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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Discussion Topic

Henry's motivations and changing perspectives on war and battle in The Red Badge of Courage

Summary:

In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry's motivations and perspectives on war evolve significantly. Initially, he is driven by romantic notions of heroism and glory. However, as he experiences the brutal reality of battle, his views shift to fear, shame, and self-preservation. Ultimately, Henry matures, finding courage and a more realistic understanding of war and his role in it.

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Why did Henry anticipate war but dread it after battle in The Red Badge of Courage?

In his experimenting with psychological realism in The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane has his character Henry face an array of feelings about war.  As he faces combat for the first time, Henry feels anxiety, self-confidence, courage, and zeal.

Before entering battle Henry has mixed emotions, critically judging the men who speak of their fears and observations about the forthcoming battle. But, as he sees the "stampede" of men coming from a squirmish, Henry

...resolved to get a view of it, and, then, he might very likely run better than the best of them.

However, many of Henry's fantasies dissolve as the men grow closer to engaging in battle.  He feels isolated and anxious.  But when he perceives that the enemy is upon them, Henry fires his rifle with "a red rage," that of "a driven beast" as he fights until the enemy is repelled. He feels himself a part, a "member," of the regiment, rather than a whole man:

He was wielded into a common personality....It was a mysterious fraternity born of the smoke and danger of death.

With animalistic emotion, Henry loses himself in the battle.  But, contrary to his imaginings, there "was a singular absence of heroic phrases" after the battle and the officers "neglected to stand in picturesque attitudes."  As he does feel a thrill when he sees the flags, like beautiful birds strangely undaunted in a storm," Henry remarks with astonishment that "Nature had gone on tranquilly with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment."

Along with the realization that it is an indifferent universe in which man engages in all his joys and conflicts, Henry begins to see the real horror of war.  He feels "like the proverbial chicken" as he runs from death:  "Destruction threatened him from all points."  Henry looks in amazement at the battery who seem "unaware of the impending annihilation."  He becomes bitter at their blind ignorance, and feels himself enlightened in comparison.  But he dreads returning to camp where the "density" of the others that would prevent their understanding of his "sharper point of view":

A dull animal-like rebellion against his fellows, war in the abstract, and fate grew within him.

In short, whereas the idealistic Henry has been swept into a "red rage" in the first squirmish, he later realizes the waste and futility of war in an indifferent universe.

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Why did Henry look forward to battle in The Red Badge of Courage?

Henry had grown up with a certain image of combat and an idea about the way it could act as a proving ground.  He was nervous about it, but in some ways he may have been looking forward to it as it gave him a chance to prove his mettle under fire.  If you look closely at his progression throughout the book, each time he does approach it with trepidation, but he comes away from it with something to build on, even when he actually runs away.  in that incident, he still gets some respect form his peers because they think he's been wounded so it has been reaffirmed in his mind that combat is a place to prove oneself and to gain respect.  As such it is something to be looked forward to despite the horror of it.

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What inspired Henry to enlist in The Red Badge of Courage?

As with most young men, Henry Fleming wants to prove his manhood. And what better way to do that than seek glory on the field of battle? Neither Henry nor any of the other young men of his platoon have the faintest idea of what war actually involves. Their understanding of conflict—such as it is—is largely derived from storybooks and legends. War just seems like an awfully big adventure to them, a chance to show off your bravery and prove yourself as a man.

For Henry, war's not quite real; it's something he dreams about. This protects him from the harsh realities of war: the blood, death, pain, and suffering that it never fails to bring. The experience of war's so remote to Henry that it belongs in a bygone era of high castles and heavy crowns, a romantic age of chivalry and honor. Henry's mother had always tried to talk him out of joining up. But eventually Henry insisted, fired up by dreams of glory and egged-on by the talk of the village and the daily war reports in the newspapers.

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What inspired Henry to enlist in The Red Badge of Courage?

In Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, protagonist Henry Fleming decided to enlist in the Civil War (in the Union Army) because he had a romantic view of warfare and desired to earn the glory reserved for great warriors. Having heard countless tales of the "Homeric" glory associated with warfare, Henry desired to prove himself a hero (like Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, and the many other heroes whom Homer wrote about).

Despite this, Henry feared he would not have the courage to face the battle. As the narrator says:

Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity.

Having never experienced anything quite like combat, Henry did not know whether he had the courage necessary to attain the glory he so desired. These fears caused Henry (and cause the reader) to reconsider his presuppositions about the relationship between glory and courage--and whether or not cowards could earn glory.

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Why does Henry enlist in The Red Badge of Courage?

Like many other young men of the period--in both the North and the South--Henry got caught up in the possible glory to be won on the battlefield. It would be a great adventure and he would serve his country like the patriotic boy he was.

Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.

However, his mother tried in vain to discourage him, but at last Henry made the decision to enlist. She cried as he left his home for what she worried would be the last time.

Henry's greatest worry was how he would react once he was under fire for the first time. Men talked of heroic deeds they would perform on the battlefield, but others wondered if they would run under the pressure of the Confederate guns. Henry was not alone in his thoughts. The Tall Soldier expressed his own worries telling Henry that he would probably run if everyone else ran, but that he would certainly stand and fight if his comrades did the same.

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Why does Henry enlist in The Red Badge of Courage?

Basically, the reason that Henry enlists has to do with the fact that he thinks that war will be glorious.  He does not want to miss out -- he wants to make sure that he will get his share of the glory.  This can be found in Chapter 1.

After the war started, Henry had read a bunch of stuff about it.  He had also read accounts of other wars.  These accounts made him think of war as really heroic -- one word used is "Homeric."

He had burned several times to enlist. Tales
of great movements shook the land. They might
not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to
be much glory in them. He had read of marches,
sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all.
His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures
extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.

At first, he doesn't enlist because his mother does not want him to, but eventually he can't take it any more and he goes and enlists no matter what she thinks.

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