The Red Badge of Courage Summary

The Red Badge of Courage summary

Henry Fleming fights for the Union in the American Civil War. Though eager to join in the fray, Henry flees from his first battle, terrified by the war. He later leads the charge in a battle the Union wins, thus becoming a hero.

  • Henry's first battle starts off slow, and he's disappointed with the fact that there isn't really anything for him to do. Then the Confederate soldiers start pushing them back, and Henry is forced to flee. He feels like a coward.

  • Henry joins a group of wounded soldiers recuperating after the battle. He has sustained a wound, too: his "red badge of courage," a wound left by the butt of a rifle striking him in the head.

  • Determined to become a hero, Henry leads a charge in battle. When the Union forces win the battle, he's declared a hero, just like he wanted.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 battle, to manhood, marked by his leading a charge and capturing a rebel flag. In the fiction of Crane, however, as ironic a writer as ever lived, nothing is ever quite that simple. The question of just what it is that Henry learns (and in turn, just what it is that war teaches any of those condemned to fight in it) remains open, to be answered by each reader by closely following the details of the story.

The Red Badge of Courage moves back and forth between traditional realism, partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Crane’s ironical one, and the surreal, disjointed imagery of nightmare. Thus, in the opening paragraph, from the camp of Henry’s untested regiment one can see “the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills”—a picture of a war monster. Next the story turns to a matter-of-fact description of camp life, including small domestic arrangements, quarrels, and the inevitable buzz of rumor. By these varied techniques, Crane accurately expresses the flavor of Henry’s existence—mostly ordinary, a life dominated by trivial events and emotions but always haunted by the specter of the fearful unknown.

At length, the regiment begins its march to action. Before any fighting actually occurs, Henry begins to feel his helplessness to alter the onrushing course of events. His regiment “inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.” It is this kind of statement that has caused some critics to describe The Red Badge of Courage as naturalistic and Henry as simply a victim of historical forces. Yet it is important to remember that these are Henry’s perceptions, not Crane’s, and that Henry is often self-deluded. A moment later, he reflects that he “had not enlisted of his free will,” when in fact he had. He made that choice and, like the characters in “The Blue Hotel,” will have others to make as well.

His first crisis occurs when his regiment has to withstand an infantry charge. At first he “suddenly lost concern for himself, and. . . . He became not a man but a member. . . . He felt the subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.” This is reminiscent of the brotherhood in “The Open Boat,” but it is ironically undercut by its arising from war (Henry’s state is described as “battle sleep”) and by its being so very short-lived. Soon, when a few men run, Henry runs too.

He runs blindly, without conscious volition, and his adventures while away from his regiment, chapters 6 through 12 of the twenty-four in the book, make up the dramatic heart of the novel. He pictures himself initially as being pursued by dragons and shells with “rows of cruel teeth that grinned at him.” Soon, as he calms down, he begins to justify his flight: Because his regiment was about to be swallowed, running was an intelligent act. Yet when he overhears some officers saying that the regiment held, he feels more than ever isolated: He grows angry at his comrades for standing firm and actually thinks of them as his enemy.

Throughout the novel, in typical adolescent fashion, Henry undergoes wild mood swings that color the ways he sees the external world. Distanced for a time from the fighting, he enters a forest and comes to “a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. . . . There was a religious half light.” Then, in a type of violent juxtaposition that Crane uses frequently, Henry sees that he is “being looked at by a dead man,” a decaying corpse Crane describes in graphic detail. Henry disintegrates: “His mind flew in all directions,” matching the chaos of the day’s events. It is when he comes to a road filled with wounded men that he most acutely feels his shame, hence the need for a wound of his own, a “red badge of courage.”

He falls in with a “tattered man” who befriends him and with a “spectral soldier,” a dying man he recognizes with horror as Jim Conklin, formerly known as the “tall soldier” of his own company. Henry and the tattered man accompany Jim on his death walk as he searches, seemingly, for the right place to die. At his death occurs the most famous and controversial image of the novel: “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.” One prominent critic has interpreted this sun to be a metaphor for a communion wafer, and an elaborately worked-out system of religious references as giving the book its underlying structure. Others, probably with better reason, discount the religious element and see the source of the image as the red seals that were commonly pasted on envelopes.

