Illustration of Henry Fleming in a soldier's uniform in front of a confederate flag and an American flag

The Red Badge of Courage

by Stephen Crane

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Crane's Portrayal of War

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Stephen Crane's Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is remarkable in two ways: it is a quintessential coming-of-age story, and it is written in a style so original that many consider it to be the first modern American novel. Though written thirty years after the Civil War, in 1895, by a young man who had never seen warfare, Crane captured not only the disorientation and chaos of the battlefield, but found completely original ways to describe a foot soldier's experience. And though The Red Badge of Courage is part of a long tradition of war narratives, which extends from Homer's The Iliad to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Crane departed from that tradition by presenting war from the point of view of a single ignorant private. No effort is made to characterize war as noble, death as glorious, or soldiers as particularly brave or admirable. Instead, The Red Badge of Courage is a study of the interior life of a young man, Henry Fleming, who is in turn confused, terrified, humiliated, and, ultimately, matured by his exposure to pitched battle.

Crane's strategy in The Red Badge of Courage is to create a sense of chaos and helplessness by withholding from the reader information that the common soldier would not have known. Henry Fleming does not know where he is at any time. It seems to the characters, as to the reader, that Fleming and his fellow soldiers are being arbitrarily moved around in mysterious patterns that suit the generals but mean nothing to the soldiers in the ranks. Scholars have determined from internal evidence, however, that Crane set his story during the Battle of Chancellorsville which took place from May 2 to May 6,1863, near the little town of Chancellorsville, Virginia, and not far from Fredricksburg. Understanding something of that battle offers a useful perspective on Henry Fleming's odyssey to manhood, and on the settings in which each of his adventures takes place.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought between the Army of the Potomac, led by the Union general loseph Hooker, and the Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee. The town was near the Rappahannock River and surrounded by a pine scrub forest called "The Wilderness " A great deal of the fighting took place in this forest, which accounts for the setting of Henry Fleming's period of desertion, and for the cathedral-like clearing in the woods where he encounters the dead soldier. Many of the skirmishes and encounters between the two armies also took place on the fields between Fredricksburg and the Wilderness. This accounts for the battle scenes in which Henry finds himself running wildly at the enemy over an open plain.

Lee's army was outnumbered by two to one, but his clever maneuvering gave the Rebel army the early advantage. Using his brilliant cavalry division, led by Stonewall Jackson, Lee forced the superior Federal troops into a desperate retreat on the first day of the battle. Henry Fleming sees these retreating soldiers as he approaches the front and fantasizes that the generals are leading them into a trap. He was not far from the truth.

Unfortunately for Lee, Stonewall Jackson received the wound that killed him in this battle, and on the second day the Federals pushed the Rebels back in one of the few bayonet charges of the war. Instead of pressing his advantage, however, General Hooker ordered the Union Army to fall back, allowing Lee to reform his line and continue the fight for another two days. The dismay and distrust that Crane represents among the Federal foot soldiers was...

(This entire section contains 1746 words.)

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felt in real life by the Officers who served under Hooker. According to James M. McPherson inBattle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, upon receiving orders to retreat instead of advance, one of Hooker's officers reported that he believed his commanding officer to be "a whipped man." By the end of the encounter, Lee had triumphed over the Union Army and scored one of the most resounding triumphs of the war. President Lincoln, when told of Hooker's defeat despite his tremendous advantage, exclaimed, "My God! My God! What will the country say?"

Henry Fleming, as a Union soldier being ordered here and there during one of the great fiascoes of the Civil War, is neither irrational nor cowardly for his perception of the battle as insane chaos. Nor can he be blamed for his decision to leave the front, since everything he is asked to do seems pointless. The Red Badge of Courage is a study in what a rational person can do in an irrational situation. Ultimately Fleming realizes that he must face his fear and reservations for the sake of his reputation and for the sake of his comrades.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was writing in the last decade of the century, a period that has a distinctive quality in all aspects of the arts. Romanticism had dominated literary and visual arts for the first half of the nineteenth century, and the time was ripe for new ideas as the twentieth century approached.

The Romantic movement was represented in England by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and Shelley, and in America by the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller, among others) and by Walt Whitman. It was a movement characterized by three attributes: 1) free and natural expression, rather than the artificial formality of the eighteenth century; 2) the elevation of the common man as a subject of literature; and 3) the use of the natural landscape to reflect human passion and expressiveness. Two schools of thought emerged in mid-century as literature developed beyond Romanticism and then reacted against these trends in writing: Realism and Impressionism.

