Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Red Badge of Courage is hard to classify, as is Crane’s work in general. It is a war story in the sense that the major external action consists of clashes between opposing armies, but certainly it is unconventional in what it omits. No geographical place names are given, except for a single casual mention of the Rappahannock River, so that the action—all the more surreal for this reason—cannot be located on a map. Similarly, no dates are given; it is impossible to tell what strategic significance, if any, the series of inconclusive actions might have had.
In fiction that is intended to justify one side in a war, much is generally made of the justice of the cause; moreover, the soldiers on “our side” are portrayed as brave and noble, the enemy as evil. In The Red Badge of Courage, on the other hand, the cause is never described, and, though the enemy remains mostly faceless, it becomes clear at last that the only difference between Union and Confederate soldiers is the color of their uniforms. The novel is distinctly modern in this sense, much in the spirit of the fiction engendered by the Vietnam War. In its vivid depiction of the futile suffering brought about by war, it is an antiwar novel.
It is also, and perhaps primarily, a coming-of-age story. According to traditional readings, Henry Fleming, the young protagonist, moves in a series of stages from boyhood, marked by his cowardly flight from his first...
(The entire section is 1477 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, Stephen Crane’s “psychological portrayal of fear,” follows a young, inexperienced Yankee soldier, Henry Fleming, into battle for his first time. Bored with farm life and motivated to enlist by the heroic images of war in conventional stories, Henry looks forward to battle, but the conversations of seasoned soldiers Wilson and Jim Conklin make him question how he will react under fire and whether he is really a soldier.
Henry’s first, unnamed battle (perhaps Chancellorsville) causes him to shoot wildly and then run in panic when others do. Feeling guilty when he learns of the enemy’s defeat, Henry hides in the forest, where he sees a dead soldier. He joins a group of wounded, including Jim, who dies. Conscience-stricken, Henry envies the dead but becomes embroiled in a retreat and is struck on the head by a fellow Union soldier. His wound, his ironic “red badge of courage,” allows him to rejoin his regiment. In subsequent battles, Henry fights with increasing fierceness and bravery and joins his experienced fellows as a veteran.
Often considered the first modern war novel, The Red Badge of Courage focuses on the common soldier rather than the leadership or on questions of strategy and politics. Henry is a generic youth in battle, a tiny cog in a huge war machine that readers perceive only through the boy’s consciousness, which is a mix of romantic...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The tall soldier, Jim Conklin, and the loud soldier, Wilson, argue bitterly over the rumor that the troops are about to move. Henry Fleming is impatient to experience his first battle, and as he listens to the quarreling of the seasoned soldiers, he wonders if he will become frightened and run away under gunfire. He questions Wilson and Conklin, and each states that he will stand and fight no matter what happens.
Henry had come from a farm, where he had dreamed of battles and longed for Army life. His mother held him back at first. When she saw that her son was bored with the farm, she packed his woolen clothing and, with a warning that he must not associate with the wicked kind of men who were in the military camps, sent him off to join the Yankee troops.
One gray morning, Henry wakes up to find that his regiment is about to move. With a hazy feeling that death would be a relief from dull and meaningless marching, Henry is again disappointed. The troops make only another march. He begins to suspect that the generals are stupid fools, but the other men in his raw regiment scoff at his idea and tell him to shut up.
When the fighting suddenly begins, there is very little action in it for Henry. He lays on the ground with the other men and watches for signs of the enemy. Some of the men around him are wounded. He cannot see what is going on or what the battle is about. Then an attack comes. Immediately, Henry forgets all of his former...
(The entire section is 1165 words.)
The Red Badge of Courage consists of twenty-four chapters which follow the protagonist, young Henry Fleming, through his experience as a Union Army private during the American Civil War. The book can be organized into three parts: Part One, consisting of Chapters I through VI, concerns Henry's state of mind before his first battle, and his initial war experiences, when he flees from battle; Part Two, consisting of Chapters VII through XIII, explores Henry's experiences away from his regiment; and Part Three, consisting of Chapters XIV through XXIV, focuses on Henry recovering his courage and returning to his regiment, his subsequent heroism, and his final sense of achieving manhood.
(The entire section is 109 words.)
Chapters I through VI
Though published in 1895, The Red Badge of Courage takes place sometime during the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. The initial setting is the campsite of a regiment of the Union Army, fighting for the northern states. The soldiers can see the campfires of the Confederate Army, their enemy, which is fighting for the interests of the southern states. Most of the story is told from Henry's point of view, through his thoughts, memories, and perceptions The scene opens with an argument about whether the regiment will finally move out after being in camp for several months. As Henry listens to this debate, he remembers his life back home, and his mother telling him how to behave on this first adventure off the farm: "Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others, and yeh've got to keep quiet and do what they tell yeh." Henry felt proud and daring when he left home to go to war, but now he wonders how he will do when confronted with the reality of battle. He seeks information from the tall soldier, Jim Conklin, who tells him that if everyone stands and fights, he will stay, but if everyone runs, he will run, too. This makes Henry feel better since he does not have to pretend to be more confident than his comrades.
When the regiment is ordered to move, Henry marches along, worrying about whether or not he will be brave. He studies his companions for clues to their feelings, but they...
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Chapters VII through XIII
Henry is full of conflicting feelings. On the one hand he feels like a criminal for running away, and on the other, he feels as though he has been cheated by fate of his glorious career as a brave soldier. He imagines how humiliated he will be if he returns to his regiment, and in a fit of rebellion and despair he sets off through the woods, away from the Union Army. He seeks solace in Nature, which he imagines to be a sympathetic woman "with a deep aversion to tragedy." As he goes deeper into the woods, Henry becomes more calm and rationalizes his escape. The deepening forest muffles the sound of the cannon.
At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light.
Near the threshold he stopped, horror-stricken at the sight of a thing.
He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a column-like tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip....
(The entire section is 614 words.)
Chapters XIV through XXIV
In the final section, Henry develops into a seasoned soldier. He is greatly relieved not to be exposed as a deserter and enters into the battle with a sincere desire to be brave. He saves the company flag from being captured by the enemy, and he exhorts his fellow soldiers to re-enter the battle at a critical moment. For this he is praised by his superior officers and seen to be a valiant soldier. Henry notices that he has become tranquil about the war, and is a reassuring presence to the untried men around him. In the final chapter, Henry feels "a quiet manhood, non-assertive but of sturdy and strong blood." He proceeds into the next round of battle as "a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds."
(The entire section is 137 words.)