevolent nor hostile, but rather completely impersonal. Descriptions of nature as possessing desires and motivations, Crane suggests, represent a human desire for connection with nature that simply doesn’t exist. Ironically, then, this instance of personification only reinforces the theme of nature’s indifference.
Gunfire is ever-present in The Red Badge of Courage, and Crane often describes exchanges of bullets using the language of dialogue or speech. Crane characterizes cannon fire as “stentorian speeches” and remarks, during a battle, that guns were "roaring without an instant’s pause for breath.” At several points, he figuratively describes guns as possessing voices:
The voices of the cannon were clamoring in interminable chorus.
The imagery of speech appeals to readers' auditory senses, helping them imagine the incredible noise of the battles Henry experiences. Personification is also at play here as well, since phrases like “stentorian speeches” and “pause for breath” imply that the guns have human qualities.
By comparing the noise of weapons to speech, Crane highlights the fact that gunfire is the only reliable information Henry receives about the course of the battle. Hearing the “speech” of the gunfire, he can deduce where the active fighting is occurring and ensure his own survival. By contrast, the Union army officers never tell their soldiers (and often don’t seem to know themselves) where the regiment is marching or when they will have to fight. Likewise, actual speech between Henry and his comrades is infrequent. It’s often too loud for the soldiers to hear each other; when they can speak, they often talk past each other, whether by exchanging dubious rumors, bragging about their exploits, or accusing each other of cowardice. Ultimately, this pattern of imagery and personification shows how the war machine dehumanizes soldiers, taking the power of speech away from men and giving it to weapons.