Realism is related to Romanticism in that it draws upon the life of the common man and woman for material and inspiration. But instead of idealizing the lives of common folk, the Realists focus on the brutal and ugly aspects of lower class people and their difficult and often sordid lives. Clearly Stephen Crane is writing in the Realistic manner, since his subjects are common men presented with all their problems and flaws. A romantic telling of this story would have emphasized courage, heroism, and glorious death rather than cowardice, fear, and rotten corpses. A romantic telling of this story might also have implied that the soldiers were dying in a glorious cause of which God approved, and that their souls were going straight to heaven. Crane's realistic version of war offers the soldier no such comfort. In the realistic universe there is no God to make human folly seem sane. Henry Fleming is forced to confront the fact of death and the inevitability of his own death.

Another way in which Realism is related to but goes beyond Romanticism is in the use of nature. The Romantics projected their own imaginations onto the natural landscape, giving it magical powers. Realists, responding to Darwin's discovery of natural selection, saw nature in terms of the survival of the fittest. Part of Henry Fleming's maturing process requires that he accept the fact that predators—the enemy—are determined to kill him. He decides that it is better to be the predator and to kill his enemy than to allow the enemy to kill him.

Crane's writing style has also been described as Impressionism, a phenomenon in the literary world that responded to a corresponding impulse in the art world. French Impressionism was a school of painting that rejected Romanticism in the visual arts for the detached observation of nature. Impressionists tried to paint what they saw without adding content from their own emotions or imagination. Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, and Manet attempted to paint nature by breaking their observations down into pieces of light and showing each part independently from every other part. The same principle can be observed in The Red Badge of Courage because Crane describes Fleming's experiences almost as a collection of snapshots, without a coherent time sequence to give them meaning. Henry observes many things, but none of them hang together; no picture emerges that makes sense to him. Just as art critics had to learn how to understand Impressionism, Henry learns to find order in his apparently meaningless universe.

The Red Badge of Courage is a favorite text for intermediate and high school students because it is one of the great coming-of-age novels. How does a young person assume his or her place in the world of adult responsibilities? Every young person must confront the fear associated with being expected to take charge rather than to be taken care of. Sometimes the moment comes in a decision, as when Huckleberry Finn decides to help his friend Jim, even if he gets in trouble for supporting an escaped slave. Sometimes it comes in acceptance of the inevitable, as when Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind recognizes that many people depend upon her resourcefulness for their survival. The Red Badge of Courage offers a powerful text on the internal struggle of one young person to accept the great—even unreasonable—responsibilities placed upon him that will transform him from a child to an adult. This is the primary thematic approach for younger students.

For older students, the historical and stylistic themes described in the sections above give a rich context to The Red Badge of Courage. In addition, one can also examine Crane's text for his rich use of symbolism. Even as the "red badge" in the title represents courage, or the courage it takes to suffer a bleeding wound, so Crane uses the landscape, the other soldiers, and an array of colors and images to represent Henry Fleming's inner state. One of the most fruitful methods to use in reading The Red Badge of Courage is to trace Crane's descriptions of the weather, the countryside, animals, colors, sounds, or any other element one chooses, to Henry's state of mind. Crane always reflects his protagonist's feelings in some concrete object in the environment. One of the most famous images from this book, for instance, comes after Henry's friend Jim Conklin has just died: "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer." The red color reflects Jim's death, while the flatness of the sun being "pasted" reflects Henry's sense of being numbed, flattened by his loss. The use of the word "wafer," however, suggests the euchanstic wafer, the body of Christ offered in communion, with all its connotations of sacrificial death and redemption.

Source: Sharon Cumberland, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Courage and Convention: The Red Badge of Courage

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The Red Badge of Courage is a familiar book, and its genre is in part familiar as well—the tale of initiation, the adventure story. Crane himself meant it to be a popular novel, a potboiler to bring in money while he worked on more serious projects. But the novel does differ, almost startlingly, from other treatments of the Civil War in the same period, not so much by what it includes as by what it leaves out. The most striking feature of The Red Badge of Courage is the absence of any social context in which the fighting takes place. One could almost say that Crane writes of war in the abstract. Such a treatment is sometimes met with in twentieth-century literature, but it was quite unorthodox in 1895. In particular, Crane's exclusion of the intense religious and moral atmosphere surrounding the Civil War, juxtaposed with an often-remarked abundance of religious terminology and imagery, makes The Red Badge point beyond itself in a way that its author perhaps did not consciously intend.

