Symbolism in The Red Badge of Courage

In the novel Stephen Crane uses religious symbolism to convey how Henry’s experiences as a soldier are not relatable to people who are not soldiers and are seen as a spiritual experience. Crane uses religious symbolism through Henry’s surroundings. After Henry runs away from the battle he goes into the forest and “At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. … There was a religious half light” (Crane 65).

By describing the forest as a chapel and a place of “religious peace” shows how Henry is able to connect with the Nature at a spiritual level (64). During the war, Henry feels alone because nobody can understand what he is feeling and experiencing. Religious symbolism is used to show how Henry finds solace in God and church during the times of hardship. During one of the last battles while the soldiers are fighting there is a “stillness .

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.. hush was solemn and churchlike, save for a distant battery” which creates a brief peaceful mood (169). By describing the silence as “churchlike” shows how the church is represented as a place of peace (169). In the midst of the fighting the silence is seen as a gift from God according to Henry. Religious symbolism is used to show how Henry is able to relate his experiences of war to God and his religion.

The Meaning of the “Red Badge” of Courage

The “red badge” of courage is a bloody wound that soldiers will receive when they fight bravely.

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The “red badge” represents bravery and courage that the soldiers earn by risking their lives in battle. When Henry comes into the crowd of injured soldiers he observes, “ he was amid wounds. The mob of men was bleeding… He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage” showing how wounds represent courage (74). When the soldiers are wounded and suffering they have demonstrated their bravery and have earned the “red badge” of courage. By having a “red badge” the soldiers have proved that they did not run from battle and are courageous.

Henry’s Need for a “Red Badge” of Courage

Henry needs a “red badge” of courage because he feels as if he is not brave and has no courage. A “red badge” of courage is seen as a bloody wound earned by those who are courageous. When on his way to the camp after he enlisted, “ his spirit had soared. The regiment was fed and caressed at station after station until the youth had believed that he must be a hero” explaining how the war was glorified (10). Henry wanted to enlist in the war because he wanted to feel like a hero. However, he struggles with whether he will fight in war or whether he will run despite his high spirits on his way to camp. Henry needs the “red badge”of courage to prove to himself that he made the right choice by deciding to enlist in the war. After running from the battle Henry mixes in with a group of injured soldiers coming out of battle and “..., he was amid wounds...At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy” which explains Henry’s desire for a “red badge” of courage (74). He is jealous of those who are wounded because they have already shown their bravery. Henry feels as if all his insecurities about fighting in the battle will go away if he is wounded from battle. Henry needs a “red badge” of courage to relieve his anxiety and prove to himself that he belongs in the war.

The Names of Characters

The characters are given descriptive names to show that the soldiers names are insignificant compared to the soldiers risking their lives everyday during war. All of the characters still have unique traits which is why they are given names such as “the loud soldier”, “the tall soldier”, “the youth”, “the lieutenant”, and “the colonel”. For instance, Wilson is given the name of “the loud soldier”. He “often convulsed whole files by his biting sarcasm aimed at the tall one” which conveys his arrogant and assertive nature (22). Wilson always says what is on his mind and is confident in his fighting abilities making him appear “loud”. Jim Conklin is known as “the tall soldier” who tells the soldiers a rumor that they will move from their camp and “felt called upon to defend the truth of a rumor he himself had introduced” (4). Jim is known as “the tall soldier” because he catches all of the soldiers attention when telling them about the rumor. He is also more mature than the rest of the soldiers and is not afraid to admit that he might run, showing how he may be older and therefore appears taller than the other soldiers. Henry is named “the youth” to show his innocence. While waiting for battle Henry realises, “ He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as he had in early youth” emphasizing how Henry is still a young soldier and is still figuring his personality and whether he will run in battle or not (13). Lieutenant Hasbrouck known usually as “the lieutenant” is given the name to emphasize his skill and experience as a soldier compared to Henry and Wilson. During the first charge the lieutenant gets shot in the hand and “He held the wounded member carefully away from his side so that the blood would not drip upon his trousers” which shows his valor (41). Lieutenant Hasbrouck is a courageous leader and represents the soldier Henry wants to become which is why his name emphasises his higher status in the army. Colonel MacChesney is given the name of “the colonel” to show his leadership over the other soldiers. When the general is criticizing Henry’s regiment Colonel MacChesney speaks up, “‘Oh, well, general, we went as far as we could’ he said calmly” displaying his higher rank by replying directly to the General (162). The characters of the novel are given descriptive names that are used throughout the novel rather than their actual names because each soldier has a distinct personality that is shown through their descriptive names.

