Henry’s Path to Self-Discovery
By stacy schleeter
Henry’s Path to Self-Discovery
War forces young soldiers to grow up quickly. In Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming is no exception. He is faced with the hard reality of war and this forces him to readjust his romantic beliefs about war. Through the novel, the reader can trace the growth and development of Henry through these four stages: (1) romanticizing war and the heroic role each soldier plays, (2) facing the realities of war, (3) lying to himself to maintain his self-importance, and (4) realistic awareness of his abilities and place in life. Through Henry’s experiences in his path to self-discovery, he is strongly affected by events that help shape his ideology of war, death, courage, and manhood. The romantic ideologies will be replaced with a more realistic representation.
When Henry decides to go off to war, he has a romantic image of what the war will be like. He makes references to the great battles of the Greeks, and hopes that his own battles will be as heroic. Henry had “long despaired of witnessing a Greek-like struggle” (Crane, 3). His motivation to fight comes from his will to become a hero. He believes that he will do great things on the battlefield because that is his destiny, and hopes to gain recognition for his achievements. When he tells his mother that he will be going to war, she doubts his motivation and encourages him to keep clean socks (Crane,5)! Clearly, she was treating him like a child, not a man. She is a reminder that Henry begins his journey to war as a youth trying to find himself.
Henry begins to question his courage at the time he finds out that his regiment will commence with the drills and move in to attack the enemy. However, on his first march with the regiment all around him, “he felt carried along by the mob…he was about to be measured” (Crane, 20). He described that he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. Through this analogy, the reader can see that Henry is reducing the soldiers to unthinking, unfeeling machines, performing their duty without taking into account the threat of injury or death. As he looks around at the faces of the rest of the soldiers in his regiment, he notices their focused commitment to the firing of their rifles. He wonders if he is the only one faced with questions of morality. While the regiment began to advance, Henry was shocked to receive a packet of letters from Wilson, who feared he would die in battle. After the battle, he is glad that he made it through the first day. He begins to lose the romantic vision of war by seeing the realities, but he starts lying to himself about who is really is.
In the following battle, another test of his manhood, Henry flees from his regiment along with a few soldiers near him. War is defined as a “blood-swollen god”, this is far from the romantic view he held at the first stage of his development (Crane, 23). He is ashamed to admit his fear to himself and brands himself a criminal. He is forced to hide in the forest so that he is not noticed by his crew. He attempts to justify his reaction by testing a squirrel. He tests the squirrel by throwing a pine cone at it to see if it will run, and it does (Crane, 44). This proves to himself that it is simply instinctive to run when your life is threatened. He soon found out that his regiment held them back and realized that fate had proved him wrong. After learning the nature of the squirrel, Henry comes to what appears to be a chapel in the trees. He wanders into the area to find a dead corpse leaning against the tree and looking right at him. He runs from the site terrified, and abandons the tattered soldier. The grotesque image of the ants eating the flesh of the corpse represents the fact that death is a part of life (Crane, 45). At this period of Henry’s growth and development he fears death.
The following event that helps shape Henry’s ideology of war, death, courage, and manhood is his encounter with the group of injured soldiers. When traveling with the wounded soldiers, Henry is questioned about his wound, and is forced to face is self-deception. He becomes envious of these men because they had a “red badge of courage” to attest for their courage on the battle field (Crane, 50). Although he thinks that he wants a wound, he comes across his old friend Jim who is badly wounded and in need of some help. His growth is displayed when he accepts the responsibility of helping Jim out by promising him that if he falls dead he would move his body out of the road (Crane, 53). Henry fulfilled the request of moving him from the road, only later to run from his aid when Jim enquired about Henry’s wound. At this time, he felt that he “could not keep his crime concealed in his bosom” and felt that he had to tell the soldier that he was not injured (Crane, 59). He could not face the truth and therefore stranded Jim in a field. Henry held anger toward death at this time, and Crane uses an impressionistic image of the “red sun pasted in the sky like a wafer” (56). The recognition that the universe is not sympathetic is a pivotal moment in Henry’s growth and development.
Henry hated himself for leaving the soldier in need, and admitted to himself that he could never become a hero. At this point of self-awareness, Henry feels envious of the corpses of the fallen soldiers (Crane, 75). He became comfortable with death and he expected his own fate would be worse than that of the corpses, because of the guilt he felt about leaving his regiment. He expects that his comrades will call him a coward, and never forgive him for his youthful tendencies at war. Ironically, when he realized that it was wrong to flee from his regiment, he is faced with men who are running from war. He grabbed a fellow infantryman to get information about the battle ahead, and was hit in the forehead by the end of the man’s rifle (Crane, 66-67). As moments passed, the pain grew and he had his only “red badge of courage” in an act that was far from courageous, in Henry’s opinion.
This ironic “red badge of courage” seemed to be an inspiration to Henry because the following day his self-confidence was re-established. He discovered more of his own abilities, and finds comfort in knowing his place in the world. He found his regiment and was welcomed back as a wounded soldier (Crane, 72). He was reassured that he would perform great on the battlefield because he had dominated his personal struggles. Henry noticed, “there was a little flower of confidence growing within him. He was a man of experience” (Crane, 83). When Wilson asked for his letters back, Crane was illustrating the growth and development that he had also experienced. War changes people, it forced all the young men to grow up fast.
Henry was glad to be back in the regiment, but still declared feelings of superiority. In a battle that takes place soon after his return, Henry “had taken up a first position behind the little tree with direct determination to hold it up against the world” (Crane, 92). He fought like a true man and when the flag bearer fell, he and Wilson grabbed or the flag. Henry “unconsciously” lead his regiment into battle by carrying the flag (Crane, 107). He proves to himself and his crew that he can act courageous when others are dying around him. His attitude toward death has again changed to an indifference. Henry displays that a true hero gets rewarded for an unconscious effort. Later in the day, Henry is told that the lieutenant had been saying good things about him (Crane, 113). At this Henry feels acceptance and he gained confidence in himself and from his comrades.
As the battle began to wind down, Henry reflected on his experiences in the past two days as a soldier. He felt guilty about his cowardice when he ran from battle, but that was easily overlooked as he had proved to himself that he would never run again. He realized that he was no longer afraid of death, because “he had been to touch the great death” and knew that he was a man now because “his soul changed” (Crane, 128). In his own quest for manhood, “he felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood” (Crane, 128). He had matured, yet the forces that controlled him were still beyond his control. He felt the need to be socially accepted and stay in control of how others perceived him.
Through the four stages of growth and development that Henry overcame, the glorious dreams that he once had were replaced by the more realistic horrors of war. Crane represents courage as an instinct, similar to cowardice. Only when instinct dictates courage, one can be heroic. Along Henry’s struggle to become self-aware, he has discovered new ideologies about war, death, courage, and manhood. He has a realistic image of war, an indifference to death, an instinctive courage, and a quiet manhood.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York, New York: Signet Classic from Penguin Putnam Inc., 1997.
© stacy schleeter