The excitement of warfare fascinated Crane, but he also seems to have understood, by the time he wrote The Red Badge, that impassive, matter-of-fact demeanor that had puzzled him in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War [edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, 1887]. When one must be prepared to kill or to be killed in the course of a day's work, one cannot afford the luxury of introspection; presumably, any moral and psychological reservations about taking and risking life have been worked out beforehand, and if not, they must simply be laid aside. Like the surgeon, the soldier must disengage his imagination from what he is doing. The danger of this necessary detachment is an alienation of action from meaning. One can see this excessive detachment in the memoirs of the Civil War's most distinguished general, Ulysses S. Grant, who also had a civilian career of some importance.

Grant never wanted to enter the military in the first place, but went to West Point on his father's insistence. After his graduation, the Mexican War broke out, and his comments on it show a curious split between his private and soldierly morality:

Generally the officers were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

But he fought in the Mexican War, and he describes his battles with cold lucidity, scarcely bothering to reconcile his opinion with his participation. He spent the interlude between the Mexican War and the Civil War as a civilian, then returned to service because he supported the Union cause—but not for Lincoln's reasons. He thought secession legal, and his objection was merely that the South had resisted Constitutional power instead of seceding years earlier when it had the chance. He did not believe that the country must be all slave or all free, though he changed his mind later, after the war.

Grant was an even-tempered soldier, a paragon of military professionalism. His accounts of battles read like military dispatches and, as Wilson points out, he avoids vivid descriptions of the havoc of war. The mature Henry Fleming, though not as stolid as Grant, has the same poker-faced detachment from his own feelings. It is his cowardice, rather than his aggression, that tempts him toward guilty introspection; but though the occasion is different, the response is the same. Henry must deliberately suspend the contemplative faculty. His success as a soldier depends not so much upon a moral or spiritual growth as upon a practical adjustment to the psychology of combat.

In the course of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming learns, essentially, what his mother had told him before his enlistment: "Don't go a-thinkin' you can lick the hull rebel army at the start, because yeh can't. Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others and yeh've got to keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh." This does not mean that he learns humility in the moral sense, but rather that he gains a practical sense of perspective which enables him to be a better soldier. His education is largely outside the realm of morality. The goal which prompted his enlistment, recognition, never changes. Even in the last charge, he is not interested in winning the battle as much as in being a hero:

The youth had resolved not to budge whatever should happen. Some arrows of scorn that had buned themselves in his heart, had generated strange and unspeakable hatreds. It was clear to him that his final and absolute revenge was to be achieved by his dead body lying, torn and guttering, upon the field. This was to be a poignant retaliation upon the officer who had said "mule driver," and later "mud digger " For in all the wild graspings of his mind for a unit responsible for his sufferings and commotions, he always seized upon the man who had dubbed him wrongly.

Henry enlists against the advice of his mother, who "had affected to look with some contempt upon the quality of his war ardor and patriotism." We share her doubts as Henry bids farewell to his schoolmates. He was nobody; now he is suddenly special, and this is what he wants. However, the gesture of enlistment commits him to action, and the rest of the story deals with his acceptance of the less pleasant aspects of soldiership.

In camp, young Fleming seems to think the whole world is concerned with one question: will he run? It is significant that Jim Conklin echoes his mother's advice, saying, "All yeh got t'do is t'sit down an' wait as quiet as yeh kin," and "it ain't likely they'll [the regiment] lick th' hull rebel army all-to-onct th' first time." He who thinks he can lick the whole rebel army also is responsible for the whole Union defeat if he does not. Henry's egotism places an enormous burden on his shoulders. In trying to set his mind at rest, he intuitively looks in the right direction: he tries to determine what the others are feeling; but it does not occur to him that no one else is any more likely to admit self-doubt than he is.

