The Red Badge of Courage Summary and Analysis
Henry falls back in the procession of wounded men in order to get away from the tattered soldier. Everyone around him is wounded and bleeding. He perceives these men to be happy, and he wishes now that he too had a red badge of courage.
One soldier by his side looks like a specter. He moves stiffly, as if looking for his grave. Henry looks and realizes who it is – Jim Conklin, the tall soldier. Jim holds out his hand to shake; it is a gory combination of red new blood and black old blood. Jim first tells Henry that he was worried the youth had been killed. He then tells him the obvious fact that he was shot.
Henry tries to help the tall soldier along the way. The other soldiers are preoccupied in their own wounds. Suddenly, along their march, the tall soldier is overcome by terror. His face turns into a "gray paste." Jim then tells Henry he is afraid of being overrun by an artillery wagon as it speeds down the road. Henry swears to his friend that he will take care of him.
Jim, however, forgets those fears and goes forward steadily. He keeps repeating "leave me be –leave me be –" Henry follows him, knowing he must lead Jim out of the road because a battery of cannons threatens to run them over.
Henry directs Jim to the fields. He turns to watch the guns go by, then hears a cry from the tattered soldier that Jim is running. Henry turns to see his friend running clumsily through the field. The youth and the tattered soldier pursue him. They catch up to him, and Henry implores Jim to stop moving and rest. Jim can only repeat to leave him alone. He lurches forward, with Henry and the tattered soldier following slowly.
Then Jim pauses. His chest heaves. Jim still insists Henry should leave him alone. There is another silence. Then Jim stiffens. His legs shake and his arms flail slightly. He stretches upward and then falls to the ground, dead. Henry watches this display in horror and sadness. He rushes up to Jim, whose mouth is frozen open, blue-lipped, in a smile. Henry turns towards the battlefield with rage, as if to deliver a speech. All he can say is "Hell" as the red sun sits on the horizon.
Henry is full of grief, but has been rendered speechless. The tattered man tells him to not worry so much about the dead; they should look out "for number one." As he says this, he too looks as if he is about to fall over. Henry is very much afraid that this man will be dead soon. The soldier insists however that he will not, and cannot, die. He then tells stories of two soldiers. One, named Tom Jamison, was his friend from home. This man informed him during battle that he had in fact been shot. The other was a man who was shot in the head, replied (when asked) that he was fine, and then collapsed dead.
He then asks the youth again where his wound is. Henry becomes exasperated and tells the tattered man to leave him alone. He is enraged at him for making him feel shame. The tattered man is slightly put off and says that is was not his intention to bother anyone.
Henry suddenly, after thinking to himself, turns to the man and says, "Good-by." The man gapes after him and asks where he is going. The youth can see that this man is starting to act animal-like and dumb. He sputters after Henry, calling him Tom Jamison, asking him where he is going. Henry merely points in a direction and says, "over there." The tattered man sputters after him, his sentences broken and stuttered. Henry simply walks away. As he goes he turns and sees the tattered man wandering about in the field helpless.
At this moment, Henry wishes that he were dead. He believes that he envies the corpses that lay in the field and on the leaves of the forest. The questions of the man were like knife-stabs to the youth. He feels that he cannot keep his crimes concealed; one of these arrow-like questions that flew through the air is bound to hit him.
Henry continues across the field. He rounds a hill and encounters a running mass of wagons, horses, and men. He is momentarily relieved. Everyone is retreating; perhaps his own retreat is not so bad after all. A column of troops comes up in the road, heading in the opposite direction. They push themselves through the fleeing wagons towards the enemy.
These men bring Henry's feelings of inadequacy back. He feels that these are chosen beings, marching in the sunlight. He could never be like these men. He feels that the final blame for his condition lies on some unnamable thing. He wonders why these men would be in such a hurry to get to the battle. Henry grows more envious. He wishes a tremendous force would throw him off, leaving a better person. He can see pictures of this more fleet and heroic soldier he would make. He feels the desire to fight again.
However, he has no rifle. He knows that he could get one if he needed to, and fight with any regiment, but he feels guilty about returning to his own now. He imagines himself concocting lies to face the questions of his mates. These thoughts squash his courage. He suddenly is consumed by thirst, feels dirty, and realizes he is full of aches and pains. Small patches of green mist float in front of his eyes. He feels it impossible for him to be a hero.
Of course, he has not lost his greed for a victory and believes the army's loss would be good for him. His mates would look at his absence less suspiciously. His thoughts go to the army as a whole and its future failures and then valorous deeds. Public opinion, he decides, cannot be accurate at a long range. Generals must deal with the agony of these opinions, much like he would deal with the opinions of his fellow troops.
If the army did well, he would be lost. He would be a condemned man. Henry's thoughts make him frustrated. He calls himself a villain and selfish. He again wishes he were dead. He envies the corpses, killed by luck. They would receive the laurels of tradition.
Besides, the army was not likely to be defeated. He knows he needs to think of good excuses, yet he cannot invent a plausible tale. He pictures the whole regiment talking about him derisively, and laughing and staring at him. He would be turned into a "slang phrase."
