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Throughout the story many settings appear, the most important one is the battlefield. The time is 1862, which is the period of the Civil War. The story begins at dawn on a cold morning when the army rests by campfires on some hills. As a tall soldier, who later becomes known as Jim Conklin, washes his shirt at the river, he hears a rumor. He rushes to tell his comrades that the regiment will move the following day. When the loud soldier, Wilson, hears this rumor, he argues with Jim that it is a lie. While this argument is taking place, the youthful soldier and main character in the story, Henry Fleming, is listening attentively.
He then thinks what his reaction to fighting in battle will be. A flashback to when he first enlisted against his mother’s wishes occurs. He remembers fantasies of glorious and bloody wars of times past. Henry thinks that war is a courageous adventure. This transports us to a different setting at his farmhouse. During this time, the people live a simple life mostly based on agriculture. The youth also recalls his mother’s lecture before departing. “She could . . . give him many hundreds of reasons why he was vastly more important on the farm than on the field of battle” (p. 4). His mother warns him about taking care of himself and staying away from bad companions.
His mother’s character symbolizes many different concepts. Because of the era in which the story takes place, one can imagine that this woman is uneducated. Her farming lifestyle implies that she is a hard-worker, especially since no father-figure is present in the household. This image also sets an earthy, or realistic, tone contrasting with Henry’s fantasizing. Her simple actions, such as knitting him socks, and farewell speech show her motherly love, which represents motherhood.
In this mental setting, one learns of Henry’s emotions about his mother and his views about war. He struggles with the idea of what his reaction will be to a real battle. The notion that he might run penetrates his thoughts. Running would prove that he is not courageous or heroic and that his fantasies of triumph in war are just fantasies. The more he imagines himself fighting, the more he “. . . failed in an effort to see himself standing stoutly in the midst of them,” them being the threats of the future attacks (p.
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Arguing the two soldiers enter the hut where the youth is pondering about his reactions and emotions. The two discuss the validity of the rumor. Henry inquires Jim whether he believes any of the soldiers will flee from the battle. Jim calms Henry when he says that some will run but others will stay. Since the soldiers are inexperienced, their reactions are unpredictable.
Finally, the falsity of the rumor is confirmed. Still, the youth is concerned about whether he will be courageous in battle. “Now, with the newborn question in his mind, he was compelled to sink back into his old place as part of a blue demonstration” (p.11). This implies that he loses sense of his individuality among the other soldiers. An eagerness to fight inspires him because it is the only way to prove his bravery. He obtains comfort in his comrades, especially in the “tall soldier,” his childhood friend.
The tall soldier, Jim is an obedient private. Henry supports authority and follows orders without questioning. He is also very confident and honest. When Henry asks him whether he believes he will run away, Jim responds that he is not certain but that he believes that he will stay and fight. This shows self-confidence. Jim’s character soothes Henry believing that he could be like Jim.
When they give the order to move, all the soldiers wonder where they are going. However, Henry thinks about the future and becomes depressed while his companions “tramped to the tune of laughter” (p.15). The regiment is excited and speaks about victory. Henry, however, feels alienated from the others because of his depression. He keeps a distance from the brigade. Many thoughts cross Henry’s mind, and he starts to think that he may not be soldier material.
The loud soldier, Wilson tries to comfort Henry and asks about his worries. “The thrill of his enthusiasm made him walk with an elastic step” (p.17). Wilson confidently talks about how they will defeat the opponent. He is quite sure that he will not run from the attack. The youth questions Wilson’s confidence. Wilson becomes insulted by the discussion and leaves Henry. Wilson leaves Henry alone in melancholy. The contrast in their views and Henry’s lack of self-confidence just makes him feel more hopeless. He feels that he is the only one struggling with this situation.
The scenery changes after that night. The troops cross the river and camp for the remainder of the night. Henry is quite nervous about the move and keeps vigil while the others rest calmly. The following morning the men arise early to march into the forest. As the march proceeds, the soldiers begin dropping their knapsacks and other unnecessary items to move quicker. Then they stop to rest again.
One morning the fighting begins, and Henry realizes that it is finally the time to face his fear. The thought of running enters his mind, but his comrades surround him. He feels that he is marching toward death. At first, Henry is curious and wants to see everything he possibly can. He feels fascination at the sight of battle. He also discovers his first corpse. After all the commotion is over, again he feels lonely. The youth thinks that they are marching into a trap but does not say anything fearing that they will not believe him. The brigade prepares trenches and is moved constantly to a new position. All this moving stresses Henry because he is eager to prove to himself whether he is courageous or not. He becomes impatient and complains to the tall soldier about being ordered to move about aimlessly.
While he eats all that he can, Jim tries to make Henry see why they are constantly moving. Henry wants to fight and get his doubt out of his mind. He concludes that death is the solution to his problem. He believes that fighting and getting killed is the only way out. On the other hand, Wilson feels that he will die and leaves a package for his family with Henry. The presence of war transforms Wilson’s character from being arrogant to being frightened.