During the regiment's advance, the thing that most troubles Henry is that he doesn't know what to expect He cannot reason ahead. Already, there have been false rumors of battle. As the men cross the stream, he expects they will meet the enemy. They do not. His resolution is shaken, partially because he has too much "opportunity to reflect." Doubtless, the corpse which the regiment has just passed contributes to his faded spirits; it is his first encounter with death. He lingers, tempted by "the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question." The question will be answered, most bitterly, by the eyes of another corpse in the forest "chapel."

Fleming is still decidedly puffed up with his own importance. He wants to cry out a warning to turn back, but:

He saw that even if the men were tottering with fear, they would laugh at his warning. They would jeer him and if practicable pelt him with missiles.

That they might ignore him never enters his mind. His self-engrossment also blinds him to the situation around him, a blindness dangerous in warfare. He is so busy feeling tragically responsible that he lags behind the march.

During the battle that follows, Henry tries various conventional ways of calming himself. He belittles death and affirms his patriotic solidarity. He convinces himself that death is "nothing but rest"; and later, he has "suddenly lost concern for himself," and feels lost in a larger identity, "a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country" that is "in a crisis." Although the collective identity remains vague throughout the book, the communal sense deepens as Henry matures. Henry also begins to think of himself as a craftsman at work—he begins to acquire some military professionalism.

Once again, it is surprise that upsets Henry's delicate balance. The enemy's counterattack is unexpected. Crane compares the resentment of Henry's regiment to a rebellion against a god: "The slaves toiling in the temple of this god began to feel rebellion at his harsh tasks." Clearly, this is a pagan rather than Christian deity. Shortly afterward Henry, seeing the first cowards depart, runs also. His fear is more intense once he runs, again because of uncertainty, for "Death about to thrust him between the shoulder blades was far more dreadful than death about to smite him between the eyes."

Fleeing into the woods to escape death, Henry finds death. Here he asks "the question," first of Nature, then of the corpse. The question may be phrased, roughly: Is there any hope of escape from death? At first, the peace of the forest and the nimble escape of the squirrel reassure him; but the animal pouncing on the fish in black water is an equally true example of natural law; and the corpse answers the question with a resounding, No. It is not, in this context, a particular corpse, but the image of Henry's fate and everyone else's. It is the shrine of the war god.

Olov Fryckstedt sees in this passage a satire on "the transcendentalist and romantic view that nature could give man direct answers to his petty problems." To this one might add that the Calvinists, with their argument of design in nature, also fall in the domain of this satire. These two groups are the prime believers in the holy war, the "army of the Lord."

The real point of the scene for Henry, though, is an acceptance of the reality and inevitability of death. War, for Crane, is a heightened instance of the indifferent, Darwinistic universe which, for [Theodore] Dreiser (or the Crane of Maggie, A Girl of the Streets) found its symbol in the modern city. Henry, by enlisting, has committed himself to live by the laws of such a universe. When all roads lead to death, there is nothing to run from and nothing to run to. If there is no escape, one must simply make the best of the situation. When Henry's reverie is interrupted by the sound of fighting, he begins running back toward the battle.

The forest chapel scene gives Henry the laws of his reality, but it is no spur to his conscience, which alas remains impenitent. His re-entry into the war is not accomplished by penitence, but by perspective:

It suddenly occurred to the youth that the fight in which he had been was, after all, but perfunctory popping....
Reflecting, he saw a sort of humor in the point of view of himself and his fellows during the late encounter. They had taken themselves and the enemy very seriously and had imagined that they were enshrining their reputations for ever in the hearts of their countrymen, while, as to fact, the affair would appear in printed reports under a meek and immaterial title.

Before Henry reaches his regiment, he falls in with the wounded, and there ensues a scene which would draw guilt from anyone with talent for that emotion. First a soldier queries him about his non-existent wound; again he tries to escape but, as before, runs from bad to worse. He finds his old friend, Jim Conklin, dying a hideous death. Henry's reaction to all this is not guilt but anger:

The youth turned, with sudden, livid rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist. He seemed about to deliver a Philippic.

"Hell—"

The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.

Whether he shakes his fist at the battlefield, as appears, or at the sky, as Stallman claims the manuscript proves, he does not shake it at himself.

Bashed over the head with a rifle, Fleming discovers a pragmatism upon returning to his regiment. If no one can tell the difference between a drubbing and a war wound, then none exists, according to William James; and Fleming cheerfully accepts the verdict. It is important to realize that Crane does not condemn him for this, that indeed, from this point on, Henry fights as admirably as any man who did not run; and that a confession might have destroyed his confidence. Courage and conscience, as Grant's memoirs show, need not influence each other.

