The Red Badge of Courage Summary and Analysis
As the youth approaches the fires of his regiment, he fears the men will welcome him with jibes and insults. In his tired state, he cannot invent a story to explain his actions. Too tired to run again, he must brave their insults in hope of rest.
Suddenly, a guard comes running at him with a rifle, yelling for Henry to stop. It is Wilson, the loud soldier. After recognizing the youth, Wilson is glad to see him, expressing happiness that Henry is not dead. This is not what the youth expected. He still thinks the conversation may turn toward his cowardice; and so, even in his tired state, he tells Wilson a doctored story about fighting on the right, getting shot in the head, and then getting separated from the regiment.
The corporal of the regiment comes up, demanding to know to whom Wilson is speaking. When he sees it is Henry, he also expresses joy at his return. Before Henry can tell his tale, Wilson relays the story for him. Both men are exceedingly nice to the youth. They wrap him in their blankets, give him coffee to drink, and examine his wound. He feels weak and finally sits down.
After the corporal leaves, Henry is left to contemplate the fire and his surroundings. Shadows flicker from the firelight. Men circle the fire and seem fleeting and tired. An officer is asleep sitting upright, looking exhausted. Other soldiers sit around in the rose and orange light. The fire crackles, and overhead the trees sway softly, with their silver-hued leaves edged in red. The soldiers occasionally change position, moving with grunts and groans.
Wilson, once he goes off duty, comes over and bandages the wound. He compliments Henry on not crying out as he clumsily applies his first aid. He then gives the youth a blanket and leads him to open ground to get some sleep. When Henry protests that he is using the loud soldier's blanket, Wilson tells him to just be quiet and go to sleep. Henry obeys.
As the youth awakes, a gray mist is coming in over the fields, bending the first rays of sunlight. Fighting can be heard in the distance. Henry and the rest of the men try to get the last few moments of sleep. The light makes them look like corpses. The youth, in this forest, thinks that he is in a house of the dead. He gradually comes to his senses and sees the scene for what it is.
Soon comes the rumbling of drums and a bugle call. Heads begin to move and turn upward. The men curse softly as they are roused. Once an officer calls out, however, the men straighten up. Henry does the same. As he rises, his friend Wilson calls out to him if he is feeling okay. His head feels like a melon. When Wilson tries to examine the bandage in an attempt to help, Henry yells at him to be more careful. He is angry, but Wilson keeps calm. He leads Henry over to get food.
As Henry eats, Wilson continues to take care of him. The youth notices how much his friend has changed. He no longer seems concerned with his personal prowess, and he is not angry at little words against him. He is no longer a "loud soldier"; he seems reliable and confident. Henry used to think of him as swaggering and headstrong. He wonders at how he seems to have procured wisdom from somewhere.
Wilson asks if Henry thinks they will win today. Henry reminds Wilson that yesterday he said he would beat the whole rebel army himself. Wilson replies that he was indeed a bit of a fool "in those days." Henry informs him of Jim Conklin's death.
An argument breaks out between some soldiers. Wilson, now referred to as "the friend," goes over and breaks it up. When he returns, Henry remarks at his change. Wilson replies that it is true that he is different. He tells Henry that the regiment lost half its men the previous day. It was believed that they were dead, but they keep coming back from wherever they had scattered, just like Henry. To this, the youth replies, "So?"
The regiment stands at order, waiting for the command to march. The youth suddenly remembers the packet of letters that Wilson gave to him the day before for safekeeping. He calls to Wilson. However, when the latter turns to him, Henry merely says, "Oh, nothing." He realizes he did not want his friend to inquire in return about his own wound. The packet is a kind of a small weapon against his embarrassment.
He remembers his friend, speaking with sobs about his own death. He had not died, and thus delivered himself into the hands of the youth. Henry feels superior; his self-pride is restored. His actions happened in the dark; therefore, he is still a man. Wilson made of show of his vulnerability when giving Henry the letters.
Henry learned from the previous day's events that retribution is blind. His faith and confidence blossom. The dragons he encountered were not so hideous. He had fled, unlike the others, with dignity and not wildness.
During these ruminations, Wilson turns to Henry and sheepishly asks for his packet of letters back. Henry attempts to think of something to say to demonstrate his own supremacy but cannot, and gives the letters to Wilson unmolested. His friend seems to be shamed. Henry smugly thinks he has enough stories to tell people at home of the stories of war. His laurels are small, he concedes, but they would still shine where there were none before. His mother and the girl that flirted with him will drink up his words.
The fog-filled air is full of the noise from muskets and cannons. A new day of battle begins. The regiment is to relieve men in trenches, sitting with their backs to them and listening to the occasional pop of a skirmisher's rifle. Henry peers over at the trees up and down the trench line. Cannons on the right begin to roar with such volume that no one can hear each other speak. They eventually stop, and then the rumors begin to fly. The men say their commanders are hesitating and uncertain. Disaster stories are concocted and they whine about what more they can do.