What Does Henry Learn of Courage?

From the tall soldier, Henry learns that inorder to be courageous one has to sacrifice. When the tall soldier dies, “His [Henry’s] face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend” and Henry realizes the horrifying reality of war (80). Henry realises that inorder to earn glory and courage in war one must risk their life. When Henry meets the tattered man he is eager to talk about the fight and “He breathed a deep breath of humble admiration. He had looked at the youth for encouragement several times” showing how although he fought and earned his “red badge” of courage he still remains modest (73). From the tattered man, Henry learns that with being courageous one also must remain humble. The kind man helps Henry return home and “In the search which followed, the man of the cheery voice seemed to the youth to possess a wand of a magic kind” because of his selfless actions (101). Henry feels as if the kind man is a magician that is helping him. The kind man teaches Henry that if one wants to be courageous one must also be selfless and help others.

Wilson and Henry

Wilson and Henry share various similarities in the beginning of the novel. For instance, both Henry and Wilson are both inexperienced soldiers in the war. When the tall soldier explains the rumor he heard about the regiment moving “The youth was in a trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight” showing Henry’s innocence because he cannot believe they are finally going to fight (6). Similarly, when Wilson “launched then into the subject of the anticipated fight” showing his excitement to fight in battle (24). They both are excited to fight in the battle in hope of becoming a hero. They both joined the war in hopes of earning a “red badge” of courage and getting glory. However, although both Wilson and Henry are inexperienced Wilson is confident in his abilities whereas Henry is not confident. When Henry asks Wilson about how he will do in the battle he says, “‘I don’t know. I s’pose I’ll do as well as the rest. I’m going to try like thunder’ He evidently complimented himself upon the modesty of this statement” because he does not have any doubts that he will run (25). Contrarily, Henry “ walked along in careless line he was engaged with his own eternal debate” on whether he will run during the battle or not (21-22). Wilson is known as the “loud soldier” because of his brashness and confidence whereas Henry is known as the “quiet soldier” because he is always thinking about his fears.

The Difference between the Leader of the Battle and the Common Soldiers

By contrasting the leaders of the battle and the common soldiers mannerisms during battle Crane shows how each group views the battle differently. The leaders of the battle view the battles like a game. On the other hand, the soldiers view the battle only thinking about themselves and whether they will die or not. Henry and Wilson overhear officer talking to the general saying , “‘…, But there’s th’ 304th. They fight like a lot ’a mule drivers. I can spare them best of any’” when they are building a strategy on how to ward off the enemy (140). The leaders of the battle do not care if soldiers die while fighting. They treat the war as a game that they need to win. They view Henry’s regiment as one entity and do not see the individual soldiers who are risking their lives. Once Henry hears this “the most startling thing was to learn suddenly he was very insignificant” because whether he dies or not in the battle does not make a difference to the battle leaders (140). Henry constantly thinks about his fears and doubts of running during battle like many other common soldiers think but the battle leaders only see the regiment as one group of soldiers and it does not matter if they die or not.

The Use of Animals as Symbols

In the novel, Crane uses animals to symbolize the Union and Confederate sides during battle. When Henry is observing the lines of troops he sees them “like two serpents crawling from the cavern of the night” (21). By describing the troops as serpents shows how during war the soldiers are perceived as vicious animals. Henry observes the Confederate soldiers as “dragons were coming with invincible strides. The army, helpless in the matted thickets ... War, the red animal, war, the blood-swollen god, would have bloated fill” (94). By comparing the enemy to dragons shows that Henry feels the soldiers are not humans anymore because they are willing to kill and injure the enemy. Animals are used to represent how the soldiers transform during battle. War is described as a “red animal” to emphasize that war is not fought by humans it is fought by animals (94). Animal symbolism adds to the novel’s meaning because it develops the theme of the natural world. Nature is unaffected by its surroundings and disregards the war and the soldiers lying dead. By comparing the soldiers to animals shows that they transform into a part of the natural world during war and disregard suffering humans and are only focused on killing the enemy.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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Symbolism in The Red Badge of Courage. (2024, Feb 26). Retrieved from

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