In the beginning of the novel, Henry Fleming visualizes himself playing a game where he, the mythical soldier, displays heroic courage in the face of danger. He is a young man, perhaps not much older than the 18 year-old minimum age needed to join the United States Military. Most likely, before enlisting, Henry Fleming had rarely traveled farther than his small northern town. He expects that war "must be some sort of play affair" (Crane 7), thus, "[n]otably absent in [Fleming's] imaginings is any sense of the specifics of death"(Horsford 119). Also, "Henry does not, as do so many of his fictional and non-fictional predecessors, envision himself in a project involving the liberation of slaves…[he sees the war] as opportunities for personal aggrandizement" (Pease 81). The narrator notes that "[t]he newspapers, the gossip of the village, his [Fleming's] own picturings, [about the war] had aroused him to an uncheckable degree" (Crane 9). The young soldier anticipates fighting in a civilized war where he hopes to become a hero who triumphs over the enemy (Weiss 19). Nevertheless, Henry Fleming soon begins to doubt his glorified image of war.
When Fleming's first battle grows closer, he ponders whether he will flee or fight the enemy and become a hero. In the midst of battle, a soldier near him is hit by a bullet and is "at an instant, smitten abject. He [Fleming] blanched like one who has come to the edge of a cliff at midnight" (Crane 75-76). He is caught unaware by the death in war and as he had feared, runs from his first battle while his comrades are still facing the enemy. Fleming initially goes through a period of denial after he flees from battle. At one point, he attempts to justify his flight by throwing a pinecone at a squirrel, which then runs away. Upon this result, "the youth felt triumphant…, feeling that Nature was of his mind" (Crane 87). Fleming shows his subconscious doubt about this justification when, in another instance, "he ignores the meaning of [a different] small feral animal pouncing on a fish" (Horsford 119). Crane juxtaposes this image of a predator-prey relationship in which there is direct conflict, with Fleming's idea that it is an inherent action in nature for the prey to flee. As Pease points out, this contradictory evidence "must have impinged on Henry's consciousness" (89). Fleming's subliminal doubt about whether it is inherent in nature to run away begins to erode his image of heroism in war.
Further into his excursion in the forest while running away, Henry Fleming comes across a dead Union soldier with ants crawling across his face, and begins to understand the reality of death and war. He describes the body with an incredulous tone, observing, "[i]ts red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip"(Crane 88). Henry Fleming, upon seeing the dead man, is beginning to notice the horrific tragedies of war, as "[h]is terror becomes paroxysmal" (Knapp 76). However, the nameless, dead Union soldier is only a precursor to what he soon sees.
Coming across a line of wounded soldiers, Fleming finds his friend Jim Conklin, whom he respects. Before the battle starts, Fleming had asked Conklin questions such as "[h]ow do you think the reg'ment 'll do?" (Crane 19) and "[t]hink any of the boys 'll run?" (Crane 19). Fleming looks up to Jim Conklin as a respected veteran, valuing his opinion and seeing him as "the model for a sensible, realistic, and above all active role in meeting the ominous threat of the battle" (Weiss 28). His reverence for Conklin is nourished by his fellow soldier's confidence to "stand and fight" (Crane 21) that he professed earlier in the novel. Conklin, who did not flee the battle as Fleming did, is mortally wounded, causing Fleming to feel that he has committed a "crime [which is] concealed in his bosom" and is responsible for the death of his friend (Crane 115). Nevertheless, the shame that this failed responsibility causes is not yet aroused.