All the while, Henry continues to value his own standing more than victory. He says that he has "never lost his greed for a victory," but admits, "in a half-apologetic manner to his conscience," that "a defeat for the army this time might mean many favorable things for him." If everyone retreats, his own cowardice will not stand out by contrast. He has gained a certain poise when he returns. He shakes off the terrible fantasy suggested by the thought of the wounded sleeping around him at dawn. He is less easily overcome by appearances, and he ceases his railing at circumstances. Yet, as a passage deleted from the final version makes explicit, his confidence is just as self-centered as his fear:

But he was now, in a measure, a successful man, and he could no longer tolerate in himself a spirit of fellowship for poets. He abandoned them. Their songs about black landscape were of no importance to him, since his new eyes said that his landscape was not black. People who called landscape black were idiots.

At about this time, Henry convinces himself of something which, though it puts him at ease in battle, is directly contrary to fact: that he is somehow "chosen of gods and doomed to greatness." This feeling expands to almost mystical delusions of invulnerability later on. A heightened awareness reminiscent of Farquar's in Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is accompanied by:

a mad enthusiasm that, it seemed, would be incapable of checking itself before granite and brass. There was the delirium that encounters despair and death, and is heedless and blind to the odds. It is a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness.

Crane obviously admires this courage, even though it does not belong to a man but merely possesses him sporadically, and even though it is grounded in illusion. The same Henry Fleming, moments after his "temporary but sublime absence of selfishness," has a tug-of-war with his companion for the regimental flag.

At the very end of the story, Henry is on the verge of guilt, but casts it out. He had run not because he was a coward, but because he was caught in "the wild mistakes and ravings of a novice who did not comprehend." Not only that, he rationalizes, his sin "would make a sobering balance. It would become a good part of him." In The Veteran, Crane portrays Henry Fleming as an old man still impenitent and still, to his death, genuinely courageous.

It is, I believe, Henry's impenitence, combined with a real physical courage, that is responsible for the irony of The Red Badge of Courage. (One feels that Crane himself was only half-conscious of the implications of his treatment, but the irony, however it came there, is in the book.) Crane's whole life testifies to his admiration for courage, and Henry Fleming unquestionably has it. But we want more from our heroes than courage: we want them to be great souls. Crane is telling us not only that courage can exist without a great soul but, further, that brave men often cannot afford great souls. We have nurtured the myth that all our wars have been fought, with great reluctance, on grounds of principle or conscience, and we do not like to be told otherwise. Crane's potboiler proves to be a more subversive book than his slum tales that shocked so many readers of the 1890s.

Source: Paul Breslin, "Courage and Convention: The Red Badge of Courage," in The Yale Review, December, 1976, pp. 209-22.

The Structure of The Red Badge of Courage

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In spite of the abundance of war novels produced by two world conflicts, The Red Badge of Courage is still the masterwork of war fiction. Stephen Crane's novel is the first work in English fiction of any length purely dedicated to an artistic reproduction of war, and it has rarely been approached in scope or intensity since it was published in 1895.

Any judgment of the influence of The Red Badge of Courage on later war fiction would of necessity be conjectural. The circumstance that Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway worshipped at the Crane shrine does not in itself prove that No More Parades or A Farewell to Arms was directly affected by Crane's book. But the novel became part of the literary heritage of the twentieth century, and whether or not a war writer consciously recalls Crane's performance, the fact remains that The Red Badge of Courage is a touchstone for modern war fiction. Stephen Crane gave the war novel its classic form.

Crane, however, made no great innovation in style or subject matter. Realism, irony, detail, the emotional impact of combat—all these had appeared somewhere in earlier war fiction. The contribution of Stephen Crane to the genre of war fiction was two-fold. First, he defined the form in his novel that deals with war and its effect upon the sensitive individual who is inextricably involved; war is treated as neither journalism nor autobiography nor dashing romance, but as a test of mind and spirit in a situation of great tension. Crane also constructed a book that still stands as the technical masterpiece in the field.