Henry, in his shame, now abandons the badly wounded tattered man. As he frantically questions a soldier in a routed mass of Union infantry, the man hits him on the head with his rifle, thus bestowing on him a profoundly ironic red badge. As the day ends Henry staggers on into the dark, only to be rescued by a mysterious “cheery man” whose face he never sees. This cheery man, with almost magical prowess and rare good will, restores him to his regiment.

It is typical for heroes of epic myth to make a trip to the underworld, a trip which explores their own deepest fears and from which they are reborn to a higher self. Henry has now completed such a journey; when he wakes the next morning, “it seemed to him that he had been asleep for a thousand years, and he felt sure that he opened his eyes upon an unexpected world.” The difficulty with this sort of mythic reading, however, is that in many ways Henry seems unchanged and continues to behave badly.

Wilson, a comrade formerly known as the “loud soldier,” has been genuinely humbled; there have been models of brotherhood in the tattered man and the cheery soldier, and of heroism in the dignity of Jim Conklin’s death. Yet Henry never tells the truth about his wound, and he is not above wanting to humiliate Wilson for having revealed his fears. At the end, he is tormented not by having abandoned the tattered man but by his fears of being found out. It is as though whatever meaning the mythic story might have had for Crane was overwhelmed by his clear-eyed realism.

Henry does become heroic, or at least stalwartly successful, in conventional military terms, and he turns at the end to “images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace.” On the face of it, there is a happy ending. Henry has basked euphorically in nature before, however, only to be brought up short by a rotting corpse. The war is by no means over; there is little peace to be had, and there is no convincing evidence that Henry will experience unbroken inner peace. So the meaning of the ending remains decidedly ambiguous. Exactly what lessons has Henry Fleming learned—that appearance matters more than reality, or that peace of mind is best attained by internalizing the values of society? If so, The Red Badge of Courage is a darker book than has generally been recognized.

The Red Badge of Courage Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 illusions, nervousness, fear, bravado, guilt, anger, joy, and most important, the desire to belong, to gain a soldier’s identity. This motive ultimately overrides even the instinct of self-preservation, and finally allows Henry to earn his self-respect and sense of belonging by courageously fighting in later battles.

Crane’s approach is realistic, but it is a psychological realism rather than the depiction of events from an objective observer’s perspective. As a result of his writing from the sometimes-confused perspective of an ordinary person, Crane has also been called an impressionist, a naturalist, and a symbolist. For example, readers understand Henry’s flight-or-fight dilemma not through descriptions of tactics or skirmishes but rather through Henry’s own sense of his situation: “There were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.” Henry’s problem is that of every adolescent, of discovering who he or she is and of discovering how to attain a sense of belonging in a social group.

It is thus not surprising that The Red Badge of Courage should be read perennially in high school literature classes. Quite apart from its realism and excellence in teaching history (ironically, Crane, publishing thirty years after the Civil War’s end, had never seen a battle), its appeal lies in its use of war as a metaphor for the youthful predicament of identity. Two additional advantages, from the point of view of a high school teacher, are that the book is relatively short and that its language is relatively simple. Henry’s terror of not belonging or of being found wanting courage outweighs his terror of death or injury, and it is with his psychological predicament that all readers can empathize.

The Red Badge of Courage Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 confused thoughts, and he can only fire his rifle over and over; around him, men behave in their own strange individual manners as they are wounded. Henry feels a close comradeship with the men at his side—men who are firing at the enemy with him.

Suddenly the attack ends. To Henry, it seems strange that the sky above should still be blue after the guns had stopped firing. While the men are recovering from the attack, binding wounds, and gathering equipment, another surprise attack is launched from the enemy line. Unprepared and tired from the first round of fighting, the men retreat in panic. Henry, sharing their sudden terror, runs too.

