Short of Nihilism
In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Stephen Crane recounts the life of Henry Fleming, a Civil War soldier whose childhood dreams portrayed him often performing acts in combat. Paul Berlin in Going After Cacciato (1978) is portrayed by Tim O’Brien; conversely, as a combat soldier in the Vietnam War. He harbored anti-war sentiments and was not likely to be a hero. Unlike Fleming and Berlin, Sheriff Potter (“Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” 1898), Jim Stark (Rebel Without A Cause 1955), and Thelma (Thelma and Louise 1992), are characters depicted as heroes or anti-heroes, but outside the confines of war, in the literal sense. As an intrinsic dynamic in the development of literary heroes and anti-heroes, the characters should display traits of non-conformity and non-traditionalism, but not to the point of nihilism.
Certainly, Henry Fleming’s dreams may have been typical of any pre-pubescent boy, but he was different; he craved to be in the war. “His mother had discouraged him,” however, by telling him, “‘Henry, don’t you be a fool.’ Nevertheless, the next morning he had gone to a town that was near his mother’s farm and enlisted in a company that was forming there” (3–4). Fleming was not conforming to the familial convention of a boy’s obeying his mother. Fleming was recognized and decorated for valor in the end. Similarly, the most decorated soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy, had joined the military as an under-aged young man. But unlike Murphy who displayed courage throughout the war, Fleming had not behaved in the same, traditional sense of hero; he had initially run from the battle. Both Fleming and Murphy, however, performed comparably in their individual efforts to remain alive.
Paul Berlin, too, wanted to survive the combat, but he had other thoughts on his mind. He detested war, but went anyway. Some persons, such as former President William Jefferson Clinton, preferred to protest the war as civilians from safer havens such as their hometowns. Clinton avoided induction into the military by using loopholes unavailable or unknown to most citizens. No matter the style of protest, anti-war protestors like Berlin and Clinton, should not be criticized. Each rightly spoke against the peril and devastation of war.
Heroes or anti-heroes are not only born in the war arena. Sheriff Potter became a hero when he tamed the town of Yellow Sky. He disarmed himself and pacified his nemesis, Scratchy Wilson, a gunfighter. The sheriff unknowingly accomplished this cease-fire by his getting married. Scratchy no longer needed to settle a score with the sheriff, a new bridegroom.
Rebel Without a Cause’s consummate anti-hero, Jim Stark, was battling a married couple—his parents. And Thelma was running away from the possibility of marriage. Neither Jim nor Thelma should have worried, but instead conformed to the traditional conventions of family. Coincidently, in both Jim’s and Thelma’s cases (wars), guns brought closure to any thought of compromise. Each of the aforementioned characters was a non-conformist to a degree, but not to the point of being nihilistic. They could not acquiesce to preconceived ideas considered proper within their respective social convention. Perhaps in a straightforward way, the Warden (Strother Martin) in Cool Hand Luke (1967) was expressing the basis for non-conformist behavior of heroes and anti-heroes when he told Luke (Paul Newman), “What we have here…is a failure to communicate!”
By Roberto Pachecano, 05/03/02
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1990.
Cool Hand Luke. Dir. Stuart Rosenberg. Perf. Dennis Hopper, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Paul Newman, et al. WarnerBrothers, 1967.