Fear, worry, anxiety, curiosity, distress, nervousness; all emotions of a young, naive soldier entering war for the first time. To the reader, this is exactly what Henry Fleming represents. Because Crane never tells us what he looks like, just how old he is, or exactly where he comes from, and usually refers to him as “the youth” (Crane, 12) or “the young soldier” (Crane, 14), Henry could be any young many experiencing war for the first time. Throughout the novel The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming goes through many psychological chances, each having a distinct impact on the novel. These changes can be put into three stages; before, during, and after the war. Due to the ambiguity surrounding the character of Henry Fleming, the novel is not just a tale of Henry’s firsthand experiences, but a portrayal of the thoughts, feelings, fears, and development of any young soldier entering any war at any time.
Although Crane leaves much to the imagination when it comes to Henry Fleming, he does however reveal quite a bit about his early life. It becomes apparent that as a young boy, Henry grew up on a farm in New York (Crane, 17). Henry was raised by his loving mother after the tragic death of his father (Crane, 15). The occupants of the farm consist of Henry and his mother, who together tackle the necessary workload to maintain the farm and keep it in good condition (Crane, 17). The life Henry has led up to the point when he enters the draft, has been somewhat quiet, protected and sheltered (Crane, 11). This “wrapped in cotton wool” (Crane, 21) lifestyle could party contribute to Henry’s naively distorted views of war and later lead to his misfortune (Weisberger, 22).
Crane portrays Henry as a typical young American brought up in the nineteenth century (Weisberger, 22). He has been taught to associate manhood with courage, to dream of the glories of warfare, and to be instinctively patriotic (Breslin, 2). As a result, when the civil war breaks out, Henry volunteers to join the Union Army (Gibson, 61). Immediately, his mother disapproves of his decision, claiming that he would be much more useful on the farm (Crane, 23). At this point in the novel Henry is not mature enough to recognize the validity of his mothers statement (Gibson, 63). “Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others” (Crane, 24). His mother urges him to be brave and fearless, but it’s a more mature kind of bravery than Henry can understand at this point (Delbanco, 44). Henry is exasperated because his mother does not see him as the hero he wants to be (Weisberger, 2).
Henry comes face to face with his first dose of heroism on the way to the war (Weisberger, 3). Henry goes from being a nobody to someone special as the result of his decision to enlist (Breslin, 2). He bids farewell to his classmates who now show great concern for their colleague who they have only ignored in the past (Mitchell, 109). His false sense of heroism grows as he continues his journey on a train to Washington that is surrounded by supporters of the Union (Crane, 28). He is now receiving the recognition he has sought after his whole life, however false the pretenses may be (Mitchell, 113).
But these visions of glory sink quickly in the mud of camp life. Henry’s regiment, the 304th New York, does not see any action for quite a while leaving Henry bored and uncomfortable (Crane, 33). The Youth seems to think the only thing on every soldiers mind is one question: will he run (Breslin, 3)? When Henry asks for advice from his good friend Jim Conklin, he coincidentally gets counsel that resembles his mothers words of wisdom at the beginning of the novel (Breslin, 3). “All yeh got t’do is t’sit down an’ wait as quiet as yeh kin. It ain’t likely they’ll like th’ hull rebel army all-to-onct th’ first time” (Crane, 35). Henry’s self absorption does more harm than good (Weisberger, 3). He continues to try to “measure himself by his comrades” (Crane, 33). He is so caught up in the opinion of others, that he fails to recognize that his comrades are in the same situation as he is; scared and clueless (Delbanco, 46).
Finally, the army is ordered to march (Crane, 44). During the regiment’s advance, Henry is bothered because he does not know what to expect (Mitchell, 98). Rumors of war have already spread, and he blindly expects to meet the enemy (Weisberger, 28). When his prediction is amiss, his spirits are low, partly because he has had too much “opportunity to reflect and prepare” for this moment (Breslin, 3). As the regiment continues on, Henry comes face to face with his first encounter with death (Breslin, 3). He feels that the corpse on the ground is symbolism, representing his future death in battle (Hungerford, 161). Once again, Crane reveals a fragment of Henry’s immaturity stemming from selfishness (Hungerford, 161).
