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Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is truly a unique book because it challenges the common perceptions of the Civil War. The fight for freedom and the American way of life were how writers such as Fredrick Douglass and Walt Whitman portrayed the Civil War. Crane challenges these principles by concentrating on the day-to-day reality the regiments of the North faced. Since the North’s main goal was to abolish slavery, they are remembered to be a group of men who were well equipped and prepared for battle because they represented the morality of the war. However, the North is shown through Crane to be a group of amateurs who are untested, lack discipline, and do not appreciate the opportunity to fight for their country and their way of life. In this sense, The Red Badge of Courage relates to life for how it is instead of how people want to remember it to be. Contrary to Crane, Cicero once wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country). Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage begins as a validation of these sentiments of Cicero: although, the rationale of the sentiment is challenged throughout the story, Cicero outlook is ultimately shown to be true in the last battle scene.
In the beginning of The Red Badge of Courage, the main character, Henry, has preconceived ideals of war that lead him to believe that “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” “The young soldier” and “the youth” are nicknames for Henry and are used throughout the novel to convey the characteristics of his youth. Henry had a false sense of what war is really like because his lack of experience causes him to compares war to epic ancient battles. He idealistically thinks that his first battle will be “one of those great affairs of the earth (45).” Henry desperately wants to follow in the footsteps of Ancient Greek heroes and become a hero himself. He naively believes in the traditional forms of honor and courage. Dreams of the image of a dead soldier being laid upon his shield, following the Greek tradition of dying in battle, fill Henry’s head. He lacks experience in war so he can only imagine what it is truly like. The lack of experience makes Henry over zealous for battle and makes his belief in his inevitable greatness seem vain and self-centered.
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As the book progresses, Cicero sentiments are challenged when Henry flees from his second bout with war. Henry is delusional and egotistical in his constant justification of his actions. To Henry, defending himself, whether he is right or wrong, is always a priority. These justifications serve to repair his self-confidence, regardless of their validity. For example, when Henry imagines that he had been wronged by the regiment’s success in the battle after he fled, and when he criticizes the soldiers who ended up winning the battle for being too stupid to follow him. It is ironic that Henry wants to be a brave hero, but he is basically saying that to fight bravely in the face of adversity is stupid.
Just as fleeing from battle undermines Cicero, so too does Henry’s encounter with the corpse in the woods. “The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green (101).” Henry’s observance of the corpse with a blue uniform frightened him immensely because he was a blue uniformed, Union soldier and he realized how easily the corpse could be him. The corpse also represents death and Henry is concerned that he will die in battle. Seeing the corpse laying there, decaying and covered by ants, reassures Henry that he has done the right thing when he choose to flee from battle. The rotting body functions as a reminder to Henry that the universe is unconcerned with human life and that his goal of heroism may be harder than he anticipated. Henry’s mind becomes filled with questions of his intentions to be courageous and honorable and the possibility of attaining these ambitions. Although he is fearful of death, he understands that it is a basic part of nature and that the universe does not care whether he lives or dies. Henry desperately wants to know how the soldier died and if it was an honorable death. However, he realizes that the inevitable fact of death: neither the soldier’s actions or character matter anymore. Fleeing from battle and finding a dead soldier are reasons to question the basis for Cicero’s response.
In the end of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry’s conviction and bravery in the final battle is an indication “that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” He laid his life on the line, which is the ultimate sacrifice a person could make for their country. “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man (211).” Henry is reflecting on his service in the war in this quote and how he could have easily died in battle but it was a chance that he chooses to take and he was proud of himself for it. Henry’s bravery made him feel like he had finally earned his manhood. His courage is shown through his service as the flag bearer, an extremely hazardous position, and it proves that he has become an experienced and successful soldier. In the final battle, he feels a “temporary but sublime absence of selfishness.” No longer is he interested in winning the praise of and attention of the other men; instead, he becomes an intricate part of his regiment. As Henry becomes consumed by the battle, the importance of gaining a name for himself fades away. It is ironic, however, that this is the moment when Henry actually establishes a name for himself. Officers who witness his fierce fighting view him as one of the best soldiers in the regiment. Henry does not cheat his way into being honorable; he earns it. The unselfishness that Henry shows in the end is the essence of Cicero’s response because he is willing to risk his life for his country’s cause.
The Red Badge of Courage is the transformation of Henry from a naïve, self-seeking boy to a confident, noble man. Initially, Henry has a false sense of reality by thinking that war will be like the battles he read about in books. He stands untested in battle and questions his own courage. As the novel progresses, he encounters hard truths which are shown through his fleeing a battle and finding a dead soldier. Henry confronts the universe’s indifference to his existence and the insignificance of his own life. Henry wrestles with the mistakes of his past, but in the final battle, he becomes a courageous leader who thrives in combat. Henry ultimately proves that “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Penguin, 1989.