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THE CHARACTERS (continued)
• HENRY'S MOTHER
Henry's mother is not an important character in the novel, and she disappears after Chapter 1. But we still learn something about her, and through her about Henry. She is hard working-she milks the cows, peels potatoes, knits socks, and makes blackberry jam. And she dearly loves her son.
Henry is annoyed because his mother won't see him as the hero he wants to be. And in fact, she does treat him as if he were a little boy. She warns him to stay away from bad company, not to do anything he couldn't tell her about, and not to drink or swear. And she tells him to send his socks back to her for darning.
At the same time, much of her advice is realistic and sensible. She doesn't want him to go to war, and she claims-probably correctly-that he'd be more useful on the farm. But it takes Henry the space of the whole novel to learn the truth of what his mother tells him-"Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others." His mother urges him to be brave-she tells him not to shirk, and to do what's right, even if it means being killed-but it's a more mature kind of bravery than Henry can understand at this point. When in Chapter 15 Henry imagined destroying his mother's "vague feminine formula for beloved ones doing brave deeds on the field of battle without risk of life," he wasn't being fair to her. His mother's only "feminine formula" is that women have to bear their men going off to war.
• JIM CONKLIN
Jim Conklin, "the tall soldier," appears several times early in The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, he is the first character we meet, as he goes down to the river to wash his shirt in the muddy water. Jim returns to camp with a rumor that the army is about to move. Some of the men believe him, some men don't, but they all listen to him. Jim appears to be a natural leader.
Jim is always calm and matter-of-fact, even under difficult circumstances. Henry Fleming, his childhood friend, can't understand why Jim seems unconcerned about the coming battle when he, Henry, is so frightened. Jim was no different from him when they were growing up together, Henry thinks. He comes to the conclusion-and he's probably right-that the challenge of war has brought out the best in Jim.
As the regiment is marched from place to place before the fighting begins, Henry rants about the stupidity of the officers, and generally bounces off the walls. Jim sits quietly, following orders and accepting whatever happens. He frequently eats pork sandwiches from his knapsack, and looks to Henry as if he is communicating deeply with his food. Jim helps to calm his friend down.
But for all his unself-conscious bravery, Jim Conklin is badly wounded in the first day's battle. When Henry encounters him again, Jim is dying. He does not complain about his wounds, but begs Henry to get him out of the road so that he is not run over by the artillery wagons. Even in his agony, he has been wondering how Henry was doing. As death approaches, Jim runs into a field, looking from bush to bush for the place he wants to die. He pushes aside Henry's offers of help, and meets his death alone. His body jerking horribly, he falls. Another witness to his death, the tattered soldier, is impressed by Jim's bravery.
What are we to make of this quiet, modest, yet exceedingly brave man? Some
readers identify Jim with Jesus Christ, and claim that his death absolves
Henry of his sins of cowardice. They point to Jim's initials, J.C., the
wounds in his hands and sides, like Christ's stigmata, and the appearance
of the "red sun pasted in the sky like a wafer" when Jim dies.
(For more on this identification, see the detailed discussion of Chapter
Jim's character sheds some light on Henry's. Jim appears to grow as a result of the experience of war, and that leads us to believe that Henry, too, can. His consistent courage contrasts with Henry's cowardice. The brave and simple way Jim faces death makes a contribution to Henry's-and our-understanding of the meaning of courage. In addition, the horrible realism with which Crane describes his death shows the hollowness of romantic dreams of war.
Wilson is called "the loud soldier" in the early chapters of The Red Badge of Courage, but later, when he teams up with Henry, he usually appears as "the friend." We first meet Wilson early in Chapter 1 when he picks a fight with Jim Conklin about Jim's story that the army is about to move. Wilson has no more information than Jim does, but he already knows it all.
As the regiment prepares for battle, Henry Fleming tries to find out whether Wilson shares his fears. The loud soldier boasts about how well he'll fight, and is sure he'll never run. He laughs at Henry and makes him feel much worse. But just before the first battle Wilson brings Henry some letters to give his family after his death, for Wilson is sure he's about to die. So much for bravery!
We don't see Wilson during the chapters describing Henry's flight. When we meet him again he's very different. Wilson is the sentry when Henry returns to his regiment, and Wilson greets him warmly, and tenderly bandages his wound. He doesn't take offense when Henry snaps at him, and he gives Henry his blanket to sleep under. Henry sees that Wilson has been transformed by his experience of battle, that he no longer takes himself so seriously, but has a quiet belief in his abilities. When Henry points out this change, Wilson laughs and says that he used to be quite a fool. Blushing, Wilson asks Henry to return his letters.
During the next battle, Wilson, now called "the friend," assumes something of Jim Conklin's role in calming Henry down when his nervousness takes the form of bad-mouthing the officers. Wilson fights bravely, always in the front of the line, and along with Henry, is singled out for praise. Wilson helps Henry rescue the Union flag when the color bearer is shot, and, in the last skirmish, captures the Confederate flag.
In the book's early chapters we see some similarities between Wilson and Henry. Wilson's way of coping with fear is different from Henry's: he's obnoxious, and he doesn't realize how scared he is, the way the more thoughtful Henry does. The character of Wilson shows us that Henry isn't the only untested soldier, isn't the only one with a problem about being brave. Wilson is apparently changed by the first day's battle. As with Jim's increasing bravery, the change in Wilson suggests that Henry will mature as well. By the end of the book Wilson and Henry have become so much alike-fighting bravely together-that they almost seem to have become one character.