In the first battle, the Youth’s greatest fear comes true. At the first charge from the enemy, his regiment becomes scattered and disorganized (Gibson, 72). Henry follows the lead of his comrades, throws down his rifle and runs (Breslin, 4). Egoistically as usual, Henry’s first concerns are for himself. Will he ever be reunited with his regiment (Hungerford, 161)? Will his cowardice be discovered (Hungerford, 162)? Henry becomes obsessed by fear and feels the need to be occupied (Weisberger, 2). In a desperate ploy for protection, Henry joins a procession of the wounded (Crane, 58). This only makes matters worse for Henry in many ways. The injured, suffering men only make Henry feel even guiltier for fleeing (Gibson, 73). When the wounded soldiers question him about his injury, Henry nearly has an emotional breakdown (Gibson, 75). To Henry a wound represents courage, the one thing he desperately craves at this point in the novel (Hungerford, 163).
Ironically, Henry soon receives his wound, but not in battle. After startling a soldier, Henry is mistakenly hit over the head by his rifle (Crane, 78). Henry falls to the ground agonizing in pain. Then he suddenly realizes that he has now earned his “red badge of courage” (Crane, 79), which changes everything for the guilt-ridden young soldier (Gibson, 68). Because he is injured, he now feels he can rejoin his regiment and hide his “sin” (Weisberger, 3). Until now he has been full of rationalizations and denial (Gibson, 77). He is afraid not only of battle, but of being teased by his fellow soldiers (Weisberger, 2). When the panicked soldier strikes him on the head, Henry has a real wound to match his inner wound of fear and shame (Delbanco, 48).
Upon returning to camp, Henry is warmly greeted by his comrades who show great concern and compassion for what they think he has gone through (Weiss, 22). They tend to Henry’s wound and are led to believe that he has been grazed by a cannonball (Crane, 83). The benevolence and consideration that he is given sparks a change and Henry (Weiss, 24). For the first time Henry truly feels that he belongs within the regiment (Weiss, 23). He finds himself uncommonly initiating conversation and carrying on with his cohorts (Gibson, 82). The regiment is ordered to march once again, and fear grows inside Henry (Crane, 91). He conceals his fear by boasting, being vociferous and confrontational (Weiss, 28).
When the regiment enters battle again, Henry stops thinking about himself and begins to act on instinct (Weisberger,3). He is now fully able to fight bravely and even heroically (Crane, 101). He is delighted with these bona fide achievements, and enjoys being singled out for praise by the lieutenant and the colonel (Delbanco, 52). When the fighting ends, and Henry has time to evaluate and reflect upon all of the events of the past two days (Gibson, 77). He is able both to take pride in his courage and to look at his cowardice realistically and has matured enough to forgive himself (Weisberger, 4) Now, at last, he has become a man (Breslin, 5).
More or less, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, is simply a psychological study of the effects of war on a young man (Delbanco, 45). It is clear that Henry has grown and matured from the young, naive, farm boy he once was (Breslin, 5). Henry has given up his dreams of individual glory and learned the real meaning of courage (Mitchell, 104). By the end of the novel he has come to realize that to simultaneously prove himself worthy others, he must abandon his selfish tendencies (Delbanco, 46). In doing so, he will also prove to himself that he is worthy as well (Delbanco, 46). Proof of this development is made at the conclusion of the war when Henry gives realistic self evaluation for the first time (Breslin, 6).
Breslin, Paul, “Courage and Convention: The Red Badge of Courage,” in The Yale Review, December, 1976, pp. 209-22. EXPLORING Novels. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage and “The Veteran.” New York: The Modern Library, 1993.
Delbanco, Andrew. The American Stephen Crane: The Context of The Red Badge of Courage. New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986.
Gibson, Donald B. The Fiction of Stephen Crane. Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. 60-89
Hungerford, Harold. R. The Factual Framework of The Red Badge of Courage. American Literature (34: 4) January, 1963.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Cambridge U P, 1986
Weisberger, Bernard, “The Red Badge of Courage,” in Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels, edited by Charles Shapiro, Wayne State University Press, 1958, pp. 120-21. EXPLORING Novels. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2004. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC.
Weiss, Daniel. Psychology and the Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Cranes The Red Badge of Courage. Bloom, Harold. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.