Throughout The Red Badge of Courage, vanity and self-deception prove to be the mind’s most successful strategy for coping with the extraordinary fragility and insignificance of human life. If not for self-delusion, the dangers one faces would drive one mad; if not for vanity, one’s own unimportance would drive one to despair. Part of the instinct to survive hinges on the individual’s belief in the importance of his own survival, the preciousness of his life. As a result of fleeing the dangers of war and the despair that follows them, Henry has come face to face with his own insignificance, and reacts in the only way available to him. To maintain control over his fears, he lies to those around him and then convinces himself that whatever they believe—that he is courageous, for example—is true.
In this section, Henry’s hypocrisy contrasts sharply with Wilson’s sense of security in himself. Having faced battle rather than running from it, Wilson has gained perspective on his own modest place in the universe without shattering his ego. He does not allow his pride to prevent him from asking Henry for the yellow envelope back, though doing so causes him considerable embarrassment. His newfound maturity enables him to temper his earlier propensities for arrogant battle-lust and sniveling self-pity.