By Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010.©
Henry Fleming: New York state farm boy who enlists in the Union Army in the belief that war is a glorious adventure. His first taste of military living, with its constant drills and the monotony of camp life, disillusions him. Moreover, the prospect of actually being shot at, and possibly dying, unnerves him. Consequently, he runs away during
his first encounter with the enemy. Later, a fleeing Union soldier holding his rifle high accidentally runs into Henry. The rifle opens a gash in Henry’s head. With his “red badge of courage”—the head injury—Henry has a war wound to show his comrades and becomes a changed young man.
.......Crane frequently depicts combatants in an army as a synergistic whole—a single lump of humanity—rather than as individuals with names and personalities. Consequently, he often presents charging soldiers as a single entity, such as a monster. When he does focus on one soldier, he often abstracts him into an impressionistic image. Thus, Jim Conklin becomes the “tall soldier; Wilson, the “loud soldier”; and Fleming “the youth.” There are countless nameless men, including “the lieutenant,” “the colonel,” and “the tattered soldier,” each part of the Union army’s anatomy rather than separate beings with separate personalities.
.......His mother had opposed his enlistment. But when it was time for him to leave, she bade him farewell with this advice: “If so be a time comes when yeh have to be kilt or do a mean thing, why, Henry, don't think of anything 'cept what's right, because there's many a woman has to bear up 'ginst sech things these times, and the Lord 'll take keer of us all.”
.......What is right, of course, is to stand and fight, come what may. But once in the Union camp, he worries that in the face of enemy fire he might run and, in so doing, disgrace himself. This thought gnaws at him all through his months of training, during which the tedium of drilling and listless waiting dulls his appetite for war. After rumors spread that his regiment will soon engage the Confederates, he asks two men he befriends, a tall man named Jim Conklin and a loud man named Wilson, how they think the regiment will do. Conklin, while admitting that the troops are fresh and raw, says they will probably do just fine—“better than some, worse than others.” Asked by Henry whether he would ever consider running, Conklin says he probably would if everyone else ran. But then again, if everyone stood his ground, he would too. However, Wilson says he would not run under any circumstances. “The man that bets on my running will lose his money, that’s all,” he declares.
.......After the soldiers finally break camp, they march off toward the war zone at Chancellorsville, Virginia. It is a long, grueling march. One morning, after crossing a river the previous evening, Henry awakens abruptly when the tall soldier kicks him in the leg. Something is going on, and in moments Henry—along with the whole regiment—is running down a road. If he is headed into battle, he could not retreat even if he wanted to, for he is hemmed in by his fellow soldiers. If he stops, he will be trampled. The men slide down a bank, cross a stream, and climb a hill. On the other side, artillery booms, and Henry sees soldiers skirmishing. Farther along, the regiment—moving more slowly now—files by a dead soldier. The narrator describes the scene this way:
.......He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been warn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends........These experiences—the headlong run, the sight of the distant fighting, and the dead soldier—unnerve Henry. When the youth mopes along, glancing at the sky, a young lieutenant raps him with his sword, ordering him to speed up: “No skulking ‘ll do here,” he says.
.......The men shift about, digging in at one location only to be told to move on to another, then another. When they finally meet the enemy, a brigade ahead of them takes heavy fire, and Henry looks on in wonderment, his eyes wide open and roving, his mouth partly open. The loud man, Wilson, lays a hand on his shoulder and says, “It’s my first battle, old boy. . . . Something tells me—"
.......Henry is surprised as Wilson tells him that “I’m a gone coon this first time. . . .” He hands Henry a yellow envelope containing a packet of letters.
.......Artillery fire rings down, bullets whistle by, and the Union forces in front of Henry are put to rout. But Henry and his regiment hold fast—save for one soldier who runs away screaming. The lieutenant of the company seizes him by the collar and forces him back to the front lines. Here and there, men drop. The dead lie in contorted positions, as if dropped randomly from the sky. A man whose knee had been split by a bullet clings to a tree. Other wounded are hustled to the rear. The company’s captain is killed. But Henry survives. When the Confederates draw back to the cover of woods, he looks at the blue sky and the sun, surprised that “Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of such devilment.”
.......“Gee, ain’t it hot, hey?” he says cheerfully to another soldier, relieved that the encounter is over. “You bet!” the soldier says. The latter expresses the hope that “we don’t have no more fightin’ till a week from Monday.”
