Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Given the novel’s title, it is no surprise that courage—defining it, desiring it, and, ultimately, achieving it—is the most salient element of the narrative. As the novel opens, Henry’s understanding of courage is traditional and romantic. He assumes that, like a war hero of ancient Greece, he will return from battle either with his shield or on it. Henry’s understanding of courage has more to do with the praise of his peers than any internal measure of his bravery. Within the novel’s first chapter, Henry recalls his mother’s advice, which runs counter to his own notions. She cares little whether Henry earns himself a praiseworthy name; instead, she instructs him to meet his responsibilities honestly and squarely, even if it means sacrificing his own life.
The gap that exists between Henry’s definition of courage and the alternative that his mother suggests fluctuates throughout The Red Badge of Courage, sometimes narrowing (when Henry fights well in his first battle) and sometimes growing wider (when he abandons the tattered soldier). At the end of the novel, as the mature Henry marches victoriously from battle, a more subtle and complex understanding of courage emerges: it is not simply a function of other people’s opinions, but it does incorporate egocentric concerns such as a soldier’s regard for his reputation.
Throughout the novel, Henry struggles to preserve his manhood, his understanding of which parallels his understanding of courage. At first, he relies on very traditional, even clichéd, notions. He laments that education and religion have tamed men of their natural savagery and made them so pale and domestic that there remain few ways for a man to distinguish himself other than on the battlefield. Having this opportunity makes Henry feel grateful to be participating in the war. As he makes his way from one skirmish to the next, he becomes more and more convinced that his accumulated experiences will earn him the praise of women and the envy of men; he will be a hero, a real man, in their eyes. These early conceptions of manhood are simplistic, romantic, adolescent fantasies.
Jim Conklin and Wilson stand as symbols of a more human kind of manhood. They are self-assured without being braggarts and are ultimately able to own up to their faults and shortcomings. Wilson, who begins the novel as an obnoxiously loud soldier, later exposes his own fear and vulnerability when he asks Henry to deliver a yellow envelope to his family should he die in battle. In realizing the relative insignificance of his own life, Wilson frees himself from the chains that bind Henry, becoming a man of “quiet belief in his purposes and abilities.” By the novel’s end, Henry makes a bold step in the same direction, learning that the measure of one’s manhood lies more in the complex ways in which one negotiates one’s mistakes and responsibilities than in one’s conduct on the battlefield.
An anxious desire for self-preservation influences Henry throughout the novel. When a pinecone that he throws after fleeing the battle makes a squirrel scurry, he believes that he has stumbled upon a universal truth: each being will do whatever it takes, including running from danger, in order to preserve itself. Henry gets much mileage out of this revelation, as he uses it to justify his impulse to retreat from the battlefield. His conceits—namely that the good of the army and, by extension, the world, requires his survival—drive him to behave abominably. He not only runs from battle, but also abandons the tattered soldier, though he knows that the soldier is almost certain to die if he does not receive assistance. Soon after his encounter with the squirrel, Henry discovers the corpse of a soldier. This sets in motion Henry’s realization that the world is largely indifferent to his life and the questions that preoccupy him. Courage and honor endow a man with a belief in the worth of preserving the lives of others, but the pervasiveness of death on the battlefield compels Henry to question the importance of these qualities. This weighing of values begs consideration of the connection between the survival instinct and vanity.
Henry’s realization that the natural world spins on regardless of the manner in which men live and die is perhaps the most difficult lesson that Henry learns as a soldier. It disabuses him of his naïve, inexperienced beliefs regarding courage and manhood. Shortly after his encounter with the squirrel in the woods, Henry stumbles upon a dead soldier, whose rotting body serves as a powerful reminder of the universe’s indifference to human life. As the drama of the war rages on around him, Henry continues to occupy his mind with questions concerning the nature of courage and honor and the possibilities of gaining glory. Death, he assumes, would stop this drama cold. Yet, when he encounters the corpse, he finds that death is nothing more than an integral and unremarkable part of nature. As he reflects at the end of the novel: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.”