"Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity."
Before the first battle, new recruit Henry must grapple with a profound question regarding his courage (or lack thereof): will he, when faced with the enemy and the possibility of imminent, painful death, stand tall and fight or retreat in shame? Crane spends the rest of the novel in Henry's head, working through this debate and showing the consequences of what Henry eventually does do. This central question and Henry's grappling with it is one of the reasons why the novel is so lauded - it is extremely realistic and relatable. All young soldiers no doubt ponder whether or not they have what it takes to face death and carry out their orders. Henry smartly acknowledges that nothing in his comfortable life leading up to the war has prepared him for this moment. All human beings wonder if, when faced with terrible adversity, they have what it takes to remain calm, courageous, and committed to the task before them. Although Henry's character flaws are quite manifest throughout the novel, his mere wondering about what he might do is not to be chided, for it is very understandable. His stream-of-consciousness ramblings and his back-and-forth musings may be annoying, but they are certainly believable and utterly human.
"He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try and read in dead eyes the answer to the Question."
This is one of two incidents in which Henry comes face-to-face with a dead body. Here he and the other soldiers walk past the body lying on the ground, and, with striking clarity (especially when compared to the images of haze, mystery, and obfuscation that Henry often invokes), observes the dead man's shoes, feet, and beard. He is struck by this and cannot help but let his mind linger on the concrete reality of death. This is one early moment where the true terrible nature of war cuts through Henry's musings on glory and laurels and gives him pause; instead of imagining the possibility of being a Greek hero, he is wondering at the eternal mystery of life and death. This one soldier has died and is only a decaying, pitiful body. Henry may very well be in the same position one day. However, at this point in the novel Henry is not at the level of maturity and wisdom he will display later on, and the corpse, and the larger question of death, fascinates him only for a minute. He is soon back to wondering whether or not he will run and trying desperately to discern in his fellow soldiers' faces what they might do. Here, his selfishness has trumps his inquisitiveness.
"He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part -a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country -was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire."
In this quote Henry articulates the feeling that, in battle, one is not so much an individual as a part of a larger organism. He was part of this "common personality", a part of a "subtle battle brotherhood" and a "mysterious fraternity born of the smoke and danger of death" (31). He understands that he can do very little as one man; rather, the entire regiment acts as one and either wins or loses, succeeds or fails. The other men coalesce into one and fight together. However, this is not always the case, for Henry demonstrates that a soldier might still focus on his individual response to the war and split from the body. Henry deserts his regiment when he thinks they have lost, and ventures out on his own. He is alone in thought as well as in body. He did not act with the rest of the soldiers at this crucial moment. This is one of the main tensions in the novel - the nature of individuality vs. being part of a larger group (see Themes).
"He, too, threw down his gun and fled. There was no shame in his face. He ran like a rabbit."
All of Henry Fleming's wondering and speculation about whether or not he will run when faced with battle is decided in this moment: yes, he will run, and he does so without any hesitation. After thinking that he and his fellow Union soldiers have bested the Rebels, he is dismayed when the enemy charges towards them once more. Henry exaggerates their fighting prowess to the extent that they no longer seem human - they are "machines of steel" (36) and "redoubtable dragons" (37). What finally prompts him into leaving the fray is when he sees another Union soldier, previously possessed with an expression of bravery, leap up and flee. Henry often takes his cues for thoughts and action from those around him, and this time he follows the lead of someone who lacks courage or conviction. Henry's choice to run is a crucial one, for it defines his pattern of thinking for the rest of the novel and is a major factor in the evolution of his character. No matter what heroics he achieves later, the reader knows that he had a moment of profound cowardice. One of the great questions the novel poses is how much this early failure matters in light of his later experience.
"'Well, then!' bawled the man in a lurid rage. He adroitly and fiercely swung his rifle. It crushed upon the youth's head. The man ran on."
Henry craves his own "red badge of courage", a battle wound, and here he finally gets one. He expressed envy of the soldiers that had been injured, even though, like Jim Conklin, such wounds often led to death. Henry does not seem to be able to distinguish between the reality of a wound and the symbol of a wound, the latter an emblem of glory, heroism, and pride. Of course, Henry is not the only soldier to conceive of a wound as such, and this is one of the ways Crane's novel rings true. Soldiers want to prove that they are manly, bold, and have sacrificed themselves to the cause. They want to hide their fears and their doubts. Henry feels left out and rightly so, for he is not part of the group that can claim they gave their all for the war. This accidental red badge that Henry gets makes a mockery out of the wounds the other men procure. It is from the butt of a rifle, not the bullet inside. Henry has entered the elite pantheon, but in false fashion. When he decides to pass the wound off as legitimate, he indulges his worst traits of immaturity, hypocrisy, and pride.
"The youth took note of a remarkable change in his comrade since those days of camp life upon the river bank. He seemed no more to be continually regarding the proportions of his personal prowess. He was not furious at small words that pricked his conceits. He was no more a loud young soldier. There was about him now a fine reliance. He showed a quiet belief in his purposes and his abilities. And this inward confidence evidently enabled him to be indifferent to little words of other men aimed at him."
