This war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is about the growth of a young man, Henry Fleming, in the civil war; his physical and psychological growth. As a young and inexperienced enlister, it did not take long for Henry to realize the true horrors of war. The author, Stephen Crane, provides an intense realism in his story. He undergoes a complete transformation throughout the book. What happens to most people in a lifetime happens to Henry Fleming over the course of a few weeks.
Major concepts that Crane uses in this novel to show Henry’s transformation was maturity, self reservation, isolation, and bravery. Maturing is a natural part of the human experience; when a person develops understanding, responsibility, and wisdom. This is a the central theme in the Stephen Cranes war novel The Red Badge of Courage, all major concepts in this book can be connected back to maturity. Young and naive, Henry enlists in the war with an ignorant view of what war is really like.
He is blind to the truth of war, he only knows of what he has read about in books and has learned at school.
The constant psychological debate in this novel begins very early on; Henry is constantly second guessing himself and has overwhelming emotional conflicts. His age and inexperience is a very important part of Henry’s development in the story. He views war as a magnificent event and hopes to use it to make his transition from boy to man in a glorious triumph.
Stephen Crane develops Henry as a young and naive boy, instead of a man, by having the narrator consistently refer to him as “the youth”. This is what Crane is labeling Henry as in almost every single chapter.
For example “After this crossing, the youth assured himself that at any moment, they might be suddenly assaulted from the caves of the towering woods” (Crane 19). Calling Henry “the youth” is Stephen Crane’s way of showing the characters immaturity and inexperience. Henry is beginning to experience what the true aspects of the terrifying world of war are. He had started off a self-absorbed teenager who wanted nothing more than to show off be seen as this amazing war hero, but now Henry is facing the true horrors of war.
Early on in the novel, when Henry is beginning to experience his turmoil, he remembers how he felt when he first left for the war, From his home he had gone to the seminary to bid adieu to his many schoolmates. They had thronged about him with wonder and admiration. He had felt the gulf now between them and had swelled with calm and pride. He and some of his fellows who had donned blue were quite overwhelmed with privileges for all of one afternoon, and it had been a very delicious thing. They had strutted (Crane 34) Homesickness is starting set in for Henry.
He glowed with pride when first joining the army; it did not take very long for that pride to diminish. Henry entered the war under the delusions that he would become a legendary war hero and experience a life changing epiphany. He cowardly runs away from his first battle and tries to defend his decision by saying it was justified if the North lost. They did not lose and Henry is embarrassed, ashamed, and demoralized. It is interesting that Stephen Crane writes about not a war hero or an Adonis on the battlefield, but a young and scared recruit in this war novel.
At the time of being published, readers weren’t used to reading stories like this, were a story looks at the disturbing psychological aspects of war. Most authors usually glorified war and the battlefield. Elizabeth Oakes wrote “The hero of Crane’s masterpiece was not a general or stalwart officer, but an ordinary, young soldier named Henry. ” (Oakes 1) It is natural, when in a situation like a battle, to have thoughts of self preservation and want to protect yourself. These thoughts seem to fester in Henry Flemings mind and they start to torture him.
He wants to stay, fight, and be the brave soldier that he has always wanted to be. Of course his natural instinct is to run, but his heart he wants to stay and help his comrades. His fear wins the battle in his mind and flees from the battle like a coward. Henry’s self preservation is very much a source of conflict for him. The soldier is forced to struggle with the duty to himself and the duty to fight for his people. Running away is key factor in the development of Henry’s story; it haunts him constantly for the rest of the novel. He went from fields of thickening wood, as if resolved to bury himself.
He wished to get out of hearing of the cracking shots, which to him were like voices, jeering at him. (Crane 46) Henry can’t bear to be around his fellow soldiers anymore; he so ashamed of having ran away that he can’t handle it anymore. Crane uses the literary device of personification to establish Henry’s guilt. He relates the gunshot sounds to “voices” taunting Henry, making him feel even worse about abandoning his peers. Since leaving his regiment behind in the first battle, regret is always present in Henry’s psyche. He is angry with himself for being a coward and losing the battle going on in his head.
