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In Chapter One, as Henry sits in his tent and is faced with the possibility of finally going into battle, he looks back on the days and dreams that caused him to enlist. Before joining the army, Henry dreamed of grand battles that "thrilled him with their sweep and fire," and he seems to desire a "Greeklike" or "Homeric" struggle. His mother had discouraged him from joining but he enlists anyway.
Henry Fleming, identified as “the youth” is a newly enlisted boy with dreams of the glory of war. Calling Henry "the youth" is the most important indicator that this novel is centered on the evolution of Henry’s maturity and psychological development rather than a specific indictment or championing of war. In this first chapter, Henry is unproven even to himself. Before enlisting, the possibility of cowardice does not arise; he assumes battles are unwaveringly valiant struggles of life and death. He does not enlist because of an overwhelming sense of patriotism or even the will to fight, but rather due to his fantasies of heroic deeds. His mother offers a more realistic assessment; rather than instruct him to emulate the Spartans and "return carrying your shield or on top of it" (meaning either victorious or killed in combat), she tells him to do only what he thinks is right. This is a critical moment in both the development of Henry’s character and the plot of the book. The tone here is much more ambivalent and the question of whether Henry will run or face battle becomes the focus of the narrative in the early chapters.