After the death of Jim Conklin, a tattered soldier converses with Fleming and assumes that he is physically injured like the rest in the line of wounded; while doing so, he exposes Fleming's internal wound of shame. The tattered soldier comments, "I bet yeh've got a worser one than yeh think. Ye'd better take keer of yer hurt. It don't do t'let sech things go. It might be inside mostly, an' them plays thunder. Were is it located?" (Crane 112). Without knowing it, the tattered soldier has struck directly at the inner crisis that Fleming is experiencing and allows "Henry's guilt [to] reach… almost unbearable proportions" (Wolford 108). He blames himself for leaving the rest of his comrades to face the Confederates alone. Fleming believes "that he was their murderer" (Crane 124) and thus is responsible for Jim Conklin's death. The innocent caring of the tattered man has "uprais[ed] the ghost of shame" (Crane 113). Fleming feels that the only way that he can get rid of his burden of shame is to return to his regiment and die heroically in battle. He pictures himself as "a blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with one knee forward and a broken blade high… getting calmly killed on a high place before the eyes of all" (Crane 119). It is evident in this quote that the "simple-minded notions of heroism which [the] protagonist has brought with him to the army" (McDermott 45) still remain, and now Henry Fleming "longs to be dead, but [still desires to be] a hero" (Knapp 80). Through Fleming's wishes for a heroic death, he attempts to deal with his shame.
While looking to return to his regiment, an irritated soldier strikes Fleming across the head with the butt of his rifle, giving him a wound that outwardly becomes his justification to his regiment for having left the skirmish. However, inside it is the "moral vindication [that is] regarded by the youth as a very important thing" (Crane 123). As Dooley states, Henry Fleming is able to return to his regiment with "his self-pride… now entirely restored" (Crane 160) (65). In a logical stretch, Fleming believes that the wound he receives proves his courage in the face of an enemy and enables him to subdue his shame, no longer making it necessary to die a heroic death on the battlefield. With the possession of a mark of bravery, he now feels he has shown himself to be equally valiant as his comrades who have faced the Confederates. More importantly, "[h]is wound… [is] a safe, mitigated version of [a] mortal wounding, a spanking rather than a death" (Weiss 33). However, even though this sign of bravery that he has desired has alleviated his feeling of shame, Fleming realizes from his experiences with the dead soldier, Jim Conklin, the tattered soldier, and his own wound that war comes with no glory. Henry Fleming is able to "look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly"(Crane 245). When "he is hit on the head and receives his "red badge of courage," Henry… slough[s] off the… concept of heroism…, an outward sign… of his accomplishment in rejecting two thousand years of social and religious indoctrination [of heroism in war]" (Wolford 105). Fleming goes back to his regiment with his dreams of heroic deeds dispelled.
When left dazed and in a great deal of pain from his head wound, a cheery man helps Fleming find his regiment, showing him an alternative to his heroic aspirations. Fleming, "with his chin still on his breast, stood woodenly by while his companion beat ways and means out of sullen things," guiding him back (Crane 137). "This allegorical figure [the cheery man]… integrates the youth [Fleming] again into the fraternity of men" by showing him the importance of relying on others, particularly those in his regiment (Knapp 81). The cheery soldier introduces a new perspective to Fleming concerning the importance of comrades to help endure difficult times.
Fleming looks back on his experiences after he returns to his regiment and feels that "[h]e had been to touch the great death and found that, after all, it was but the great death" (Crane 245) He asserts his understanding that there is no glory in death; it is simply an end to life. Fleming's "recent profound vision of death [with Jim Conklin and the tattered soldier] has left him eager for life" (Lavers 51). He now feels adamant that "[h]e [is] not going to be badgered of his life" (Crane 175). Rather than wishing to die as a hero, Henry Fleming desires to live.
Along with this new appreciation for life, Fleming realizes, during the second day of battle, that he is "very insignificant" (Crane 188). He understands that he is but a mere soldier among hundreds of thousands (Williams 18). Fleming sees himself in the future recounting his days in the army with "his gaping audience picturing him as the central figure in blazing scenes…[but these images] would be destroyed" (Crane 163). He realizes that he is not destined to be an individual hero. Instead, Fleming implies that he has reached the conclusion that the best way for him to survive the war is to fight alongside his comrades, an idea introduced to him by the cheery man. He says, "what more can we do?…[D]on't we fight like the devil? Don't we do all that men can?" (Crane 166-167). Fleming's use of the inclusive word "we" indicates that he has become more aware of his fellow soldiers and is now willing to do what he can to help his regiment, and thus himself, survive through the battle. This change in Fleming's outlook is also evident after returning to his camp when the loud soldier is helping the wounded Henry Fleming go to bed. The soldier lends Fleming his blanket to keep him warm during the night. However, Fleming notices this and says to the soldier"'[w]hat yeh goin' t' sleep in? I've got your…' The loud young soldier snarled: 'Shet up an' go on t' sleep'" (Crane 148). Knapp notes that for "the first time he thinks of another person and not exclusively about himself. He… understands that he is neither better nor worse than the other men in the regiment. They are all made of the same fabric" (81). Fleming accepts his role as a soldier in the ranks of the army.
