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.