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This chapter repeats the theme of courage as bestial instinct. The young soldier is described running "as if pursued for a murder," his eyes have "a lurid glare," his features are "red and inflamed," and he looked "insane." Even the Red Badge of Courage makes the young soldier look a little crazy. Henry is in the advance of his regiment, but "unconsciously." The soldiers rush in a "frenzy," "moblike and barbaric," with "mad enthusiasm," in a "delirium." Only when this feeling subsides do they become men again.
The narrator makes a number of statements in this chapter, most of them about this frenzied fighting. Previously the narrative voice has described only characters-usually a bit ironically-not actions. But now the narrator says that this enthusiasm and delirium is a "sublime absence of selfishness," presumably one of the definitions of courage. Later the narrator adds that the men's "lack of a certain feeling of responsibility for being there" was "the dominant animal failing." When the young soldier charges forward again, he runs "like a madman," his mouth dripping saliva.
The major battles of the Civil War, such as Chancellorsville, consisted
of many small skirmishes like the ones Henry participated in. As we see
in these chapters, the blue soldiers and the gray soldiers engage, retreat,
rest, and clash again. Eventually one group or the other wins, and the
battle is over.
Even during World War II that was what war was like. But in our day war has become very different. The opposing sides don't always wear uniforms; in fact, the enemy may be civilians, not soldiers. There may not be fixed battles where a line of soldiers charges, but the constant sniping of guerillas instead. And it isn't always clear when an engagement is over, or who has won or lost.
What would it mean to be courageous in a modern war? Do you think that Stephen Crane's definition of courage-not thinking of yourself and acting on instinct-makes any sense for the kinds of wars we have today?
The young soldier's rush to rescue the falling flag is, of course, a courageous act. Yet his feeling of love for the flag, and his personification of it as "a goddess... a woman, red and white, hating and loving," seems to be the kind of romantic dream that he has begun to move beyond. Still, the details of the dying soldier's death grip on the flagpole, and his hand on Wilson's shoulder, provide a realistic, even macabre finish to this romantic episode.