When the fearful retreat ends, the fleeing men learn that the enemy had lost the battle. Now Henry feels a surge of guilt. Dreading to rejoin his companions, he flees into the forest. There he sees a squirrel run away from him in fright. The fleeing animal seems to vindicate in Henry’s mind his own cowardly flight; he had acted according to nature, whose creatures run from danger. Then, seeing a dead man lying in a clearing, Henry hurries back into the retreating column of wounded men. Most are staggering along in helpless bewilderment, and some are being carried on stretchers. Henry realizes that he has no wound and that he does not belong in that group of staggering men. There is one pitiful-looking man, covered with dirt and blood, wandering about dazed and alone. Everyone is staring at him and avoiding him. When Henry approaches him, the young man sees that the soldier is Conklin. He is horrified at the sight of the tall soldier. He tries to help Conklin, but with a wild motion of despair, Conklin falls to the ground dead. Once more Henry flees.

Henry’s conscience is paining him. He wants to return to his regiment to finish the fight, but he thinks that his fellow soldiers will point to him as a deserter. He envies the dead men who are lying all about him. They are already heroes; he is a coward. Ahead he can hear the rumbling of artillery. As he nears the lines of his regiment, a retreating line of men breaks from the trees ahead of him. The men run fiercely, ignoring him or waving frantically at him as they shout something he cannot comprehend. He stands among the flying men, not knowing what to do. One man hits him on the head with the butt of a rifle.

Henry goes on carefully, the wound in his head paining him a great deal. He walks for a long while until he meets another soldier, who leads Henry back to his regiment. The first familiar man Henry meets is Wilson. Wilson, who had been a terrible braggart before the first battle, had given Henry a packet of letters to keep for him in case he were killed. Now, Henry feels superior to Wilson. If the man asks him where he has been, Henry will remind him of the letters. Lost is Henry’s feeling of guilt; he feels superior now, his deeds of cowardice almost forgotten. No one knows that he had run off in terror. Wilson had changed. He no longer is the swaggering, boastful man who had annoyed Henry in the beginning. The men in the regiment wash Henry’s wound and tell him to get some sleep.

The next morning, Wilson casually asks Henry for the letters. Half sorry that he has to yield them with no taunting remark, Henry returns the letters to his comrade. He feels sorry for Wilson’s embarrassment. He feels himself a virtuous and heroic man. Another battle starts. This time, Henry holds his position doggedly and keeps firing his rifle without thinking. Once he falls down, and for a panicky moment he thinks that he has been shot, but he continues to fire his rifle blindly, loading and firing without even seeing the enemy. Finally, someone shouts to him that he must stop shooting, that the battle is over. Then, Henry looks up for the first time and sees that there are no enemy troops before him. Now he is a hero. Everyone stares at him when the lieutenant of the regiment compliments his fierce fighting. Henry realizes that he had behaved like a demon.

Wilson and Henry, off in the woods looking for water, overhear two officers discussing the coming battle. They say that Henry’s regiment fights like mule drivers, but that they would have to be used anyway. Then one officer says that probably not many of the regiment will live through the day’s fighting. Soon after the attack starts, the color-bearer is killed, and Henry takes up the flag, with Wilson at his side. Although the regiment fights bravely, one of the commanding officers of the Army says that the men had not gained the ground that they were expected to take. The same officer had complimented Henry for his courageous fighting. Henry begins to feel that he knows the measure of his own courage and endurance. His outfit fights one more engagement with the enemy. Henry is by this time a veteran, and the fighting holds less meaning for him than had the earlier battles. When it is over, he and Wilson march away with their victorious regiment.

The Red Badge of Courage Summary

The Red Badge of Courage Overview

The Red Badge of Courage consists of twenty-four chapters which follow the protagonist, young Henry Fleming, through his experience as...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

The Red Badge of Courage Part One

Chapters I through VI
Though published in 1895, The Red Badge of Courage takes place sometime during the...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

The Red Badge of Courage Part Two

Chapters VII through XIII
Henry is full of conflicting feelings. On the one hand he feels like a criminal for running...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

The Red Badge of Courage Part Three

Chapters XIV through XXIV
In the final section, Henry develops into a seasoned soldier. He is greatly relieved not to...

(The entire section is 137 words.)