Henry’s second experience of battle further complicates his assumptions about war, as he unexpectedly panics and flees. The egotistic nature of Henry’s mind (which, because it is the only mind in the novel to which the reader has access, represents every soldier’s mind) reveals itself as Henry works desperately to restore his own self-confidence by making irrational justifications. These passages, which Crane wrote in his most sardonic and detached voice, are often quite comic. For example, when Henry imagines that “he had been wronged” by the regiment’s success in the battle after his flight, and when he condemns the victorious soldiers for being too stupid to follow him. This criticism is ironic, given Henry’s belief that fine minds keep men from fighting bravely in battle. The network of naïve assumptions and grandiose self-delusions in Henry’s mind supports him as he struggles to restore his own sense of importance.
This struggle renders Henry far more complex than a merely vain and self-absorbed character. The briefest glimpse of war has challenged Henry’s understanding of his own significance and has shaken the foundations of his deepest beliefs: his understanding of courage, honor, and manhood. This threat to Henry’s faith in his own special and deserving nature opens the way for the most important thematic exploration in the novel: his acknowledgment that the universe does not care whether he lives or dies. Henry realizes that just as the world spins around the anonymous soldier’s dead body, so will it spin around his. This important insight about the relative inconsequentiality of a given life finds representation throughout these three chapters, as in the sun’s gleaming on the trees after the first battle, surprising Henry that “nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.”
The corpse is one of the most important metaphors in the early part of the novel, symbolizing both the finality of death and the indifference of nature to the elimination of a human consciousness. Rooted, immobile, and swarming with ants, the corpse is an undeniable part of the scenery. No amount of mediation on courage or investigation into whether the dead soldier lived honorably will change the essential, inescapable fact of his death—neither his deeds nor his reputation matter. The sight of the dead soldier undoes the comfortable moral assumption that the squirrel’s flight from danger affords Henry, and shows him that his logic has been too simple: there may be no compass of right and wrong to which he might cling in this situation, no overriding moral truth fundamental to the nature of the universe. Henry learns that death may simply be death and that the universe may not care about his fear of it.