Wilson, previously a loud and boisterous soldier, has been humbled by his experiences in the war. Before the battle he was content to boast and brag, although he also displayed a touching immaturity and anxiety when he gave Henry his packet of letters. After the battle, however, he is shown to have gained a new maturity, a new quietness and graveness. He is a kind nurse to the irritable Henry and can look at his surroundings with a clear eye. He has gained the wisdom that comes from being placed squarely in an environs of intense strife and finding the ability within to withstand the most taxing of circumstances. He learned that the desire for fame or glory was silly, and that war was far from glamorous. His attainment of maturity makes him an apposite foil for the immature Henry. Henry is still young and arrogant; he is also a liar and a coward. Wilson's progression exemplifies the move from boy to man.
"His self-pride was now entirely restored. In the shade of its flourishing growth he stood with braced and self-confident legs, and since nothing could now be discovered he did not shrink from an encounter with the eyes of judges, and allowed no thoughts of his own to keep him from an attitude of manfulness. He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man."
Taken out of context, this quote might be seen as referring to Henry's feelings after he captured the flag or after he proved himself in the second battle. However, it comes after he has received his fraudulent "red badge of courage" - the rifle butt to the head - and experienced the pleasure of feeling superior when Wilson sheepishly asked for his packet of letters back. Henry's pride is completely false; he has lied and turned the lie into a truth so powerful that he now believes it. His formidable denial has allowed him to repress the shame that surrounded his flight from battle and any misgivings he might have had about passing off his fake wound as a real one. While the human mind's capacity to ignore troublesome events and thoughts is a reality, and Henry's doing so is understandable, that does not excuse the fact that Henry is, in truth, very unlikeable. That indeed is one of the difficulties readers face with this text - how to come to terms with a protagonist who may be believable and who finds himself in situations that elicit sympathy, but who is, in the end, immature, callow, superficial, and prideful.
"He had thought of a fine revenge upon the officer who had referred to him and his fellows as mule drivers. But he saw that it could not come to pass. His dreams had collapsed when the mule drivers, dwindling rapidly, had wavered and hesitated on the little clearing, and then had recoiled. And now the retreat of the mule drivers was a march of shame to him."
Henry is frightened and dismayed when he and Wilson accidentally hear that the regiment is considered disposable - mere "mule drivers". This comment, rather than any sense of personal pride or pride in the cause, is what compels Henry to fight hard during the battle and procure the flag. Here he expresses his disappointment that the superior officer who identified his regiment as expendable seemed to be right; he is upset that his fellow soldiers have not performed the way he wanted them to and proven the officer wrong. However Henry's bitter realization does compel him to spur on his brethren and encourage them to keep fighting. He even maintains his cool in front of Wilson, and tells him to shut up and continue to fight. Wilson for a moment loses his supremacy. It seems that while Henry may often lack the proper motivation (here his motivation stems from wounded pride), he can still accomplish good deeds.
"The impetus of enthusiasm was theirs again. They gazed about them with looks of uplifted pride, feeling new trust in the grim, always confident weapons in their hands. And they were men."
Henry's great fear that he and his fellow soldiers truly were mule drivers is put to rest in this moment. Partly thanks to his own petulant but effective words of encouragement and criticism, they are able to triumph over the Rebels. Their abject shame has been replaced by pride. They realize that they have finally achieved what most young boys who go into the military seek to attain: manhood. They can call themselves men for persevering in the face of tremendous odds and, although all except Henry and Wilson knew this, defy the erroneous conclusions made by their superiors that they were not effective warriors. The desire to become a man colors this text. Henry is very childish and whether or not he matures into a man by the end remains one of the central questions of the text. The narrator claims he does, but a definitive conclusion is elusive. Wilson's path to manhood is shorter but more definite. Nevertheless, all of the young men in this battle demonstrate that they are more courageous, more discerning, and more persevering than they were previously.
"It was perhaps that they dreaded to be killed in insignificant ways after the times for proper military deaths had passed. Or, perhaps, they thought it would be too ironical to get killed at the portals of safety."
Despite having no battle experience, Crane skillfully depicts the very realistic thoughts in the minds of soldiers. The soldiers have come from a terrible battle and feel heroic and manly. They do not want to die in a manner that would not befit their new stature. They do not want to have survived such a horrific fight to be killed right at the point of safety. This rings true for anyone who has survived something terrible or taxing only to be struck down at the moment of relaxation and safety. Throughout the novel Crane is able to limn moments of striking relatability and accessibility. Readers may not have any war experience, but the thoughts and feelings expressed by the young soldiers are perfectly understandable and are no doubt close to what everyone would express in similar situations. Thus, while Henry is certainly an obnoxious and annoying character at times, readers must grudgingly admit that his fears are their fears, his doubts and worries their own as well.
The Red Badge of Courage Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Red Badge of Courage is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think one of the themes in this book is the folly of making blanket statements like coward and hero. All these men get scared and Henry is no exception. Most of the men run away in battle to preserve their life. Is this cowardly or common sense?...