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The major theme of the novel is the inability to know how one will act when faced with great danger. The Youth's ability to face this fact sets him apart from his comrades at the beginning of the novel. While they boast loudly of how bravely they will fight the enemy, the Youth withdraws alone and broods on his fear of his own inadequacy to face battle. When he does face battle the first time, he finds it so confusing and frightening in its disorganization and noise that he runs.
When he faces battle subsequently, not only is he not afraid, he seems oblivious of the danger he is in. Both his valor and his fright are responses to battle that he could not have known ahead of time. The real experience of warfare is that the soldier cannot predict the circumstances that will make him run or stand and fight.
The minor theme of The Red Badge of Courage is the contrast between the illusion of battle and the reality of warfare. The Youth has been led to expect picturesque scenes of noble warriors fighting valiantly. What he does see is men who are dehumanized first, by the reality of warfare and, second, by the unfeeling commanders who treat them as pawns in a chess game. He was also led to believe that war is all excitement; he realizes very soon that it alternates between intense boredom and intense excitement.
The dominant mood of the novel is brooding. The Youth, both a thinker and a loner, is an introspective man who continually evaluates himself against a false standard of heroism and finds that he falls far short of it. The mood shifts dramatically during the few battle scenes of the novel. Crane succeeds in conveying the fear and struggle of battle, creating an intense mood.