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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Red Badge of Courage!