The Red Badge of Courage Summary and Analysis
The waiting makes Henry think of his home and the images he once despised take on a warm glow of nostalgia. Suddenly, someone cries, "Here they come!" Beyond the smoke, a brown swarm of men begins running down the hill. A general comes up on his horse, yelling to a colonel that the men have to hold them back. Henry sees the colonel regarding his men with resentment after the general gallops away.
The captain of Henry's company coaxes the troops to reserve their fire and not shoot wildly. Henry sweats out of pure nervousness. The fight is about to begin, and before he is ready or can consciously decide, he lowers his rifle and fires the first shot of the battle. Henry then loses concern for himself, and becomes "not a man but a member." Whatever he was part of, it was in a critical state, and he was part of its desire. The noise of the firing reassures Henry in his actions.
The furious haste and noise make the atmosphere even more confusing: sweat blisters, his eyes are hot, and the blasts burn in his ears. He is not fighting the enemy of men so much as the swirling battle phantoms that surround him. He hears men speak around him as if he were sleeping.
No one has a heroic pose. They are moving as fast as they can, reloading and then firing almost at random in the smoke in front of them. The lieutenant of the company encounters a soldier fleeing in terror and beats him back into the ranks. Men occasionally drop from being hit.
Eventually the firing recedes, and the men rejoice. They have driven back the enemy. They attempt to recollect themselves. It takes Henry some moments to come back to his senses. He realizes the grime and smoke makes him choke. He looks at the men still standing and simply enjoys being able to look around. On the ground there lay a few contorted bodies. A battery still throws shells over the troops towards the enemy. Henry looks around and takes in the whole scene, moving horses, wounded men, and flags. Henry feels these flags look like beautiful birds that have outlasted a storm. Then he looks and notices the beautiful blue of the sky.
As Henry becomes more and more aware, he is relieved. The trial has been passed and the difficulties of war have been vanquished. He feels good about himself. He and the other men exchange pleasantries about the weather and shake hands.
But this good feeling does not last for long – the enemy attacks again. Masses of troops begin to swell out of the grove on the opposite side of the field. Shells from enemy cannons begin to explode in the grass and trees. The glow fades from the men's eyes. They complain about not having replacements; they groan about aching joints.
Henry is convinced that this is a mistake, and the advancing troops will stop, apologize, and turn around. He is wrong. The battle starts again as the Union troops open fire on the field. Henry begins to quiver. He feels numb and is convinced that his foes are machines of steel. He stops firing to peer through the smoke. All he can see is faint views of the ground, covered with men running like imps and yelling. He waits horrified, feeling as if he could shut his eyes and be eaten.
A man near him, who had been working on his rifle, suddenly stops and runs screaming. Others begin to run as well. Henry then yells with fright, swings about, and charges for the rear. He loses his rifle and cap, and his open coat sways in the breeze as he runs. He loses all direction of safety.
The lieutenant suddenly jumps, red-faced, in front of Henry, attempting to keep him there. He swings with his sword. Henry simply continues to run blindly. He falls a few times. As he runs, he sees others running alongside him and hears more fleeing footsteps behind him. He is convinced the regiment is fleeing, chased by the crashing shells.
He continues to run up to the Union battery. Cannon shots go overhead as he speeds through them. The men working the guns seem calm and collected, unaware of their impending doom. They stand on a smoke-ringed hill. Henry feels pity for the poor, unaware fools as he runs. He sees other troops running into battle. Henry is filled with wonder at these fools, speeding to feed the war god.
He runs so far he comes up to a hill where the general and his staff are standing on their horses. Henry considers telling him of the carnage and terror. He also considers thrashing him for his poor judgment and behavior. How could he stay still while such destruction was going on?
The general then calls on an assistant to direct a brigade to send a regiment to the center, where Henry was, for it is in danger of breaking. The assistant returns in a moment with news that the regiment has held. Henry's feeling that doom was imminent turned out not to be true. The general jostles excitedly on his horse.
Henry recoils in horror upon hearing that his regiment is victorious. He looks in the direction of the battle and sees a yellow fog along the treetops. He feels wronged. He fled, he tells himself, because annihilation was approaching. As a little piece of the army, he did a good job in saving himself. He thinks his actions to be wise, given the situation.
He thinks of his comrades, dressed in blue. They won. The thought makes him bitter. He, the enlightened one, had fled because of his greater perception. They would not see it like that, however. He thinks about the derisions and insults he will have to bear upon returning to his regiment. He pities himself, as if an injustice against him was committed.
The guilt of having run away overwhelms Henry. He plods along, his brain in a fit of agony and despair. He goes into a thick wood, trying to hide himself. The underbrush is thick, and he travels slowly. He keeps moving forward into the darkness. Soon the sound of the guns grows faint. He notices more things of the forest – the sun, insects, and birds. Nature seems to not hear the rumble of death.
Henry is relieved and relaxed by the landscape. It carries a sense of peace. He throws a pinecone at a squirrel, which runs away in fear. This also settles Henry's mind. The squirrel did not stand still in front of the thrown object; like him, it ran away, trying to preserve itself.
