He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless. Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as he had in early youth. He must accumulate information of himself, and meanwhile he resolved to remain close upon his guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him.
This passage from Chapter I illustrates Henry’s initial fear about whether he has the courage to face battle, and establishes that his predicament is less a matter of war than of knowing himself and judging his worth. Until this moment, Henry has been a youth of comfortable assumptions. He believes, for instance, that war exists for the purpose of creating heroes, and that men, when transformed into soldiers, are guaranteed a kind of honor that grants them prestige in society and history. The purpose of The Red Badge of Courage is not to trace such a transformation from common man to brave soldier. On the contrary, it is to chart Henry’s psychological growth as he “accumulates information of himself” and “experiments” with different types of behaviors—some courageous, some cowardly. The Red Badge of Courage challenges the protagonist’s (as well as the reader’s) most bedrock assumptions: the courage that Henry finally musters crucially depends on his having rewritten “his laws of life” and come to a new understanding of the world and his relatively modest place in it.
That Henry plans to “remain on his close guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him” testifies to his naïve and immature outlook. At this point in the novel, Henry has very little internal sense of right and wrong; instead, his morality is strictly a function of what other people see and how they judge him. This insecurity leads Henry to be excessively vain, hypersensitive, and, at times, almost unbearably selfish. However, just as he has graduated beyond the beliefs and behaviors of his “early youth,” he will grow beyond these lowly, adolescent, self-centered qualities.
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee, no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.
This passage occurs in Chapter V as Henry engages in battle for the first time. He feels a brief but important respite from his nagging obsession with individual recognition. This powerful desire for personal glory and accompanying conviction that his life is more valuable than that of most other soldiers lead to some of Henry’s worst behavior, including his abandonment of the tattered soldier. Against these moments of hyperinflated egotism come flashes of realization that he is but one man among many. However, Henry’s convictions do not really change at these times: he does not particularly care whether he fights for “a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country.” Yet he does let slip the selfish preservation instinct that often blinds him to larger struggle. This momentary lapse of ego allows Henry to behave with honor. This later proves the surest and most responsible way of winning the glorious accolades that he so desperately desires.
His self-pride was now entirely restored. In the shade of its flourishing growth he stood with braced and self-confident legs, and since nothing could now be discovered he did not shrink from an encounter with the eyes of judges, and allowed no thoughts of his own to keep him from an attitude of manfulness. He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.
Nowhere in The Red Badge of Courage is the unflattering and empty nature of Henry’s brand of “manfulness” more apparent than in this passage from Chapter XV, when Henry prepares for battle a second time. He has recently returned to camp wounded, and basked in the admiration of the men who believe the tale of heroism that he makes up. Even more outrageous, he has condemned the men who stayed to fight in the battle he could not face and prided himself that he managed his retreat with dignity and discretion. He believes that since no one knows of his cowardice, it does not count; in his mind, his behavior has done nothing to compromise his manhood. These lines mark a crucial moment in understanding the depths of Henry’s self-delusion. As opposed to the passage described above, which illustrates how Henry abandoned an obsession with his own welfare and contributes to a greater good, here Henry proves exactly how self-interested he can be. He would encounter a moral conundrum—guilt, for example, for his egregious behavior—only if another discovered and exposed his spinelessness. With his mistakes secured in the dark, Henry feels neither regret nor shame, and allows the esteem of others to reinforce his sense of having acted in the right.
The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if a club had struck him in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.
The Red Badge of Courage is filled with graphic and arresting depictions of battle, such as this passage from Chapter V when the 304th Regiment holds off the Confederate charge. This description is noteworthy for its powerful evocation of the chaotic violence of war; the language is precise, sharp, and convincing. It is not difficult to imagine such awful sights as men dropping “like bundles” or a soldier grunting “as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach.” In general, the death of a walk-on character might disturb readers in an abstract way, but it does not always have a lasting impact. It is a testament to Crane’s writing, then, that he manages to wring such pathos from the death of a nameless captain. Even though the reader is not familiar with this man, the misery expressed by his “sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn” leaves an indelible impression.
The image of the soldier with the shattered knee, clinging desperately to a tree and calling for help, invokes the theme of the universe’s fundamental disregard for human suffering. Time and again, Henry encounters a natural world that is deaf to the agonies of human beings, a realization that makes the striving for public glory seem petty and foolish.
He saw his vivid error, and he was afraid that it would stand before him all his life. He took no share in the chatter of his comrades, nor did he look at them or know them, save when he felt sudden suspicion that they were seeing his thoughts and scrutinizing each detail of the scene with the tattered soldier. Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance. And at last his eyes seemed to open to some new ways. He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them. With the conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
The novel ends with a declaration of Henry’s development into a man of honor and courage—qualities that Henry now sees quite differently from when he was an inexperienced soldier. He now acknowledges that they do not require him to return home “on his shield.” He no longer feels the need for “a red badge of courage” to mark his prowess in battle. Ultimately, Henry’s courage is linked to his ability to reflect on his life honestly. No longer willing to let the mistakes he has made reside in the dark, remote places of his consciousness, he considers them and their impact on his character. By coming to terms with his wrongs, Henry, like Wilson before him, realizes the importance of integrity. Aware of life’s relative evanescence, Henry no longer clings to bombastic notions of greatness. In touching “the great death”—that is, coming to terms with his own mortality—Henry commences a new, more mature, and truly more honorable phase of his life.