The essential quality of Crane's novel cannot be derived from the study of one man's response to war. War has presented, among other things, a highly developed social problem ever since the days of individual combat were over. The gradation of the army system and its rigid chain of command combine with the massive troop movements of modern warfare to make combat a reflection of a special society with its own precise rules of conformity. And as Mark Schorer has pointed out [in "Foreword," Critiques and Essays on Modern Fiction] any novel must find a form that will encompass both the individual and social experiences.

It may not be immediately obvious that The Red Badge of Courage is more than the story of the young soldier who is Crane's hero and point-of-view character. The author does not try to describe his individuals fully. We do not even know the youth's whole name until Chapter Twelve. Taking Crane's novel on its own terms, we need not expect rounded figures, logically described, having past histories; neither should we overlook Henry Fleming's comrades in the war situation.

Henry comes into close contact with five other soldiers in his passage from apprenticeship to mastery. Of these, the tall soldier, Jim Conklin, is most important. Henry identifies with Conklin's calm attitude when faced with combat and attempts to accept his steadying advice. The death of Conklin has particular meaning to the hero; just as in Crane's story, The Open Boat, the stronger personality does not survive the test. The loud soldier, Wilson, a foil to Henry's fears at the start, undergoes a similar, and even more rapid, growth to manhood through the ordeal. The attitude of the somewhat anonymous lieutenant, Hasbrouck, reflects the hero's place in the military society. When Henry is a coward, the officer strikes at him with a sword, but when the youth is fighting well, he and the lieutenant are filled with mutual admiration.

Two more figures, shadowy ones to be sure, but still vividly realized, provide a commentary on the soldier's progress. Direct opposites, the tattered soldier whom Henry leaves wandenng blindly in a field, and the cheery stranger who guides Henry back to his regiment, signify respectively betrayal and comradeship. The interaction of the hero with these five characters and the regiment as a whole furnishes the fundamental theme of The Red Badge of Courage. The standards by which Henry's development is measured are those of group loyalty rather than fear and courage. Although the secondary characters are typed, and meant to be so, and not sharply individualized, they are still effectively presented.

The novel opens on the large picture of the entire fighting force. "The cold passed reluctantly from the earth and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting." As in a motion-picture opening, the scene gradually focuses on a particular group of soldiers—Conklin doing his washing, Wilson arguing violently, and then on Henry in a solitude of self-mistrust.

The key to Henry's development, and the essential meaning of war for him, comes in the flashback to his farewell from his mother. The importance of this scene is not in his mother's adjuration to do his duty bravely, nor in the general anti-romantic atmosphere of cows and socks, but in her words that remind the youth of his own insignificance in the larger scheme. "'Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others, and yeh've got to keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh. I know how you are, Henry.'" She knows, but he must learn in battle what kind of a man he is.

Henry's vanity does not allow him to be a little fellow among a whole lot of others except in the rare moments of rationalization when he comforts himself with the consideration that he is part of a vast blue demonstration. Because abstract judgment fails him in his fear, he is isolated. Crane stresses Henry's feeling of solitude. He has no one with whom to compare suspicions; he is different, "alone in space," "a mental outcast." Both the calm competence of the tall soldier and the brash assurance of the loud soldier convince Henry that his is a unique weakness.

When the regiment advances for its baptism of fire, Henry is a part of the group, albeit unwillingly. He feels himself carried along by a mob. The image Crane uses to signify Henry's attitude of helplessness is important, "...there were iron laws of tradition and law [sic] on four sides. He was in a moving box." He is doing exactly what his mother warned him against, considering himself an important individual. He hates the lieutenant and believes that only he, Henry, knows that the entire regiment is being betrayed. In other words, the youth revolts against the iron laws of the war world, the traditions of obedience and humility in the ranks. Crane plays off Henry's condition of rage against Jim Conklin's faithful acceptance of the new environment The other soldiers are shadowy figures in Henry's mind, since his ego has denied him the comforts of military friendships. He is too wrapped up in himself to realize that others are in the same condition of doubt and fear.

A sudden shift in emphasis takes place when the battle starts, as Henry rapidly adjusts to reality. Losing concern with himself for the moment, he becomes "not a man but a member," a part of a "common personality," a "mysterious fraternity." Whereas in his isolation and doubt he was trapped in a moving box, now, by sinking his personality into the larger personality of the group, he regains control of himself. Crane describes Henry's combat activity with the same box image as before, but there is one important difference. Henry is now in charge. "He was like a carpenter who has made many boxes, making still another box...."

