Sarah’s post about Henry Fleming in the “Under Fire” series inspired me to revisit my own thoughts on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and how he wrote it ambiguously enough to fit many experiences. He never quite explained just what battle Henry Fleming fought in, working to make it universal (though Sarah’s article tomorrow will make a darn good case that it’s about Chancellorsville). Additionally, most of the time he wrote about characters, he didn’t use names. He described them instead, using phrases such as “the tall soldier”, “the loud soldier”, or “the captain.” Even Henry is often referred to as “the youth.” Although the novel is set in the Civil War, it’s also able to be a story about any war, in any time. By doing these things, Crane wrote a book about war that is just as relevant today as ever. So, what happened to Henry Fleming? He was written to be an embodiment of the average man in war. Throughout the novel, he starts as the stereotypical new recruit, and travels a whole spectrum of emotions on his odyssey towards maturity. By tracking these different emotional shifts during one soldier’s first combat, Crane created a story that encompasses far more than a single experience.
At the start, Henry is the stereotypical recruit, eager to go to war to save the world, or just for personal glory. He enlists, visions of grandeur in his mind. He imagines dramatic emotional goodbyes, but briefly has second thoughts when he sees his mother crying. He showed off to all his friends at the seminary, then goes off with his new regiment. The unit is treated as brave heroes by all the towns they pass through, and Henry loves it.
The monotony of camp life is when Henry first begins to doubt the ideas of the glory of war. The regiment has sat around for quite some time, and they’ve grown bored. This is also when he first begins questioning his own character. He’s unsure whether or not he’ll be brave enough to fight in combat, but the calm soon ends and the regiment moves from their camp towards combat. When the regiment first sees battle, they are able to hold off the assault of the Confederates. The enemy returns, the regiment looks like it might lose, and Henry panics and flees from the fight.
When he runs from combat, Henry’s reaches a crisis of conscious. Instead of thinking about personal glory, he instead thought only of self-preservation. Henry soon learns that his regiment had held the line, and he was filled with shame for his cowardice. His journey back to his unit after fleeing is really where Henry changes the most. After being embarrassed when he’s asked where he was wounded, he ends up finding his close friend, Jim Conklin, as he dies. Watching this death is the end of end of Henry’s innocence. The fear and chaos of combat shattered it, and watching Jim die of his wounds while Henry remained unharmed washed away whatever was left. Henry is later hit in the end by a hysterical fleeing soldier, allowing him to return to his unit with honor, since it looks like he was wounded.
The next time he’s in combat, Henry loses all humanity briefly. He becomes completely and entirely engrossed in combat, (somewhat in the same way my ancestor did at Chancellorsville when he attempted to leave the line to get a better shot at oncoming Confederates) and almost becomes the personification of the ideal hero. After the first charge, he is found in the front of the regiment mechanically reloading and firing, completely blind to the fact everyone else had stopped. When the regiment charges the enemy, he takes up the company flag after the color-bearer fell. This is another example of how enveloped by the spirit of combat he was, as holding the flag paints a gigantic target on him.
Finally, by the end of the novel, he’s regained his composure, and is a fully developed character. He’s matured, and his odyssey is complete. He’s experienced every end of the spectrum of emotions a soldier can experience. He started a naïve young boy who wanted glory, became an individual so terrified to lose his life that he fled, turned into a selfless machine built for combat and heroics, and then finally matured into a balanced mix of all three. He’s earned his glory, understands both selfishness as well as selflessness, and has become a veteran that knows and accepts the chaos of combat as well as the sadness of loss. Through exploration of these varied but general experiences, Crane captured many emotions that were universal to soldiers during the war.