Nowhere in the novel is the tension between the human instinct of self-preservation and the impetus toward moral behavior stronger or more upsetting to Henry. Though he anxiously wishes to act bravely to earn the praise and envy of others, he is afraid to die. The pathetic fates of the tattered man and Jim arouse these conflicting emotions in Henry, causing him to experience unbearable self-doubt. He modifies the positive connection between battle wound and courage into an inverse correlation between battle wound and shame: since he has not been injured, he feels his disgrace is visible to everyone around him. Too immature to confront his insecurities, Henry evades them by rashly abandoning the dying, tattered man, whose battle wound underscores the courage that Henry lacks.
Henry’s various experiences with nature’s indifference to human concerns further complicate his outlook by removing his sense of moral absolutes: if the universe has no regard for human concerns, then human moral conventions do not reflect a definitive, natural spectrum of right and wrong. Henry comes to believe that human beings are not inherently moral animals; rather, they have simply constructed an arbitrary and inflexible system of morality that often runs counter to their own instincts. In contrast, nature’s definitive, nonarbitrary judgments of right and wrong change with, and are dependent on, the human value of self-preservation.
In this environment, the idea of a wound appeals immensely to the troubled, young Henry. While it may seem ironic that an individual who fears danger would long for an injury, Henry considers a wound irrefutable proof of the moral position he so desperately seeks, a symbol not only of courage but also of an entire value system that nature ignores.