Soon the men are marching through the woods, away from the trenches. The lines of the enemy can be seen through the groves. Now the youth joins in the condemnation of the generals. His words are long and elaborate. He asks rhetorical questions about the strength of the regiment and their fighting ability. Wilson attempts to ameliorate the harshness of his words, saying that maybe the generals should not be fully blamed. Henry asks passionately if the regiment does not fight better than any other, as the general had said yesterday. The friend replies sternly that they do, but they just have bad luck. The youth says that therefore this must be the general's fault. A sarcastic soldier replies to Henry that maybe he thinks that he, Henry, fought the whole battle yesterday.
Henry is chagrined and afraid that he is found out. He replies calmly that he did not think that. He realizes that there was no extra meaning in the man's question and that he was just being teased, but he is uncomfortable nonetheless and grows quiet.
The regiment comes to halt in a clearing. From the woods in front of them the sounds of firing resound. They simply wait. The gray shadows of the woods stand still. A battery shells the distance from behind them. The youth launches into a protestation of wandering around just to be led into a bad place and beaten by the enemy. The friend says that it will all turn out all right in the end. Henry begins to respond with venom and volume, when the lieutenant lashes out as well. He says the men should quit talking and get ready for a battle. As the sun rises higher, the scent of battle rises. Sure enough, a few rifles flash in the groves in front of them. The regiment stands still, hesitant and tired. They look like men tied to stakes.
For all of Henry's worrying about his return to his regiment, the men who are awake when he arrives welcome him back. Despite this, and because of the constant questioning of the tattered man, Henry makes up a story about getting shot. He still cannot face the reality of his situation, let alone admit it. His childish, arrogant nature is still conspicuous. However, his actions are counter-balanced by the more mature and selfless actions of Wilson, the loud soldier. He takes care of Henry and his wound, trying to make him comfortable, complimenting his toughness, making sure he gets to sleep. The battle has brought out different things in each man.
The relationship and contrast between Henry and Wilson is evidenced by the change in Wilson’s denoted name. "The loud soldier" is no more and now he is “the friend.” Henry, still “the youth,” notes that before the battle Wilson was quick to tout his prowess but Wilson has clearly been humbled by what he has seen. Henry, however, has not matured enough. He persists in preserving the secret of his flight. He even yells at Wilson as the latter tries to change his bandages. Wilson remains calm while Henry cannot restrain his own expressions of irritation at small things. He does not recognize that others are glad to see that he is alive. When Wilson talks about troops coming back and how they were thankfully not dead, Henry says, "so?" in a very callous way. He has not learned the same lessons that Wilson has because he has not been through the same experiences as his friend. Henry is still stumbling blindly on the path to maturity.
In Wilson’s letters, Henry sees weakness rather than an expression of humanity. When he realizes that he still has the letters to Wilson’s family handed to him before the battle, Henry does not think to spare his friend humiliation and give them back. Instead, he considers them a token of protection against his own shame. Yes, Henry ran, but he did so without witness (“in the dark”), so he can still proclaim to be a man. Wilson, on the other hand, made a show of his fear. Henry feels a budding superiority over the man who has not only fought valiantly in the battle, but who showed him so much kindness. The zenith of his ridiculous, hubristic thoughts come when he deigns to hold the others who fled in contempt because they ran with “wildness.” He, on the other hand, fled "with discretion and dignity." We know from the earlier chapter that this is not the case. He fled because others were fleeing. He fled because he too was afraid. And, in reality, he fled wildly. The ironic detachment between Henry and the narrator also signal Henry’s lack of self-awareness and childishness.
These chapters drive home one of the most pervasive elements of the novel – that Crane’s protagonist is fantastically unlikeable. His immaturity, his pride, his distracted and fragmented manner of thinking, his cowardice, and his superficiality make it difficult for the reader to feel sympathy for him. Many great works of literature feature unlikeable characters –Anna Karenina in the eponymous novel, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for example – but it is still common to develop sympathy for them because of their situation, or discern a redeeming quality or two. Henry Fleming seems to leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth. It may be possible to feel sorry for him that he is trapped in a terrible and brutal war, but that sympathy recedes quickly when his thoughts are made plain.
Henry is full of words for one of the few times in this book while on the trench line. He complains about the generals to his friend and later complains about being marched around only to be led to eventual defeat. The sarcastic man bites off his comments with a simple insult about his battle prowess. This quiets Henry for a time as he suspects his indiscretion is about to come to light. When the moment passes, he begins to rail out again. When Wilson, now mature, tries to say that everything will turn out okay in the end and to think positively, Henry snaps at him that it will not. Henry is now the “loud soldier,” speaking shallowly and without maturity.
Again Crane uses powerful images of nature and color metaphors to communicate both Henry’s shifting perceptions and the larger theme of nature. The color images, so strong and bellicose before, take on a much more placid feel as Henry takes in the sights caused by the fire in Chapter 13. The dark shadows and sleeping soldiers dominate the forms. However, the same fire that bathes them in warm orange and red is the fire of the regiment. These fires also make the trees overhead seem to be those same colors of war – gray and red. While the regiment is a place for comradeship, it is also a fighting force. This gray and red of the trees foreshadows the events of future chapters. As the youth awakens, the gray mist is back again, with all of its connotations of mystery and conflict. In the early light, Henry thinks that the forest is a house of the dead, but he sees his interpretation was "not a fact of the present, but a mere prophecy." This image signals both the indifference of nature to the men’s plight and inevitability of death in war.
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-24
- The Battle of Chancellorsville
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