Throughout the novel, Crane refers to Henry as “the young soldier” and “the youth.” Both the best and worst characteristics of Henry’s youth mark him. Unlike the veteran soldiers whom he encounters during his first battle, Henry is not jaded. He believes, albeit naïvely, in traditional models of courage and honor, and romanticizes the image of dying in battle by invoking the Greek tradition of a dead soldier being laid upon his shield. On the other hand, because he is young, Henry has yet to experience enough to test these abstractions. As a result, his most passionate convictions are based on little else than fantasies, making him seem vain and self-centered.
Henry’s reasons for wanting to win glory in battle are far from noble. The philosophical underpinnings of the war do not motivate him; neither does any deeply held, personal sense of right and wrong. Instead, Henry desires a reputation. He hopes that an impressive performance on the battlefield will immortalize him as a hero among men who, because of the domesticating effects of religion and education, rarely distinguish themselves so dramatically. Ironically, after fleeing from battle, Henry feels little guilt about invoking his own intelligence in order to justify his cowardice. He condemns the soldiers who stayed to fight as imbeciles who were not “wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death.” This is how he restores his fragile self-pride. When Henry returns to camp and lies about the nature of his wound, he doubts neither his manhood nor his right to behave as pompously as a veteran. Henry’s lack of a true moral sense manifests itself in the emptiness of the honor and glory that he seeks. He feels no responsibility to earn these accolades. If others call him a hero, he believes he is one.
When Henry finally faces battle, however, he feels a “temporary but sublime absence of selfishness.” A great change occurs within him: as he fights, he loses his sense of self. No longer is he interested in winning the praise and attention of other men; instead, he allows himself to disappear into the commotion and become one component of a great fighting machine. As Henry finds himself deeply immersed in battle, the importance of winning a name for himself fades with the gun smoke, for “it was difficult to think of reputation when others were thinking of skins.” It is ironic, then, that Henry establishes his reputation at these very moments. Officers who witness his fierce fighting regard him as one of the regiment’s best. Henry does not cheat his way to the honor that he so desperately craves when the novel opens; instead, he earns it. This marks a tremendous growth in Henry’s character. He learns to reflect on his mistakes, such as his earlier retreat, without defensiveness or bravado, and abandons the hope of blustery heroism for a quieter, but more satisfying, understanding of what it means to be a man.
Jim contrasts sharply with Henry in the opening pages of the novel. When Henry asks Jim if he would flee from battle, Jim’s answer—that he would run if other soldiers ran, fight if they fought—establishes him as a pragmatist. He is strong and self-reliant, and does not romanticize war or its supposed glories in the manner that Henry does. Unlike Wilson, whose loud complaints characterize his early appearances, Jim marches through his days efficiently and with few grievances. He informs Henry that he can unburden himself of his unnecessary munitions, declaring, “You can now eat and shoot . . . That’s all you want to do.”
Jim has little patience for the kind of loud, knee-jerk criticism or vague abstraction that distracts Wilson and Henry. He prefers to do what duty requires of him and finds a quiet, simple pleasure in doing so. He silences Wilson and Henry from discussing the qualifications of their commanding officers while they are eating because he “could not rage in fierce argument in the presence of such sandwiches.”
Jim’s quiet demeanor persists even as he dies. He does not indulge in a protracted death scene, curse his fate, or philosophize about the cruelties and injustices of war. Instead, he brushes Henry and his offers of comfort aside. He seeks to die alone, and those present notice “a curious and profound dignity in the firm lines of his awful face.” The solemn poise with which Jim dies puzzles Henry, who wants to rail loudly at the universe. In death, as in life, Jim possesses the rare, self-assured goodness of a man who knows and fulfills his responsibilities.
Whereas Jim Conklin’s character remains notably steady throughout the novel, Wilson’s undergoes a dramatic change. Wilson is initially loud, opinionated, and naïve. For the first half of the book, Crane refers to him almost exclusively as “the loud soldier.” Wilson indignantly assures Henry that if battle occurs, he will certainly fight in it: “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.” Shortly thereafter, he approaches Henry again. Certain that he is about to meet his doom, he gives the youth a yellow envelope to deliver to his family, should he die in battle. This erratic shift from obnoxious bravado to naked vulnerability demonstrates Wilson’s immaturity. Like Henry, he is initially little more than a youth trying desperately to assure himself of his manhood.
Wilson’s transformation becomes clear relatively quickly. After disappearing into battle, he resurfaces to take care of Henry with all of the bustling of an “amateur nurse” upon Henry’s return to camp. He further displays his generosity by insisting that Henry take his blanket. Upon waking the next day, Henry notes the change in his friend: “He was no more a loud young soldier. There was now about him a fine reliance. He showed a quiet belief in his purpose and his abilities.”
Wilson’s attitude toward the envelope which he earlier entrusted to Henry further demonstrates the maturation that he has undergone. Though ashamed of his earlier display of fear, he asks Henry for the envelope back—he is no longer interested in his reputation or in the amount of sheer bravery that his comrades associate with his name, two issues that ponderously plague Henry. Instead, Wilson seems to have “climbed a peak of wisdom from which he could perceive himself as a very wee thing.”
This transformation furthers one of the novel’s explorations, showing plainly what happens when one realizes the relative insignificance of his or her life—an awareness that Henry seems to have gained by the novel’s end. Furthermore, the development of Wilson’s character contributes to the noise/silence motif. Through the sounds of battle, endless gossip, and empty bragging of the soldiers, noise comes to be associated with youth, vanity, and struggle. Toward the end of the novel, these sounds give way to a peace and quiet that suggest the eventuality of the progression past youthful struggle to the more reflective musings of manhood.