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Listening to the cheering, the youth realized that the Union soldiers had won after all. At first he was happy, but then he began to feel annoyed. He tells himself that "he had done a good part in saving himself, who was a little piece of the army.... If none of the little pieces were wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death at such a time, why, then, where would be the army?" The youth begins to think that the other soldiers had been fools who, in their stupidity, had made his intelligent decision look wrong. He began to pity himself, imagining the laughter when he returned to camp.
Trying to get away from the sounds of battle, as well as from his increasingly bad feelings, the youth
walked into a forest. But creepers caught on his legs and saplings banged into him. Afraid that all these
noises would give away his position, he went deeper into the woods. Now that he could no longer hear the
sounds of battle, he felt better. The sun came out, and the insects chirped. "This landscape gave him
assurance. A fair field holding life. It was the religion of peace.... He conceived Nature to be a woman with
When the young soldier is feeling relieved to be in the forest away
from the battle, he imagines nature as a woman, peaceful and comforting.
This is the way some of the romantic poets and writers of the first half
of the nineteenth century wrote about nature. By the end of the century,
this view was no longer widely accepted.
In this peaceful place he playfully threw a pine cone at a squirrel, and the animal scurried away. This was the law of nature, the youth told himself; threatened, animals ran. He begins to think that nature forgives him. But in the beautiful forest, he passes through an unpleasant swamp, which could have told him, had he wanted to learn, that nature has more than one face. He saw an animal leap into the black waters and catch a fish-showing another of nature's laws, the triumph of the strong, the survival of the fittest. This is not what the young soldier wants to see.
The idea of the survival of the fittest comes from The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. In this book, written at just about the time the action inThe Red Badge of Courage takes place, the English naturalist claimed that in nature, those plants and animals strongest and best adapted to the environment survive, while the weak die off. Darwin was writing about the natural world, but by the 1880s and 1890s other writers were applying his ideas to human society. People like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner wrote books to prove charity was wrong. Poor people should be allowed to die off, while the rich, who were fittest, should survive. And labor unions were wrong, because they made weak people artificially strong, and that ran against the law of nature. People couldn't do very much to change their conditions. This view was called "social Darwinism." The passage about the animal and the fish brings to mind the ideas of both Darwinism and social Darwinism.
Finally he comes to a place like a "chapel," suffused with "a religious half light." Crane is using powerful religious imagery here; this "dark, intricate" place is both the heart of nature and deeply religious. Yet where the chapel's altar should be, the youth sees something else-a man dead and decaying, his face covered with ants. This is really nature's law-not the scampering squirrel, or a woman turning away from tragedy, but death and decay. As the blue uniform turns green, becoming part of the forest, and as ants work their way over the dead soldier's face, his body returns to the earth. Here is a revelation for the youth as compelling as the "revelation" of his need to flee in the previous chapter. When the dead man and the living one stand face to face, the youth must realize that although he can run from a battle, he cannot escape this fate.