When returning to camp, seeing all the dead and wounded around him is too much and he is completely overwhelmed. He now thought he wished he was dead. He believed that he envied the men who lay strewn over the grass of the fields and on the fallen leaves of the forest. They were men, real soldiers. (Crane 51) To further add to Henrys torment, on his way back from hiding, he gets hit in the head with a rifle. This injury gives Henry the appearance that he was also fighting and the men in the regiment praise for his courage. This makes him feel more and more remorseful and regretful.
All the emotions that Henry has been feeling are very real and Crane creates a very interesting character study with The Red Badge of Courage. “Stephen Crane provides the reader with the subjective impressions of a raw recruit experiencing terror first hand. ”(Otfinski 2). The terror that Henry is experiencing is fear of getting killed in battle and fear of his comrades figuring out what he did. This matter of self preservation is very prevalent in The Red Badge of Courage, it is understandable to the reader that Henry would run away, but in his mind what he did was unacceptable.
Alone, scared, and isolated are all emotions that describe how Henry is feeling during his time in the Civil War. Isolation is a feeling of being completely alone or being abandoned. This is a major concept in The Red Badge of Courage. Dennis Wepman describes this theme as “In Cranes war novel, isolation has to do with the psychological distance between a young, uncertain soldier, and the rest of his regiment. ”(Wepman 2). Only being in his late teenage years, Henry is one of the youngest members of his regiment. Being with many veterans, he is also one of the most inexperienced soldiers also.
These factors contribute to his feeling of isolation because he has a difficult time relating to the other soldiers, and he also feels like he has a lot to live up to being around them. The veterans all tell horrifying stories of their time in war, frightening Henry and giving him a serious feeling of intimidation. He wants to be a glorious war hero, but how can he compared to these men? He deems himself a mental outcast and he seems to lose his own identity stating He had grown to regard himself merely as a part of a vast blue demonstration.
His province was to look out, as far as he could, for his personal comfort. For recreation he could twiddle his thumbs and speculate on the thoughts which must agitate the minds of the generals. Also, he was drilled and drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilled and reviewed (Crane 60). He feels no connection with the men that he is with and only feels that he is just another useless part of this one major group. Though Henry is very troubled during his time in the war, he does find comfort in the peacefulness of nature.
Unable to his empty feeling amongst his comrades, Henry goes wandering around the wilderness. “The landscape gave him assurance, a fair field holding life. It was a region of peace. ”(Crane 47). Despite the hardships of war Henry is soothed a little bit by the nature around him. Imagery of nature is used quite often in this war novel by Crane. “Crane most often uses personification and imagery during Henry’s times of intense isolation. ” (Garland 3). These literary elements are used to further develop the main character during the war.
The symbol of the “red badge of courage” is perhaps the most important one in the novel. When Henry see’s an injured soldier, he calls the blood from the wound a badge. This badge proves that you fought and were unafraid in battle. Henry constantly goes over this in his mind about needing to earn your badge of courage and not have it be given to you. This greatly affects his emotional well being and he is very depressed. However he does get finally inspired to prove his worth and become a hero. Having emotionally struggled nonstop throughout the entire novel, it is time for Henry to finally get his act together.
He now wants to prove that he is courageous in the face of his fear. This theme of the struggle with bravery also parallels with Henry’s journey of maturing. By becoming braver he is also growing to be a more mature man. Crane shows us why moral courage is so much more elusive than physical courage, and why fate is indifferent to virtue. Henry struggles to maintain his manhood, values, and humanity. (Blight 2) Henry is able to gain both physical and mental strength and surprises the reader when he leads his regiment to a glorious victory.
He is roud to show his allegiance to his soldiers and to the North. Crane has shown that you cannot be a boy in war; you have to become a man. This is what Henry was forced to do over the course of a few weeks. One major example of this is his decision to become the flag bearer. In his eyes, it is the ultimate way of showing your courage to the enemy. As the book concludes, Henry is walking back to the camp and describes his feelings as “an existence of soft eternal peace” (Crane 148). The war has completely changed Henry as he had hoped it would; he has experienced his epiphany.