The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a novel about the American Civil War. Being one of the greatest works of the world, especially of American literature, it presents the harsh reality of the war time and the psychological struggle of the main character who combats his problems and becomes a hero. The representation of all the events, their analysis, the people and their deeds is done through only one person – the youth Henry Fleming. Crane uses third-person to present the events of the Civil War. Psychological realism is the author’s method of reality presentation.
The protagonist, a18-year-old soldier Henry Fleming, joins the Union Army during the wartime. In spite of warnings of his poor mother, he decides to use the chance and to try out his psychological strengths. Henry Fleming represents the youth of those times and thus is overtly referred to as The Youth in the text. It is his reputation and courageousness which is the most important for Henry.
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Having read a lot of Homer and being aware of the heroic deeds of the Greeks, Henry lives in his naïve world where courageousness and honor are the most important character traits. The Civil War is the perfect, even though very cruel, chance to try out Henry’s moral and life postulates and get the first-hand experience.
However, his destiny played a trick against him making him desert his division. After the realization of his deed, Henry becomes ashamed of his runaway and is tortured by his own consciousness.
Furthermore, the psychological pressure put on Henry is doubled by the fear of death. When he finds a dead soldier in the forest, he realizes all the dreadfulness of the war. Another encounter of the face of war was the group of wounded soldiers. Henry’s meeting with deadly wounded Jim Conklin, Tall Soldier, makes him feel uneasy before the harsh reality. This makes him escape from the place.
im can be described as typical American who is confident and very pragmatic. Doing his army duty matters the most for him. Jim does not like complaining or telling any of his inner fears, he is rather reserved personality who wishes that no one sees his sufferings and dies in loneliness.
Tom Wilson, Loud Soldier and Henry’s friend, unlike Jim, is very outgoing and energetic person. However, despite his boastings of lack of fear before the face of horrors of war and death, he feels very nervous before the very first battle.
Hit in the head, which Henry receives from of the soldiers of the retreating column makes him shook and decide to come back to the battalion he left despite the shame. However, his comrades think he died in the battle. Upon Henry’s return Tom Wilson is the first one to offer help. Later on he becomes referred to simply as Henry’s friend.
When Henry manages to fight his inside fears, he is capable of showing himself as one of the best soldiers of his regiment. In the last fight with Confederates, Henry carries the flag which has symbolical meaning. They were lucky to reach the Confederates with a few losses in this battle. Henry’s battalion won.
It is not the freedom of his people or some other noble aim which drives this young man out of his comfortable home. Neither does he has any deep and individual sense of the right and the wrong before going to war. He envisions himself as a hero capable of extraordinary deeds, which can shake the humanity and influence the course of historical events. Shame that he feels after his run-away is rather little and the cowardice is somewhat justified. Moreover, it is other soldiers he blames for not saving themselves by escape:
If none of the little pieces were wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death at such a time, why, then, where would be the army? (Crane, 46)
Henry was too self-confident. He thought of his friends in battle as stupid followers of general’s orders. Self-esteem, even self-pride, was something which was leading the Youth through the war actions and battles. However, his return to the camp is marked by many changes in his self-assured individuality, and his attitude to coward deeds.
The honor and reputation of Henry Fleming are fake as he got them not for glorious and courageous deeds but for deceiving his friends and soldiers. The lack of sense of morality shows him as a fake hero. Just because other soldiers think of him as a hero, he is sure he is the one.
Only at times, when he finds himself in a real battle, is he capable of partial understanding of the fakeness of his heroism and can feel “temporary but sublime absence of selfishness” (Crane, 110). The radical changes of the personality which can be seen through Henry’s character transformations are possible only through the hardships such as war and death. After having seen the eyes of the fear and the face of the death, praise and glory are no longer his goals in the wartime, while good reputation is not his main aim. He begins to understand all the importance and the value of the human life in comparison to the mere heroism of his inner world of nativity: “it was difficult to think of reputation when others were thinking of skins” (Crane, 117).
Only when he loses himself and is totally emerged in the war actions, he gains what he had been seeking for a long time –a good reputation and glory for his deeds. His exemplary fighting in the last battles impresses the officers and makes him rise in their eyes. Finally, when Henry ceases to chase his dream of becoming a hero, he actually becomes the one.
The dramatically changes of the personality and the values of Henry are really impressive. From the native boy dreaming of heroic deeds, he becomes experienced and respected soldier. Reflection and reevaluation of his own deeds and values make him wiser soldier and a man with war experience.
Unlike Henry’s views, those of Jim are very pragmatic, as he would do what is the most convenient and the most useful for him at the moment. He does not need the heroism and the glory, which is so important for Henry at the beginning. Even his decision to get rid of the munitions represents him as very straightforward and pragmatic person.
Unlike the other soldiers such as Henry and Wilson, Jim does not like to be hastily criticized, neither does he like unclear abstraction. He is rather quiet personality doing what he is supposed to do, even if it needs to be done before the face of war and death. He does not speak much or philosophize about the hardships of wartime. Jim perceives everything as it is without questioning. He does not wish some extra attention or praise – he even dies in a silent and lonely place without witnesses. Calling his friend in despair, Henry just hears the words: “Leave me be – don’t tech me – leave me be…” (Crane, 60) Jim Conklin was man of a word and dignity – he did what he said and was sure that what he did was his duty and responsibility.
Henry cannot grasp Jim’s wish to die alone. Henry feels so angry and, at the same time, sorry for his close friend, who dies on destiny’s whim. His reaction is similar to what each of us would have under such circumstances:
The youth turned, with sudden, lived rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist. He seemed about to deliver a philippic. “Hell –” (Crane, 60).
The same as Henry, Tom Wilson undergoes psychological changes throughout the events of the novel. While at first, Wilson, unlike Jim, is very loud and boisterous character, later he transforms and from “the loud soldier” he evolves to his [Henry’s] friend. From the very beginning he is boasting of his brave character and lack of fear of war:
I said I was going to do my share of the fighting—that’s what I said. And I am, too. Who are you anyhow? You talk as if you thought you was Napoleon Bonaparte (Crane, 19).
However, lack of life and battle experience of Wilson soon becomes obvious. His gesture of giving Henry an envelope addressed to his family demonstrates all the fears Wilson is carrying inside his brave physical appearance. In his fears and his heroic goals he is much alike with Henry. Two boys, Henry and Wilson, who did not see life much, but who are having dreams about becoming heroes, are to face the harsh reality of the war time and the face of sufferings and death.
Henry noticed Wilson’s transformation upon his return to the camp. The loud soldier was not loud any more; it was a quiet and not very confident young soldier. The very first signs of his psychological transformation were the offer of the blanket and a request to give back his letter. Like Henry, he does not care about his reputation and his heroic glory any longer. Wilson possesses some inward confidence which has been gained in the course of the war actions.
Through Wilson’s example, Henry begins to better understand his own life and his own experience. Henry is the one who goes through total and complete transformation of his personality from a young immature and dreaming boy to an experienced, wise soldier and sober-minded man capable to see the reality and analyze people and situations.
The life values gained by Henry at the end of the war actions is the main theme of the book. Wilson and Jim are more like a background characters and Henry in comparison to them is the fully transformed character, who has developed morally immensely. Henry, as the representative of the youth, is the example of positive changes which a young man can undergo and gain so much life experience while transforming morally.
Crane, Stephen. (2008). The Red Badge of Courage. Forgotten Books.