The Red Bage of Courage: A Short Essay
by Ozymandias
(662 views) - 6/17/04
(recorded 6/17/04 @ 2:57:37 PM)
In Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War we witness war’s ability to drastically change the character of its participants in even a short period of time. We follow the story of Henry Fleming as he turns from a wide eyed youth, to a deserter, to war hero, and finally to a man in just a matter of weeks. We watch as Henry battles with his desire for honor and his own instinct for self preservation. Crane shows the thought process of this young, naïve, soldier become forced to evolve because of the rapid, intense events of the battle ground. He also shows the humbling effects of battle on other characters such as the loud soldier who, after proclaiming his own immense courage, shows his vulnerability once the possibility of real combat shows itself.

The story begins with a Union regiment anxiously awaiting their first chance to see action. In this regiment is the protagonist, Henry Fleming, who is so caught up in his own introspection that he repeatedly fails to fully understand the scope of the situations he finds himself in throughout the story. After being informed by his friend Jim Conklin that they will be moving into battle the next day, Henry begins to reflect on the advice his mother gave him when he left and his own delusions of the glory of war. Henry has childish desires for recognition but as the battle looms in the distance, he becomes increasingly insecure about his own abilities. Once the battle does begin Henry begins to realize the fragility of life after passing a corpse on the ground. His instincts for self preservation begin to take over. Also strongly affected by the heat of battle, Wilson, or the loud soldier, humbles himself by confessing that he thinks he is going to die, and asking Henry to bring a yellow package to his family. This is after Wilson had bragged intensely about his courage and ability earlier in the story.

Henry runs from the battle out of fear for his own life and finds himself wondering in the forest questioning himself yet again. He tries to rationalize his running away with the instinct of a squirrel to run from a falling pine cone. Henry eventually meets up with a group of wounded soldiers and pairs up with a tattered soldier who follows him through the forest thinking that Henry is also wounded. He admires their injuries and wishes that he himself had a “red badge of courage.” After being continually pestered with inquiries as to the location of his wound by the tattered man, Henry finally decides to leave him in the woods to die so that his lie will not be found out. This rash decision will end up coming back to haunt Henry later. After finding his way back to his regiment Henry decides to lie about his desertion and say that he merely got separated from the group.

Once Henry gets back to battle, he now fights like an animal and revels in the praise he receives for it. It seems he has finally gotten the recognition he was looking for. After his ideas of the great Greek epics were destroyed by the previous battle, now Henry foolishly rekindles that childish desire for glory. Henry eventually ends up capturing the enemy flag during battle which was a great feat. Even amidst all of this great honor and affection that he receives from his officers, Henry falls back into himself and questions the validity of his earlier decisions. He regrets running from battle and letting the tattered man die, but eventually decides that this was all necessary for him to become a man.

Even after Henry realizes his accomplishments and faults, he still seems to maintain the childish rationalizations that he used at the beginning of the story. Henry has grown incredibly in the few weeks of these battles, but he still holds onto many of his earlier beliefs. That inner struggle between honor and self preservation still hasn’t completely been solved. Although Henry fights now instead of running, he is doing so merely for his own benefit. He enjoys the attention he receives and continues to perpetuate his lies to get away with it. It seems that neither side of his inner struggle has won out, but rather he reached a state where they could both exist equally.
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