In Stephen Crane’s novel “The Red Badge of Courage”, we examine the episodes of war through the eyes of the main character, Henry Fleming. Because the book is rather vague about many details, we don’t know how old Henry is, what he looks like, or where he comes from. We do know that Henry is from somewhere in New York and that he was raised by his mother. Although some people argue that throughout the novel Henry matures and becomes a better person, facts from the book show just the opposite. Henry is a conceited , smug young man who sees himself as a martyr and a hero; when in fact he is a coward.
Henry begins his journey by signing up for the Union army. While this may seem like a brave step, Henry takes it for the wrong reasons. He is unsure of the Union cause, and without really understanding what he was fighting for, Henry saw visions of himself as a hero. Henry’s thoughts of war are rather distorted: He had read signs of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures, extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds(Crane, 3). This simply shows that Henry had romanticized the was to something of a glorious adventure in his head.
Even when his mother tries to give him rational advice, Henry sat disappointed, expecting a speech on heroism and pride. When Henry and his regiment (the 304th New York) finally integrate into camp life, he begins to question himself. His regiment had been static for a long time and Henry becomes bored and unhappy. For time he begins to question his bravery and he feels rather insecure. In the regiments first battle, Henry fights well. His admiration for himself reaches a disgusting level: He felt that he was a fine fellow.
He saw himself even with those ideals that he had considered far beyond him. He smiled in deep gratification (Crane, 30). In this passage one can see Henry beginning to falsely view himself as a hero. At the beginning of the 304th New York regiment’s second battle, Henry notices that two other soldiers are running in fear of the fight. He suddenly becomes rather scared and flees the battle as well. He tries to rationalize his actions to himself by saying: Death about to thrust him between the shoulder blades was far more dreadful than death about to smite him between the eyes (Crane, 32).
However, when Henry discovers that they had on the battle, he feels angry and jealous of the other soldiers: The youth cringed as if discovered at a crime… The imbecile line had remained and become victorious… He turned away, amazed and angry. He felt that he had been wronged(Crane 34). Now, Henry is not fleeing in terror, but in shame. He is trying to run away from his own cowardice. He begins to pity himself and loose faith in his own romanticized reasons for enlisting. After walking through the woods for a long time, Henry came upon a dead soldier.
The sight of the body scares him and again he flees from the harsh ealities of war. Later in the novel, Henry is knocked in the head with a rifle by a retreating Union soldier. Henry is ashamed of the wound and becomes embarrassed and scared that the other soldiers will tease him. When he meets back up with his regiment, they question his wound. Henry lies and makes up some story about a fight with another regiment: I’ve- I’ve had an awful time. I’ve been all over. ‘Way over on th’ right. Terrible fightin’ over there. I had an awful time. I got separated from the reg’ment.
Over on th’ right, I got shot. I never see sech fightin’. Awful time. I don’t see how I could’a got separated from th’ reg’ment. I got shot, too(Crane, 62). The rest of Henry’s regiment believe his tall tale and are amazed at his false bravery. The next day, Henry once again begins to view himself as a hero. He almost forgets that the wound wasn’t made by a bullet, but by another Union soldier. He forgets about his past cowardly actions and becomes rather vain. He even goes so far as to criticize the generals. Henry’s conceit continues to grow: His self pride was now entirely restored… hen he remembered his fortunes of yesterday, and looked at them form a istance he began to see something fine there.
He had license to be pompous and veteran-like (Crane, 71). The second day, the regiment once again goes into battle. Here, Henry stops basking in thoughts of his own heroism, and is able to fight like a well-trained soldier. while he has made a real achievement in this battle, Henry sees it as his achievement and becomes pleased with himself. He revels in the praise bestowed upon him by the lieutenant and the colonel. When the fighting ends, Henry feels he was courageous and had finally become a man.
Understanding Henry’s personality is imperative to understand the real meaning of “The Red Badge of Courage”. The book itself is about the romanticizing of the experience of was by a boy wanting to be a hero. While reading the book, I noticed that there are suggestions that Henry is actually becoming a better person, however, not to much later, there is almost always something that Henry does or says that contradicts it. I see the main character as a self-glorifying coward. He thinks only of himself and sees himself as a martyr. I feel that Henry has not changed that much by the end of the book.
Even after fleeing from a battle, he can still tell himself that he is braver than another soldier. Also, Henry’s feelings of love for the flag in Chapter 19 can simply be chalked up to childish romanticism. However, can see how this possibly could relate to war in today’s world. Young soldiers go into battle with certain expectations. They want to be heroes and save the day, have over-sized wrought iron statues made of them and be remembered in history books. However, unlike Henry, once they have seen the ravages and truths of war, most become disheartened and disillusioned.
Stephen Crane’s original ending to the story shows Henry’s naive view of himself as a brave soldier and as a hero. Henry ends his journey choosing to ignore that the other soldiers are plagued with war while he romanticizes and fantasizes about himself and his own glorious future: It rained. The procession of soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort, in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks (Crane, 109).