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11. The young soldier, Henry Fleming, uses the phrase, "the red badge of courage," in Chapter 8. By it he means a wound. He wishes he had one so that he would look like, and be, a real soldier. He thinks that being wounded in battle proves that you are courageous.
But when Henry is actually wounded in Chapter 12 it is by accident. He is hit on the head by a Union soldier in panic-stricken retreat. Neither Henry nor the soldier who wounds him has been courageous. But Henry's bloody head makes the other soldiers accept him when he returns to camp in Chapter 13. They believe that he has been fighting with another regiment, even though the lump on his head looks like just what it is. And even Henry begins to pretend to himself that he has been courageous after all.
Ironically, when Henry shows real courage in battle, in Chapters 17-23, he is not wounded. The real badge of courage is inside, and the proof of courage is deeds.
The title tells us that this book is about the difference between what courage looks like and what it really is. (See "Themes.")
12. To understand the meaning of courage in this book, look at the behavior of characters who are courageous. One of these is Jim Conklin, the tall soldier. Before the battle in Chapter 3 he is not afraid that he will run away, and he expects to do what the rest of the regiment does. He follows orders and remains calm. (Henry, in contrast, is very frightened.) In Chapter 9 Jim faces death matter-of-factly. He does not complain about his wounds. Even though he is in pain, he is worried about Henry's safety.
When Henry becomes courageous during the second day's battle (in Chapters
17, 19, and 23) he does not think about himself or about danger. He does
what has to be done. He is in a frenzy, like an animal or a savage. During
the final charge in Chapter 23 the whole regiment behaves this way.
The next thing to look for is what the narrator says about courage. Although the narrator rarely makes comments, he does so in Chapter 17 when he says that courage is "a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness." (See "Themes.")
13. Look at the way the young soldier behaves from chapter to chapter. When he joins the army in Chapter 1 he is full of romantic dreams and enjoys playing soldier. In Chapter 2 he is gripped by the fear that he will run away from the battle. After he does so, his thoughts are dominated by rationalizations (Chapters 6 and 7). In Chapters 8-12 Henry's fear turns to shame, and the shame leads him to abandon the tattered soldier. After he returns to his regiment, relief makes him overconfident and obnoxious (Chapter 15). But in the end he fights courageously (Chapters 17, 19, 20, and 23). As the novel comes to a close, he can realistically evaluate his behavior, recognizing both the good and the bad. So Henry changes from being fearful and romantic to understanding what war is, and having confidence in his abilities. He becomes neither over-nor underconfident. He learns to face who he is honestly. And by the end of the book he has learned a concern for his fellows that he did not have in the beginning.
Or you might believe that the young soldier's character does not change during the course of the book. You might look for behavior that proves that he doesn't know himself very well, and that his dreams of peace are as romantic as his early dreams of war. (See "The Characters.")
14. Look for descriptions of nature in the novel. They are frequent. Generally, nature is described as being indifferent to war and the affairs of men. The beauty of nature contrasts with the horrors of war. (Notice, for example, the description of the sun at the end of Chapter 5.)
After the young soldier has run from the first battle, he goes into the woods, thinking that the sight of trees will make him feel better. When he throws a pine cone at a squirrel and the animal scampers off, he thinks that nature agrees with him, and that the law of nature is to protect yourself. He does not notice an animal diving into a swamp and coming up with a fish in its teeth. The real law of nature is eat or be eaten. In the heart of the forest Henry comes face to face with a dead soldier whose body is decayed and returning to the forest. That, too, is the law of nature.
But although Crane seems to be saying that nature doesn't care about people, Henry continues to feel that nature mirrors his moods. Trying to get out of the forest in Chapter 8, he thinks the brambles hold him back. And the way the sun looks in the sky usually tells us how Henry is feeling. It is blood red in Chapter 9 after Jim dies; gay and bright after Henry's successful fighting in Chapter 17; and it breaks through the clouds when he comes to terms with himself at the end of Chapter 24.
15. Think about what makes a person mature or manly. Then think about the way Henry's character has changed during the course of the novel. (See "The Characters" and the answer to Question 3.) If you agree with Henry, you would argue that he has become a man because: he has given up his dreams of glory; learned that he is part of a whole; fought with real courage; looked upon the great death; and stopped seeing himself as either a hero or a coward, but as somebody who has a little of both in him.
If you disagree with Henry, you would say that he has not really become a man because: his feelings about the flag (Chapter 19) are as silly and romantic as anything he thought before he joined the army; he tends to present himself as surer of things than he really is (as in Chapter 15); his performance during the second battle comes from animal instinct, not from his individual character, and his view of nature in Chapter 24 denies his experience in the forest in Chapter 7.