He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.
The officers order a full-scale charge upon the fence, and the men comply with a final burst of energy. Bearing the flag as he runs through the smoke, Henry perceives dimly that many of the enemy soldiers are fleeing from the fence at the sight of the blue charge. Only a small, determined group remains. As the men battle, Henry sees that the enemy’s standard bearer is wounded. Thinking that capturing the opponent’s battle flag—that “craved treasure of mythology”—would be a supreme accomplishment, he rushes toward him. He and Wilson lunge for the flag at the same time, and Wilson succeeds in prying it from the dying enemy’s fingers. At last the gray soldiers are driven from the fence, and Henry’s regiment begins to celebrate. They have even taken four prisoners—one curses the regiment, one talks to them with interest, one stares stoically into space, and the last seems ashamed to have been captured. Henry nestles into a long patch of grass and rests contentedly, chatting with Wilson about their achievements.
After a while, the regiment receives orders to march back toward the river. As Henry walks, he ponders his experience of war and reproaches himself for his early behavior. His mind undergoes a “subtle change” as he feels elated about his recent success in battle, but is tormented by his cowardice in the first battle and reprehensible abandonment of the tattered man. Milling over both his accomplishments and his failures, Henry is finally able to put his life into proper perspective, to “criticize [these deeds] with some correctness.” At last, he is able to distance himself from the guilt that he feels about his initially selfish behavior. As a pouring rain begins to fall from the sky, Henry smiles, imagining a world of beauty, happiness, and eternal peace. He feels a “quiet manhood” within himself, and over the river a symbolic ray of sun breaks through the clouds.
The final, climactic charge that culminates in Chapter XXIII cements an important fact: Henry, whether by an act of courage or simply by following the momentum of his environment, has now proven himself to be an experienced and successful soldier. Along with the other surviving members of the regiment, he has earned the title and perspective of a veteran fighter. Crane portrays these soldiers as exhibiting epic heroism: after having almost been defeated, and with numbers dwindling, these remaining men resolve themselves to their goal and rally courageously to overcome the enemy.
The description of the actual charge focuses on the desperate, ludicrous futility of the action: “[Henry] did not see anything excepting the mist of smoke gashed by the little knives of fire, but he knew that in it lay the aged fence of a vanished farmer protecting the snuggled bodies of the gray men.” That the men endure such catastrophe simply to seize a line of fence is simultaneously appalling, inspiring, and grotesquely comical.
No section of The Red Badge of Courage has raised as much analytical debate as its ending. Many critics of the novel, especially in its early years, argued that Crane’s portrayal of Henry’s coming-of-age process is without irony, so that the closing lines regarding Henry’s new appreciation for life, his newfound security in himself, and his new sense of manhood are meant to be taken at face value: Henry gains perspective on his life and grows up. Other critics of the novel, particularly in recent years, have noted strands of sarcasm in Crane’s closing. They argue that the reader is meant to believe that Henry has simply fallen back on his old habit of covering up his psychological wounds with self-justification and delusion. According to this view, Henry is still the vain, uncertain boy he is at the beginning of the novel, despite his experience and success in battle.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between these interpretations. In light of the sardonic tone that pervades much of the novel, it seems simplistic to take the somewhat melodramatic, optimistic conclusion on its own terms. One can argue that Henry’s remarkable transformation is not realistic, given the brief period of time over which it occurs. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that Henry has matured. Although his new maturity seems in part a function of his vanity—Henry wants to believe that he has matured—he is also far less plagued by self-doubt and self-importance at the end of the novel than he is at the beginning. In all likelihood, Crane did not intend the reader to believe that Henry has simply transcended all of his shortcomings; he is still prone to fall back on illusion and vanity, and to shield himself from the crushing indifference of the universe to his existence. However, he is also more experienced, more confident, and more knowledgeable about himself. In this way, the optimistic tone of the end of the novel is convincing, even if the reader does not entirely share Henry’s conviction that he has conquered “the red sickness of battle” and fully adapted himself to the blunt, cruel realities of the world.