Crane transfers the point of view from Henry to the regiment at this juncture. In the impressionistic battle scene, the focus is on "the men," "they," "a soldier" while the regiment goes about its grim business. An integral part of Henry's development is the realization that even the regiment is not the only important participant in the battle. He understands that the fighting involves many regiments and momentarily grasps the idea of his own relative unimportance. But Crane is too acute a psychologist to conceive such a rapid character change and have Henry learn the soldier's hardest lesson easily. When the break in the combat comes, Henry reverts to his pride and considers his rather petty action to have been magnificent. He must undergo a more serious test before he can reap the full benefits of his war experience.

The second attack is too much for him. Henry cannot comprehend the rules of war that are so irrational as to impose another test so soon. He deserts the group, and by this act he breaks all the rigid rules of war. The sight of the lieutenant, angrily dabbing at him with his sword, symbolizes for Henry his new role as an outcast. The youth is no longer, in the Conradian sense, one of them. He asks himself, "What manner of men were they anyhow?" those fools who stayed behind to meet certain death.

The novel is not merely a portrait of fear; it is the portrait of a mind that learns to come to terms with itself and to live down an act of cowardice. Henry Fleming must become a man according to the rules war sets forth. Therefore, he must cast off the egoism that made him run, and gain a true perspective on his importance.

The book is often ironic, since his growth is neither particularly moral nor is it without fluctuations. Henry's failures and successes in war are those of a hero manque, if we are to measure them by the usual Christian ethic. But The Red Badge of Courage is awar novel, and Henry Fleming should be judged by the ideals of a war world. The lesson Henry has to learn is basic to combat. The individual cannot depend on his personal reasoning powers. Henry's mind has seen the danger and he has fled, while his stupid comrades have stayed and shown courage. The beginning of wisdom comes with the comprehension that his own judgment is insufficient. He is in the position of a criminal because of his enlightened intellect. Henry feels the bitterness and rage of an outcast, a sensitive dreamer who, trapped between romance and reality, can make the best of neither world. Caught in a box of his own making, Henry faces the age-old problem of the individual at odds with society. He has not only indulged in an act of self-betrayal, he has thrown over his responsibilities to and for the others. He does not yet understand that his own salvation (physical and spiritual) must be the product of his dedication to universal salvation. Henry's story is not tragic, because, unlike Lord Jim, the young soldier manages to compensate for his antisocial action and work his way back to the fellowship of men which, in the world of war, is represented by the regiment. But the road back is not easy.

After his dark night of the soul passed in the forest where nature appears to second war's cruelty, Henry commences his return to the battle—to life or death. The physical isolation of the youth ends when he meets a line of wounded soldiers staggering towards the rear, soldiers coming out of the active world from which Henry had fled. Henry joins the crowd, but he remains an outsider, for he has no wound. Crane reverses the symbolism of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or "The Minister's Black Veil." Henry is distinguished by his lack of any mark. "He was continually casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow.... He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage." Ironically enough, he desires to be marked by the red death he had feared. Honor, or the appearance of honor, is his new goal.

As if to emphasize his sin, Henry remains with the denizens of the strange world of wounded. He meets the tattered man, one of Crane's most brilliant portraits of a nameless figure. We know nothing about the tattered man except that he is wounded, and that he is a rather naive and gentle soul. He is the antithesis of the young soldier in every way. The tattered man has been hit; he talks proudly of his regiment and its performance; he is humble and loves the army. In other words, he stands for the simple man who has done his duty and received his mark of honor. The tattered man represents society, and to the conscience-stricken Henry the wounded soldier is a reminder of guilt. Henry cannot remain with the tattered man when he asks the probing question, " 'Where yeh hit, ol' boy?'," that emphasizes the youth's isolation.

A greater shock is in store for Henry Fleming. After he leaves his tattered companion behind, he meets the spectral soldier—the tall soldier, Jim Conklin—transformed by a fatal wound. Henry's feeble wish for a little wound pales into the realm of bathos in comparison to Conklin's passion. The dying man's expression of sympathy and concern for Henry adds to the acute discomfort of the youth's position. In his walk through the valley of the shadow of death at Conklin's side, Henry's education advances. Conklin's death brings home to Henry the true nature of war, brutal and forbidding, more than the sight of an unknown corpse in the forest could do. The body of his friend stretched out before him, Henry curses the universe that allows such things to be. He shakes his fist at the battlefield and swears, but his insignificance in the larger scheme is indicated by Crane's most famous line, "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer."

