When Henry stumbles away from battle, afraid and ashamed, he retreats into the peaceful cathedral of Nature and convinces himself that Nature is calm, motherly, and most importantly, on his side. He is rapidly disabused of this notion when he sees a disgusting corpse decaying in the forest. Nature is neither on man’s side or against him – it is completely indifferent, able to offer both succor and strife. Henry is frightened by this concept at first, but it soon gives him a sense of freedom and autonomy. He sheds most of his superstitions and does not particularly embrace religion; thus, while Nature and God might be indifferent, he is the shaper of his own life. He makes decisions and controls his fate to the extent that he can.
The individual vs. the group
There is a constant tension between the individual and the group in the novel. Though there is a third-party omniscient narrator, the novel follows the thoughts and actions of one soldier. Henry Fleming desires to be an individual and engage in glorious deeds and earn himself a good reputation and "laurels". Readers see and hear the war through the tumult of his tangled thoughts as he processes his experience. Occasionally he distinguishes himself as an individual apart from the group of his regiment: he flees the first battle and wanders the forest alone, and in later battles, he retrieves his regiment's flag from the fallen color sergeant. As the new flag-bearer, he is a beacon to his regiment, both a part of it and separate.
However, he also understands that he is not a man "but a member". Before his fear overtakes him and he flees, his participation in the very first skirmish leads to an understanding that he is not just one soldier, but part of a larger, amorphous whole; "he was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire" (31). One soldier can rarely make a difference, but many can charge, many can repulse the enemy, and many can emerge victorious or suffer defeat. Whether or not Henry's fellow troops are heroes or "mule drivers", they are a cohesive unit and they must rely upon each other. Each soldier has a duty to act according to the will of their regiment. To fully express this interdependence, Henry compares being separated from his regiment to being "amputated" (31).
Courage and cowardice
This binary is what Henry obsesses over throughout the novel. He desires to be courageous like a classical Greek hero, but wonders secretly if he is capable of such unquestioned bravery when confronted with battle. When it comes to bear that he cannot, he spends the aftermath wondering if he is a coward or merely a pragmatist. Henry's actual acts of courage come toward the end of the book, but they are fraught with complication. He certainly seems to be inching closer to maturity/manhood, but these deeds are often performed without any forethought or deliberation - for example, his celebrated aggressiveness was the product of disoriented shooting beyond the call to cease fire. The motivation behind most of his courageous actions is the instinct of self-preservation rather than heroism. Crane may be trying to suggest with his conflicted protagonist that courage in warfare needs to be redefined - it is not the classic ideal of the heroes of story and song, but of doing the best one can to survive and make headway amidst the turmoil and terror of battle. This complicated view of the fine line between courage and cowardice is a far more realistic depiction of what real soldiers face. The "red badge of courage" can kill.
The reality of war
One of the most celebrated aspect of Crane's novel is how utterly realistic his depictions of war are, despite the fact that he had never seen battle. The soldiers may enlist dreaming of heroic and glorious deeds and returning to adoring families, but after they experience time at the front they are absolutely disabused of those assumptions. First of all, war can be very dull. The men complain about the endless sitting around and the seemingly pointless marching from place to place. They criticize their superiors and wonder what exactly their role is. Secondly, battle is not made up of moments of glory but often confusing and frightening events. Readers see the conflict only from Henry’s perception, but they glimpse a wide swath of horror: soldiers are turned into corpses or mangled specters; all of one’s sense are assaulted; it is hard to hear and hard to see; friends die in front of one’s eyes. To Henry, the enemy is as unknowable as a mythical beast that mercilessly devours troops. There is little time for reason in the midst of fighting. Crane does an excellent job conveying how messy, terrifying, confusing, and costly war really is.
Coming of age
The Red Badge of Courage fits into many literary categories, including bildungsroman - a coming-of-age story of a boy’s journey to manhood. Unlike many of these stories, such as Dickens’s David Copperfield, Henry’s journey does not span his entire lifetime but rather a few days in his life as a new recruit during the Civil War. When he first arrives he is completely untested in the ways of war; he is immature and has no idea what he will do when faced with actual battle. His thoughts jump back and forth and he demonstrates the negative traits of pride, shallowness, and cowardice. He actually does run when the battle gets heated, and he feigns that an accidental wound is a real battle injury in order to preserve his self-image and avoid censure and mockery from his fellow soldiers. He entertains childish fantasies of heroism and represses any uncomfortable thoughts of his actual conduct. However, in the next battle he displays courage and heroism when he takes the flag from the dead color-sergeant, and in a subsequent battle rallies his fading fellow troops. These actions may indicate that he has grown - indeed, Henry deems himself a man - however, one of the great questions in the text is how much has Henry truly matured by the end of the novel. He may really have grown into a man, or he may be telling himself what he needs to believe in order to survive.
When he enlists, Henry's mother does not tell him to seek glory above all else, but rather offers him a more realistic goal - to do what he thinks is right and avoid actions that would shame her, even if it costs him his life. Honor is so important, that Henry often wishes he were dead because death is the ultimate proof of sacrifice and heroism. Though Henry dreams of returning home to adulation with stories of his bravery, he is more concerned with his reputation among his fellow soldiers. Henry craves honor - he wants to be respected by his peers. He despairs when he thinks his regiment will find out that he ran from battle, and also that he does not have a true "red badge of courage" that conveys his bravery. The tattered soldier's questions perturb him, and he quivers with fear thinking about how he will be mocked and jeered at for emerging unscathed from the battle. Henry seems to construct his own identity from the way others perceive him. His valiant act of capturing the flag brings him the praise of the lieutenant and the colonel, and only after that can he truly begin to feel like a man. His inner debates regarding his own merits and his own degree of heroism lessen when the others begin to believe he has acquitted himself with honor.
As with any wartime novel, the theme of death permeates the text. However, there is no fixed meaning regarding death and its significance. Sometimes Henry, the reader's guide through the war, desires death and thinks it preferable to waiting around and being stuck in the hell of battle. For Henry, death is an escape, a place he thinks will be one of understanding and unconditional love, something he lacks in the beginning of the novel. Death is also an indication of sacrifice and glory. Henry observes that it is better to die in battle than afterwards because their heroism will be undisputed. However, death is also depicted as ignoble; this is seen in the two dead corpses Henry encounters in the text, the first being pitiable and the second being disgusting. Death haunts the pages of the novel, afflicting Jim Conklin and others. The more Henry comes face to face with it, the more likely he is to keep progressing along his path to maturity and manhood. Death, then, in its ever-present and unpredictable reality, is a conduit for knowledge and growth.
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.