Henry continues walking until he gets to a swamp. The sounds of the battle are barely audible. He goes into a small clearing with light streaming down from above, as in a church. What he sees horrifies him. A corpse sits against a tree, his blue uniform faded to green. His eyes are dull and like those of a dead fish. His mouth hangs open and small ants run across his face.
Henry shrieks but stands still, looking at it for a long time. Then, the youth puts one hand behind him and backs away slowly. As he goes, he still faces the corpse, afraid that if he turns on it, it will chase him stealthily. As he goes through the branches, he gets small suggestions to touch the corpse. The thought makes him shudder. At last he turns around and runs, thinking of the small ants. After a bit, he pauses, imagining a voice coming from the dead man's throat yelling at him. Silence dominates the small chapel of the forest.
Henry continues on through the forest. He hears loud crashes and roars through the darkening sky. It seems as if the world is being rent asunder. Henry's mind is going in all directions at once. He feels that the two armies are going at each other in a panther-like fashion. He then runs, ironically, in the direction of the battle, more to witness the collision of the armies than to participate.
As he runs, the forest becomes silent and still. Henry feels that the fight he had fled from was not a struggle, but instead a small skirmish. He doubts that he has seen a real battle. He feels silly for having taken the situation so seriously. He was not carving his name in the tablet of history.
The noises still describe a large battle. The brambles of the forest grab him as he runs. Eventually he sees the long gray walls of the battle lines. He stands awestruck by the fight. He then proceeds along his way, but the complexity of the fight fascinates him and he decides to go close to the machine of war and see it produce corpses.
He climbs a fence. Five corpses lie on the other side in a road. He scampers away, afraid to disturb them. He soon encounters a procession of wounded soldiers making their way down the road. They are cursing and moaning. One with a wound in his foot hops and laughs hysterically. One swears he has been shot because of the general's mismanagement. Another sings nonsense lyrics to old nursery rhymes.
A tattered soldier, wounded in his head and arm, comes up to the youth. He wants to converse about the battle. Henry can barely say anything as the man babbles on. Soon the tattered man asks him where he has been hit. The question makes Henry panic. Embarrassed, he stutters to the man; then he turns his head away and picks at his uniform.
Finally, Henry sees a battle and, at first, participates almost without thinking. He moves from thought to action, and from individual to member of a community:
“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 crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.” (31)
Here, Henry becomes part of the army, which subverts individual need for the desire of the group. It does not matter what exactly the group is – a regiment, an army, a cause or a country. There is a greater organism than Henry and, as a part of it, he fights for their preservation as much as his own. However, there is a sense of detachment in group mentality as well. Henry feels like he is a member of a greater unit, but the unit (and the enemies) have been stripped of identity. He fights against "swirling battle phantoms" or “machines of steel” rather than other men. By dehumanizing the enemy he is able to shoot at them. Detachment is necessary to carry out acts of war.
After the battle, Henry reverts to analyzing the environment around him. The smoke that hides them chokes him now, he sees the cannon shoot behind him, the corpses on the ground, and he basks in the peacefulness of the blue sky. The world has become a picture again, not a world of action. Henry is relieved he has passed the test, but his respite is short. When the battle resurges, fear grips Henry again and he deserts his regiment. Henry covers his cowardice with arrogance. He reasons he is not only wiser than the fools who stay and fight to certain death, his flight was more ordered and justified than the others who deserted. He even muses the general does not know what he is doing. To Henry, his fellow soldiers are all machines or fools, not higher beings like he. However, Henry is incorrect in his assessment of the battle. He overhears a general declaring the Union’s victory and at first he feels as if he has been caught committing a crime. He then looks towards the battlefield and sees a yellow fog above the forest. This is an incredibly important metaphor. The color of cowardice, yellow, covers his view of the past battle and his actions. Though he reverts to thoughts of his superior intelligence to justify his running, his youth and inexperience show – and the yellow fog penetrates his thoughts.
Henry’s embarrassed retreat into the forest is similarly filled with conflicted emotion. In the forest, the sounds of the battle grow quiet. His "return to Nature" is somewhat akin to Thoreau's in Walden as he attempts to take lessons from nature in some way. Yet, he is not learning from nature as much as seeking justification for his actions. When he muses on the squirrel running from his thrown pinecone and how it somehow explains his running from danger, he is only explaining a situation that has already happened. The interpretation is not valid as he sees only what he wants to see. Instead, Nature is not the place of peace he believes it to be. His encounter with the corpse ultimately proves that Nature can be ugly and cruel and, moreover, indifferent to man. Nature's ambivalence is threatening to Henry. The uniform of the dead soldier, which used to be the blue of the Union army, has faded to green, the same color as the dragon from which he fled during battle. In this place of peace, Henry meets that same green animal of death.
Henry’s reunion with other soldiers also does little to comfort his mind. The mangled bodies of the wounded and dying paint a horrific scene. The tattered soldier who falls in step with Henry also forces him to confront his actions. Though badly injured, the tattered man was still in thrall of the army’s power and beauty. He also speaks quite a bit, which is a stark contrast to Henry’s relative muteness. Henry, so caught up in his own considerations, musings, and emotions, cannot think of a thing to say, even when asked direct questions. Henry begins to panic about his lack of a wound and the mark of dishonor that his health betrays; he has no red badge of courage. Henry cannot process this encounter and, like before when faced with an unknown, runs away.
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