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The idea of heroism is constantly evolving with time. The traditional idea of heroism, is derived from ancient Greek influences such as the two major epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The mythological figure of heroism is endowed with great strength and ability, and of divine descent. He brings honour and acclaim, and is admired for his courage. This is the Homeric ideal that The Red Badge of Courage and Journey's End approaches. There is the predominant emphasis on the physical, courage and masculinity, in the ideal of a heroic person in these two texts. However heroism redefined in the modern context has extended its definition beyond the distinctly physical terms with the obvious absence of the intellect and morals, and is exemplified by Sassoon in Regeneration.
According to the Britannica-Webster dictionary, heroism refers to "great self-sacrificing courage, that is, greatness of heart in facing danger or difficulties." The modern definition of heroism, though it remains to be purely subjective, has evolved to mean (as I would define it) an unyielding and uncompromising commitment to one's purpose and morality even in the face of antagonism, qualities of which will command admiration.
It is this very idea of heroism that is the motivational force behind many young ambitious men to join the war. This desire to live up to the Homeric ideal feeds on pride and vanity of youths and is clearly demonstrated by Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage. His exaggerated and romantic notions of honour - "tales of great movements shook the land...there seemed to be much glory in them" - drives him to the decision to join the war. However, his misguided fantasies of which " in visions he had seen himself in many struggles...imagined people secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess", proves to be terribly wrong in a matter of only a few days. In no time, he found himself to be "part of a vast blue demonstration".
Crane tries to dispel the link between heroism and actual real-life warfare by bringing Henry, an ignorant youth immersed in idealized notions of glory fame and honour, to a clearer and more sombre view of the world and himself.
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It is interesting to note how in The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane seems to be making a parody of the ritual of initiation that heroes of mythological legends encounter. Henry leaves his Company, and for this short period is faced with innumerable tests and trials, turbulent inner conflicts and confusion, before he finally returns, as a phony "hero" no wiser and no braver, since he had been untested during that period. Henry Fleming appears to epitomize an anti-hero rather than a hero in his quest to be one. The entire book is cruelly mocking of Henry's courage and his desire to be a hero. The deliberate titling of the book as The Red Badge of Courage becomes sorely sarcastic as one reads to find the "red badge of courage" that Henry sports to be a pathetic bump on the head in a scuffle with his own company mate. This pride-driven ideal that Henry holds makes him an anti-hero.
Stephen Crane seems to aim at deriding the idea of the war heroism that many men are blindly led to believe as they join the war. In this, Crane clearly brings out how the traditional heroic ideal is conflicting with and irrelevant to the real modern world. The Homeric ideal of which Henry or Stanhope in Journey's End tries to live up to does not stand. Indeed, as mentioned in TRBC, " Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions." Henry had "long despaired of witnessing a Greek-like struggle. Such would be no more, he had said." The style of modern warfare is such that masses are mobilized to annihilate another group of masses, and for a soldier like Henry, "it did not greatly matter what kind of soldiers he was going to fight, so long as they fought, which fact no one disputed". The violence of warfare of which mindless destruction is all that is needed of its soldiers to succeed involves no moral or human values. The fact that these soldiers don't in fact know the cause for their heavy actions of killing renders them irrational and therefore irreconcilable with the uncompromising commitment to morality of which the foundation of heroism is based on.
In Journey's End, the idea of heroism is treated in a similar but subtly different manner. Stanhope, the impressive officer is, too, an anti-hero. He takes on a kind of "drunken heroism" that allows him to survive the harsh realities of war. Stanhope manages to escape the terrors of trench warfare and perform up to task like a hero only by seeking escapism --- drinking "to forget". In this, both Crane and Sheriff had worked on illustrating the significant role that the idea of heroism played in the hearts of soldiers.
Stanhope's belief that they "just go on sticking it because they know it's --- it's the only thing a decent man can do" parallels that of Henry's mother's advice that " yeh must never do no shirking, child, ...If so be a time come when yeh have to be kilt or do a mean thing, why, Henry, don't think of anything `cept what's right." This notion of steadfastness in carrying out one has promised to do is also discussed in Regeneration. Brought up by Graves, he expounds on his belief that "you don't back out of a contract merely because you have changed your mind. You can still speak up for your principles... but in the end you do the job." In all three texts, the authors seem to suggest the same notion of how heroism also entails actions that exhibit an unswerving loyalty. In this Sassoon's actions are questioned.
Yet, Sassoon seems clearly to exemplify the role of a modern day hero. His stubborn opposition to fighting the senseless war reflects his rational thinking in carrying out his every action. He is therefore one who is a man of the mind. In standing inviolable to his beliefs right through the end, despite having to struggle against giving up his expert leadership of his men of whom he deeply cared for, he had overcame nonetheless what proved to be a great obstacle. His selflessness in the whole matter is juxtaposed against that of Henry's, whose main motive in seeking the Homeric ideal was to gain pride and honour and glory. Stanhope though less of a `hero' than Sassoon, exhibits heroic qualities in that he held an unrelentless and unyielding commitment to "stick" with his men till the end.
While having evolved accordingly to times and context, the quintessential element of heroism remains --- the idea of one's strength in character in pursuing one's purpose in the face of all obstacles is commonly discussed in all the three texts.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. NY: Plume, 1993.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning Corporation, 1979.
Sherriff, R. C. Journey's End. New York: Brentano's, 1929.