During the morning of the second day of battle, the narrative during the charge in the skirmish shifts from focusing on Fleming to describing the movements of the regiment as a whole. The charge includes accounts such as "the regiment swung from its position" (Crane 192) and "the line lurched straight for a moment" (Crane 192). When the regiment makes contact with the Confederates, the Union flag carrier dies and Henry Fleming reaches out to catch the flag as it falls. He then assumes the role of color bearer. He possesses "a despairing fondness for this flag… It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability" (Crane 199). Fleming displays selflessness in his desire to save the flag, a symbol of the cause he is fighting for. "As color bearer, he [Fleming] cannot both fire a rifle and hold the flag. By this circumstance Crane seems to affirm the youth's… progress toward maturity" (Williams 19). Fleming has completely discarded his self-centered notions of heroism to help his comrades by assuming the role of color bearer. "The flag episode is vital to the youth's psychological evolution" (Knapp 83). Fleming has matured into understanding the importance of fighting with his comrades. As Fleming inspires the men of his regiment by encouraging them forward, keeping "the bright colors to the front" (Crane 231), they reciprocate by fighting with a "wolflike temper" that protects him (Crane 209). Henry Fleming's desire to protect the flag and his comrades epitomizes his change from dreams of self-centered heroism to survival through an alliance with his fellow soldiers.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane suggests that society's reverence and near worshipping of individual soldiers as national heroes has caused a romantic glorification of war to develop. Crane cynically implies that this idealization of soldiers through stories of courageous men fighting and risking their lives to overcome and defeat the enemy has made war seem like a game to those who have never fought. Thus, society places the burden on future soldiers to become heroes themselves even if it means dying in the process. He proposes that young soldiers often go to war simply with the purpose of fulfilling the expectations of their country, thinking that they must only win the game and thus become heroes. However, through Henry Fleming, Stephen Crane implies that when equipped only with a gun and stories of glorious triumphs, young soldiers are not ready to face the realities of war. He goes on to suggest that the changes that soldiers need to make to stand up to the challenges of war are traumatic, as one must see that there is no glory in war, simply death. "War, as he [Crane] depicts it, is a mean, nasty, horrible thing" (Critical Views: New York Times 25). To survive, soldiers must discard society's thoughts of individual heroism and instead come to realize that they, fighting along with their comrades, are but small parts in a great struggle.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. 1895. Introduction Shelby Foote. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
"Critical Views: The New York Times on the Realism of Crane's Novel." Bloom's Notes: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1996. 25-26.
Horsford, Howard C. "He Was A Man." The American Novel: The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Lee Clark Mitchell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 109-27.
Knapp, Bettina L. Stephen Crane. New York: Ungar, 1987.
Lavers, Norman. "Order in The Red Badge of Courage." Modern Critical Interpretations: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 43-53.
McDermott, John J. "John J. McDermott On The Opening Scenes of The Red Badge of Courage." Bloom's Notes: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1996. 44-5.
Pease, Donald. "Fear, Rage, and the Mistrials of Representation." Modern Critical Interpretations: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 75-97.
Weiss, Daniel. "Psychology and The Red Badge of Courage." Modern Critical Interpretations: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 17-41.
Williams, Tenley. "Thematic and Structural Analysis." Bloom's Notes: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1996. 11-22.
Wolford, Chester L. "The Epic of Consciousness: The Anger of Henry Fleming." Modern Critical Interpretations: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 99-128.