.......But just then masses of Confederates charge back out of the woods. Shells explode around Henry like “strange war flowers bursting into fierce bloom.” The sight frightens the men. Someone says, “We ain’t never goin’ to stand this second banging. I didn’t come here to fight the hull damn’ rebel army.”
.......Rifles crack from one end of the Union line to the other. Henry trembles. His knees go weak. In the face of the onslaught, he thinks the enemy is invincible—a great, rolling, unstoppable machine. One man near Henry runs. So does another. Then another and another. Henry runs, too, leaving behind his rifle. So fast does he run that his coat inflates with wind.
.......After a time, he sees a squirrel that runs from him, just as he had run from the rebels, and reasons that it is natural to run. By and by, he hears people talking off yonder, one of them saying that the Union forces prevailed. Henry is downhearted, full of regret. Why did he have to run?
.......Later, he encounters wounded soldiers—none of whom he recognizes—wending their way slowly down a road. Henry tags along with them. He envies these soldiers, for their wounds are outward signs of their battlefield courage. A "tattered man" asks Henry to point out his wound. Embarrassed, Henry walks off to another part of the bloody parade and comes across a wretch of a soldier half-dead with his wounds. It is Jim Conklin, the tall soldier from Henry’s regiment. Henry tries to help him. Meanwhile, the tattered soldier comes by, and he too offers to assist. But Conklin wanders off and later, in the presence of Henry and the tattered soldier, dies. When the tattered soldier again asks Henry where he was wounded, Henry abandons him.
.......During his wandering, he comes upon horses, wagons, and a column of soldiers heading into a grove. If they are retreating, he thinks, all could go well for him. After all, no one could fault him for doing what so many Union forces are doing. Suddenly, however, the soldiers begin to run toward him, away from the grove. When Henry tries to stop one of them to ask what is happening, the soldier’s rifle accidentally strikes Henry in the head, opening a gash. Dazed, he continues to wander until a sympathetic soldier leads him back to his regiment. No one reproaches him. In fact, the loud soldier, Wilson, and another comrade dress his “wound,” which Henry leads them to believe he suffered in combat.
.......The packet of letters—he still has Wilson’s packet of letters. If Wilson starts questioning him about his absence from the regiment, Henry can use the letters to threaten to reveal Wilson as a weakling who lost his head before the first battle. However, neither Wilson nor anyone else says a word about Henry’s disappearance. What is more, Wilson—once a loud braggart—is now a quiet man who treats Henry with kindness. If anyone is talkative, it is Henry. Emboldened by his bandaged wound—his “red badge of courage”—he no longer worries about being accused of deserting the field. When Wilson asks Henry for the packet, the youth readily returns it.
.......In the following days, Henry and Wilson fight with valor during a rebel attack. After the regiment’s color bearer suffers a wound, Henry takes the flag from him and helps lead a forward charge. The other men also fight bravely even though some officers predicted that the regiment would falter, saying it consisted of mere “mule drivers.” The narrator says:
.......“[The] emaciated regiment bustled forth with undiminished fierceness when its time came. When assaulted again by bullets, the men burst out in a barbaric cry of rage and pain. They bent their heads in aims of intent hatred behind the projected hammers of their guns. Their ramrods clanged loud with fury as their eager arms pounded the cartridges into the rifle barrels.”
.......However, the men unwittingly stop a hundred feet short of victory, a general says; they should have kept moving forward. But in the case of Henry and Wilson, this disconcerting news is tempered with heartening news: The regiment’s commanding officers observe that the two men are the company’s best fighters.
.......Later, when the fighting resumes, the regiment this time charges the rebels, chasing them beyond a fence and capturing their flag. Henry’s regiment has prevailed; the men have proven themselves worthy to wear Union blue.
.......Henry is now a veteran. But he is also a changed young man. Although he regrets earlier fleeing the battle in a moment of crisis, he puts that act behind him, as well as his previous conceptions of war as a glorious adventure. The narrator says, “He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.”
.......The soldiers march off in heavy rain through thick mud, but Henry was happy. For “he had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past.”
.......(Editor’s note: Although the fictional Union regiment defeated its foes—perhaps as a real-life Union regiment might have dominated fighting on the Chancellorsville battlefield on a single day—the overall battle itself was won by the Confederates under General Robert E. Lee, enabling him and his forces to march north and into Pennsylvania, where they fought and lost to Union forces at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.)
