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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Although the novel is a sensitive, in-depth account of the Youth's reaction to the brutality of war, the plot of the novel is very simple. After introducing Henry, the rising action is straightforward. The Youth goes off to war, grows fearful that he will not show bravery in battle, runs from his first real fight, is ashamed of his behavior, and finally receives a "war wound," although it does not come from battle. Receiving "the red badge of courage" is the turning point, or climax, for Henry. After he is injured, he returns to the regiment, feels a comradeship with his fellow soldiers for the first time, willingly goes into battle and holds his own, and becomes a leader and flag bearer for his regiment. The falling action is all positive and points to the comic ending of the novel. In the final chapters of the book, Henry accepts who he is and feels at peace.
Henry is introduced as a young New York farm boy who dreams of being a war hero. When the Civil War breaks out, he joins the Union army. He quickly realizes that war is not filled with heroics and he fears that he will perform shamefully. In his first real battle, he lives up to his fearful expectations. He throws down his gun and runs. The rest of the novel is devoted to Henry's reaction to the shame and guilt that he feels.
Henry is haunted by his desertion and longs to have a wound that will hide his cowardice. Ironically, he receives an injury, his "red badge of courage" -- not in battle, but from a frightened, fleeing soldier. When he is hit over the head, it is the climax of the plot, for everything begins to change for Henry after he has received his wound. Appropriately, this turning point occurs midway through the novel, in the twelfth chapter.
The remainder of the novel is falling action, showing how Henry reacts to each battle that he fights. He grows from each encounter with the enemy, and finally feels proud of his accomplishments in the war. By the end of the novel, he has truly become a man. He accepts his own humanity, including his past sins and weaknesses, and forgives himself. He is at peace with himself and the world.
The plot of The Red Badge of Courage works on a series of ironic reversals. First, Crane builds up tension in the prospect of Henry facing the battlefront, for he is fearful and unsure of himself. In his first encounter with the enemy, he observes several groups of skirmishers running from battle, and is proud that he has not done the same. During the next battle, however, the situation is reversed. The Youth throws down his rifle and runs. His desertion is almost automatic, having seen the skirmishers running the day before. Ironically, he runs because he does not want to be wounded; however, once he has deserted, his thinking reverses and he dreams of having a wound to cover his shame and guilt. He does receive a "red badge of courage," but not on the battlefront; but the wound does heal him. It allows him to turn from his shame and act like a man. Crane builds his entire plot around these and other ironic reversals, suggesting that victory or failure is determined by outside, naturalistic forces and one's own point of view about the event.