Despite his genuine grief at Conklin's death, Henry is unable to accept responsibility for the tattered man, who has returned to pry at Henry's guilty secret, the crime "concealed in his bosom." He deserts the tattered man a second time, and in denying him the young soldier commits his real sin. He breaks both a Christian and a military ethical rule ("Greater love hath no man...."). Like his original act of cowardice, this desertion goes unpunished. If we are to read the novel as a study in irony, there is no confusion; Henry is a sinner who succeeds in war without ever changing his ways. Crane's attitude towards his hero is ambiguous throughout the novel, however, and the betrayal of the tattered man is essential to Henry's growth to maturity. Although the tattered man himself says that "'a man's first allegiance is to number one'," Henry realizes what he has done. His later heroism is a successful attempt to wipe out his cowardice. While he eventually rationalizes his betrayal, the memory of the tattered man blocks any real return to the egocentric immaturity that marked his character at the outset of the novel.

He heads back to the "furnace" of combat, since the heat of that purgatory is clearly more desirable than the icy chill of solitude. His progress is halting. Henry is unable to throw off his romantic visions; he imagines his new self in a picturesque and sublime role as a leader of lurid charges. Once again the reality of war breaks his dreams apart, reality in the forms of physical exhaustion, thirst, and the memory of his cowardice. No longer a visionary, Henry can now make his way through the war world.
Crane's bitterness comes to the surface in this part of the novel. Henry is really worried about appearance. How can he pretend to be something he is not—a hero? It is when the self-centered youth is concerned with the difficulty of fabricating a lie effective enough to account for his disappearance that his full name is given for the first time by the author. The young soldier mentions it in apprehension of the name, "Henry Fleming," becoming a synonym for coward. Names and appearances are his only concern.

Henry Fleming's actions must be judged by the standards of war. While he is planning his lie (a sin, from a normal ethical viewpoint), fate, in the form of a hysterical soldier who clubs Henry out of the way, provides the wound that not only preserves the appearance of his integrity but also opens the way for his attainment of genuine honor. It is ironic, even cynical, for war to help Henry after he has broken the rules, and for the coward to pass as a hero. Two other points must be kept in mind, however. Crane constantly refers to his hero as "the youth," and despite his transgressions, Henry is still an innocent fumbling for the correct path, not a hardened sinner. Furthermore, he does not receive his wound in flight, but in the performance of an act of courage! Henry is struck down (by a coward) while inarticulately striving "to make a rallying speech, to sing a battle hymn." He is in a position to suffer such a wound because he has originally fled from his regiment, but he is going against the current of retreating infantry, towards the battle, when he gains the red badge. The wound, then, may be seen as the result of heroism, not cowardice, and the irony is vitiated. Henry has escaped from his nightmare of weakness before he is wounded. His own efforts have proved him not completely unworthy of the saving grace granted him by the fate of war.

The wounded Henry is again part of the fellowship of armed men. "The owner of the cheery voice," who plays Mr. Strongheart in Henry's progress, guides the dazed youth through the forest wasteland back to the regiment. The gratuitous support of the cheery man is in direct contrast to Henry's earlier refusal to accompany the tattered man. The first twelve chapters of the novel come to an end with Henry outlined in the reflection of his regiment's campfires. The return to the company, which in war fiction has stood for homecoming from Kipling's "The Man Who Was" to Jones's From Here to Eternity, marks the completion of Henry Fleming's isolation and the start of the conquest of glory for himself and the regiment.

The hero of Crane's war novel has not yet learned what the author is in a later story to call "virtue in war." His relief at the arrival back into the "low-arched hall" of the forest (a suggestion perhaps of the mead hall of the Old English epics, the symbol of the fellowship of strong warriors) is intense. He views the sleeping company with complacency because to all appearances he is one of them, since he performed his mistakes in the dark. In the second part of the novel Henry will come to understand war and his own nature. For the present, it is enough to go to sleep with his fellows. "He gave a long sigh, snuggled down into his blanket, and in a moment was like his comrades."

Source: Eric Solomon, "The Structure of The Red Badge of Courage," in Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn, 1959, pp. 220-34.

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