The column of heroic troops marches into the forest and, after a brief moment, come running out again. Henry is thunderstruck; these steel-hearted men are already defeated. The red animal of war will have its fill.
He tries to call out a rallying speech, but can only manage blubbering. The fleeing men run around him, not seeing him. Guns fire from behind them. They ask questions, mostly about where roads lie. Henry finally clutches a man as he runs by. He can only stammer out the word "why." The man who he stopped screams, "Let go me! Let go me!" When Henry does not, the man hits him on the head with his rifle butt and runs away.
The youth's legs turn to jelly when the rifle hits him. He falls to the ground and crawls around on his hands and knees. He is fighting with his body to stand. When he does, he touches his head. His wound is painful and bleeding.
The artillery of the army begins to gather facing the front. Officers are trying to contain the fleeing troops, and a squadron of cavalry rides into the fray as well. Various elements of the army are thrown together in a mass.
As the youth leaves, the cannons suddenly roar, followed by an answer from enemy infantry. Orange light of sunset bathes the scene. He hurries on in the dark. He hears men babbling as he passes them. His wound hurts much less, but his head feels swollen. He goes along, tired, thinking of old scenes from home.
Soon, he hears a voice over his shoulder, asking him cheerily how he is. Henry only replies with a grunt. The other man offers to go along with him, and helps him along as they walk. The other man talks constantly about the battle, saying that there was so much fighting he could not tell what side he was on. He also tells a story of a soldier in his unit that was shot in the head in the process of telling someone to go to hell. The cheery man takes Henry through all kinds of forests in the dark. Eventually, he leads him to his regiment, which he had left so long ago. The cheery man departs, wishing Henry luck. The youth then realizes that, in the dark, he never once saw the man's face.
In this section, Henry is confronted with the overt consequences of battle. The death of Jim Conklin especially rattles him. The tall soldier, Henry’s friend from home, has been wounded twice, and the "badges" he carries prevent him from walking and thinking clearly. His face turns gray as he tells Henry that he fears being trampled to death by the speeding artillery carts. This shows that the phantoms of battle and death, the gray unknown, do not escape even those who have a red badge of courage. Henry, though he finally wants to act for the first time since the battle, cannot do anything for his friend. Jim will not even let him touch him. This frustration and anger at seeing his friend die makes Henry weep so much that he cannot talk. Henry's words and thoughts are finally halted. He is no longer thinking now. Instead of coming to terms with the images from the battle, he can only give vent to his emotions now.
Still, Henry wishes he was either injured or had died himself. Both options seem preferable to cowardice. The tattered man’s questions of his injuries make him ashamed and we see a return to Henry's tortured, distracted thoughts. He becomes angry at the corpses strewn on the ground. Unlike him, they will be heroes in the eyes of history, any misdeeds erased by their ultimate sacrifice. To Henry, death has the power to vindicate him either way. If he were known to have fled, death would have been proof of his prophetic abilities. If he had been killed before he was truly tested, his honor would still be in tact. The dead men he envies will be turned into heroes by history, no matter their desires. And, of course, dying in battle assures glory for any soldier. In war, death is the most natural outcome and Henry’s yearning for the absolution of death reveals how maddening battle can be.
These moments of introspection are followed by two ironic events – Henry’s injury and his return to his regiment. The same troops who sent Henry on such a fit of philosophy about war and bravery soon turn tail and flee battle themselves. Their flight lends to a general air of confusion and commotion, with troops, officers, artillery, and cavalry all going in different directions and making different noises. The scene is so confusing that Henry is again rendered speechless and thoughtless. He can only stutter his lack of understanding, repeating to himself and others, "Why? Why?" It is in this confusion that he finally receives a wound. Being hit on the head does not help Henry's understanding of what is going on around him, yet it is a real wound with blood, resembling the red badge that he had desired earlier. It may not be the type of wound he had imagined, but it opens up a new world for him in subsequent chapters.
Unlike the confused ramblings of the fleeing troops in the first part of this chapter, it is the words of the cheery man that get Henry to his destination. This is one of the longest unbroken speeches in the entire book. It is unclear exactly who this man is. In fact, he himself says that he did not know in battle whether he was from Ohio or Florida. The army, the man states, is a disorganized mess. For a brief moment, readers are no longer following Henry's or the narrator's thoughts. The fact that Henry never sees his face suggests that he is a guide of sorts, perhaps a spiritual one. One interpretation is that the cheery man is the ghost of Jim Conklin – freed from sorrow but not confusion in death. He brings Henry back to his original regiment in order to facilitate the events and later growth in understanding that Henry will experience.
The color metaphors continue in these chapters, painting images that echo Henry’s inner turmoil. After Jim dies and Henry rushes up to his body, we see a transition from blue to red. The flap of Jim's uniform falls open, showing his side, which looks "as if it has been chewed by wolves." The blue musings of Henry have now transformed into a red reality. Wounds are not just outward marks; they have consequences on the physical body. While he may have desired to be seen with a badge of courage, Henry now realizes that these marks can actually lead to death. Later, as the red sun sinks in the horizon, Henry, still "the youth", mistakenly calls his situation "hell.” The red suggests this vision; and yet, while it may resemble his views of hell, he has not yet seen hell or even a battle to its conclusion.
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