Imagery and Metaphor
Crane employs a colorful style that abounds in vivid sensory images, as well as similes and metaphors. Opening the book at almost any page, especially in the battle scenes, will produce examples.
War is presented in a variety of metaphorical ways. (A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one object is identified with another object. The purpose is to invest the first object with one or more qualities possessed by the second object.) War is a “red animal” and a “blood-stained god.” The war-as-god metaphor occurs several times. It conveys the idea that war is something much larger than the collection of individuals that participate in it, and they have no control over it. It transcends them.
Animal imagery of varying kinds occurs frequently in connection with battle. It makes the point that war turns humans into animals, acting from instinct rather than reason. On one page alone for example (p. 110), the enemy are “like flies sucking insolently at his [Henry’s] blood”; the fighters resemble “animals tossed for a death struggle into a dark pit”; and the army line “curled and writhed like a snake stepped upon.” Later, Henry plunges toward the enemy flag like a “mad horse.” (These are similes, in which something is compared to something else that on the surface is very unlike it. The simile brings out some way in which the two things are similar.)
There are many more similes regarding battle. They include Henry’s perception that battle “was like an immense and terrible machine”; the description of the two armies engaging “like a pair of boxers”; and the image of bullets raining down like a “thousand axes.”
The Union flag is the subject of two metaphors, coming one after the other: “It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes” (p. 123). The metaphors are appropriate because they help to explain why the flag is so cherished, and why the standard-bearers in battle hold on to the flag as if their lives depended on it.
The literary technique known as the pathetic fallacy is frequently employed. The pathetic fallacy is when natural objects are invested with human feelings or emotions. The trees “tremble with eagerness” (p. 13) for example. The battle flag in the wind “seemed to be struggling to free itself from an agony” (p. 42). Then in the next paragraph, “The flag suddenly sank down as if dying. Its motion as it fell was a gesture of despair.”