The regiment prepares to attack the enemy. They hide behind a grove of trees with their guns ready to fire. Many men run across the field and gossip about the battle. The lieutenant is shot in the hand and begins to swear. The captain tends to his wound with a handkerchief. The company sees an entire command fleeing the battle-scene. This encourages the other soldiers to run also. The youthful private believes that once he comes to face with the enemy he will flee.
The time to attack finally arrives. Henry begins to shoot forgetting himself and becomes one with the regime. The company successfully fends the initial attack. He is happy with himself because of his behavior and builds up some self-esteem. When they strike again, Henry becomes aware of his individuality and fears being left to face the enemy alone. As a result, he runs away.
Throughout the novel, the main character analyzes all his actions thoroughly. After running for a while, he stops and hears that his company withheld the attack. Feeling ashamed, he looks for peace deep in the forest. He convinces himself that his actions can be justified as self-preservation. He arrives to this conclusion when “he threw a pine cone at a jovial squirrel, and he ran with fear” (p.45). Henry concludes that, like he, the squirrel ran for protection.
The setting in the forest is quite frustrating. He tries to find escape from his thoughts and the war, but his tranquility ends soon when he encounters the rotten corpse. He feels as if his problem chases him without finding escape. When he runs away, he nears the battle scene and is awed by the sights and sounds. He joins a group of wounded soldiers and meets the tattered soldier. Believing Henry is injured, the tattered soldier asks him where he is hurt. Henry becomes irritated by the interrogation and leaves him.
The tattered soldier symbolizes Henry’s vision of himself when he joined the Army. Henry imagined himself as a war hero, which is what the tattered soldier represents. The veteran’s wounds are his red badges of courage. Henry wishes that he had some of his own. However, Henry abandons this soldier when he becomes irritated and when he leaves him to die.
Then Henry finds Jim among the wounded soldiers. Jim is happy to see Henry because he believed that Henry had been killed in the battle. Jim has been shot and severely injured. Henry tries to assist Jim, but Jim insists that he be left alone. Finally Henry watches him die agonizingly but with dignity. Jim characterizes bravery at its peak. After such a trauma, Henry wants to be dead like those that have died. He feels that everyone will know his disgraceful secret.
Nearing the battlefield, he notices many teams retreating and feels relief. However, when at the sight of a forward-moving team, he feels depressed again. He yearns to be like those soldiers going bravely to fight. He argues with himself about whether he should return to fight along with the regiment. Yet, Henry worries that his comrades will belittle him when they become informed about his whereabouts. His mind goes back and forth debating the success of the Army and whether to return to fight. He can only think about what his mates’ reactions toward him will be.
As a herd of soldiers flees from the attack, Henry attempts to stop one of them to ask what is happening. When the man struggles for Henry to let him go, the soldier aptly swings his rifle and hits Henry on the head. This fleeing soldier personifies Henry when he fled during the beginning of the battle. In horrible pain, he searches for a spot to rest while thinking of home. Then a cheerful soldier finds him and leads him back to the camp. To Henry’s surprise, his comrades imagine that a bullet injured the youth during the fight. He then realizes that cowardice is only recognized when it is known. Because none of his companions are aware of his shameful acts, he can still carry himself proudly.
When he returns to the camp, he discovers a reformed Wilson. The former loud soldier is no longer arrogant. Now, he is kindhearted and responsible. Wilson offers Henry his bed to rest and tends to his needs. Reunited, the two friends discuss past times and the future defeat of the enemy. Wilson has matured because of the war, and this element foreshadows Henry’s change of character.
The following day the fighting continues. Henry confronts the enemy bravely. Now, that people believe he is an efficient soldier, he regains his self-pride. He manages to keep the flag from landing in the hands of the opponent. He leads the command bravely and daringly. Henry has grown courageous and encourages others to be heroic. Henry overcomes his fear and complies with his duties. No longer does he grieve over the idea of what his reactions might be. Now, he just fights without a care on his mind and does it successfully. Finally, the firing dies, and the men retreat to the river. Henry is satisfied with himself and the way he has acted. He is finally a grown man.
In conclusion, Crane discusses the essence of courage. Henry constantly debates with himself about his own bravery. At the end, Henry assimilates that teamwork is the foundation for courage. When Henry acts courageously in the novel, he envisions himself as part of the whole regime. To Crane, war has no purpose. After the soldiers have fought extremely well, they regard them as brute animals. No sense of reward is present because the soldiers march back to their original positions before the whole battle began. However, the author depicts war as an adventure. Another important theme is fear. Throughout the novel, Henry conveys fear of what people might think of his actions. He also expresses fear of death. First, he runs away from battle fearing that he might lose his life. Then he is ashamed of his actions and fears being ridiculed because of his cowardice.
The Red Badge of Courage By: Stephen Crane A Bantam Book, New York, New York, 1983.