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of The Red Badge of Courage occurs when a fleeing Union soldiers accidentally strikes Henry Fleming in the head with his rifle, inflicting a gash that Henry allows his regimental companions to believe is a war wound. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Henry’s regiment chases the enemy off the field and captures their flag...
.......The novel centers on the maturation of a naive youth who matures into a young adult in the crucible of war. Maturation is a frequently occurring literary motif in which authors expose an innocent or inexperienced character to harsh or jaded reality. This reality may appear on a battlefield, in a home, in a school, on a ship, in a slum, on an island, in a prison, and so on.
.......Henry Fleming, a callow Civil War volunteer, runs from the battlefield rather than risk his life. He discovers, however, that he cannot escape from his anxieties. Wherever he goes, he worries that someone will finger him as a coward. Later, he redeems himself by facing his fears.
Brutality of War
.......War is not glorious, as Fleming believed before he enlisted. Instead, it is brutal and merciless, like a crazed monster, killing and maiming at random.
Indifference of Nature
.......In The Red Badge of Courage, nature—the sun, the moon, the stars, the entire universe—carries on with its business regardless of what happens to man. Like a great unfeeling machine, it functions in its usual way without heed to humans in peril. Man cannot manipulate it; he cannot control it in any way. Man’s impotence against nature makes it seem to him as if he also has no control over his own destiny.
.......The idea that a human being is at the mercy of fate or a pitiless universe had fascinated writers of Crane's time, in particular the French novelists Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), as well as the German playwright, poet, and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946). They pioneered a
literary movement known as naturalism. However, although these naturalists often receive credit for originating as a literary motif the concept of a cruel universe that determines man’s fate, writers centuries before had explored the idea. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Job suffers numerous reverses—including the loss of his material possessions, his sons, and his health—even though he is a
righteous man. In Greek tragedy—in particular in the plays of Sophocles, such as Oedipus Rex—fate plays an extremely important role as an inexorable force. William Shakespeare explored this idea in the early 1600's with unsurpassed insight in his play King Lear, in which Gloucester says in Act IV,
Scene I, "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport" (Lines 38-39). Many other writers before and after Crane also focused on naturalist themes. Among American writers who did so, besides Crane, were Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell.
.......Author Crane tells the story in third-person point of view, presenting the impressions of a young Union volunteer during his preparation for war and during his first experiences in combat. The dialogue is written in the homely vernacular of common folk. Rather than focusing on the objective reality of the Union and Confederate clash in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Crane dwells on the subjective reality of a young soldier’s reactions to the scenes around him. Through the soldier’s eyes, Crane sees and paints a word picture of war; it is an interpretation rather than a historical account, an impressionistic portrait rather than a photograph.
Stylistic Flaw: Overblown and Vague Descriptions
.......Although Crane’s descriptions of soldiers and the battles they fight contain realistic detail, too often he lards these descriptions with unnecessary, inappropriate, imprecise, or prosaic language. In Chapter 19, for example, Crane tells us that a friend of Henry Fleming was “lurching suddenly forward.” There is no other way to lurch except suddenly. The word is implicit in the meaning of lurch and therefore unnecessary. Crane has that same friend fire an ”angry shot” at “persistent woods.” One wonders whether the man also fires calm shots. And what are persistent woods?
.......In a Crane novel, characters do not merely stare; rather they stare “with blank and yokel-like eyes.” A regiment does not merely plod onward; instead, “the regiment, involved like a cart involved in mud and muddle, [moves] unevenly with many jolts and jerks”—or, on another day, “[goes] painfully forward.” In The Red Badge, a lieutenant has lips that are “habitually in a soft and childlike curve” even though lips come in twos and cannot form a single curve. We are told that the lieutenant does not fear “the vindictive threats of bullets” (possibly because he, like the reader, has no idea of what a “vindictive threat” is). That same lieutenant does not swear; rather, he “bellows profanely” with lips “writhed into unholy contortions.” In response to the lieutenant’s “blue haze of curses,” Henry Fleming’s mouth becomes “puckered in doubt and awe.” Why do curses come in hazes—blue hazes? The lieutenant, Crane says in an attack of as if’s, “grappled with [Fleming] as if for a wrestling bout. It was as if he planned to drag the youth by the ear on to the assault” (boldface emphasis added to the original text). All of these examples of Crane’s writing come from a seven-paragraph passage in Chapter 19.
.Study Questions and Essay Topics