The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 2-4
The tall soldier’s information proves to be incorrect. The army does not move. But Henry is still troubled by the question of whether he will run away when battle begins, and he gets frustrated because he knows there is no way he can answer this question until the time comes. He wonders what the rest of the men are thinking, but he dare not ask. Sometimes he thinks they are all heroes; at other times he convinces himself they are all fearful of the prospect of battle. In his anxiety he frequently reproaches himself for his thoughts, and sometimes fixes his anger upon the generals, whom he regards as intolerably slow.
One morning, just before dawn, Henry is convinced that a battle is imminent. The regiment begins to march. There is a vigorous discussion among the men as to what will happen. They seem in good spirits, but Henry is weighed down by his own thoughts. At nightfall they stop in a field and set up camp. Henry keeps to himself as much as possible. He lies down in the grass and wishes he were back home on the farm. The loud private, whose name is Wilson, joins him. Wilson believes there will soon be a big battle, and that they will be victorious. Henry asks him how he knows he will not run when the time comes. Wilson says of course he will not run. His confident reply makes Henry feel miserable, since it is clear that their viewpoints have nothing in common. He torments himself with his fears about how he will react to battle, and eventually falls asleep.
The following night, the military columns file across the river on two pontoon bridges. The next morning they march along a road that leads them deep into a forest. Then at dawn one morning, the men start to run down a road together. There is the sound of distant firing. Henry realizes the time for battle has come. It is impossible for him to escape. His mind plays tricks with him, and he convinces himself that he never wanted to go to war; the government had forced him into it. They cross a stream and climb a hill. A skirmish is already underway; he sees the body of a dead soldier, and expects the enemy to fall upon them at any moment. He thinks the generals are all idiots, and considers shouting a warning to all the men. Harried by a young lieutenant, Henry quickens his pace. The regiment marches from place to place apparently aimlessly. Henry is impatient, and complains to Jim Conklin and Wilson.
In the afternoon the regiment, having just gone over the same ground it covered earlier, enters a new region. Henry thinks it would be better to get killed instantly; that at least would end his worries. When they get close to the battle, Jim confesses to Henry that he expects to be killed. He gives Henry a packet of his belongings and tells him to convey it to his, Jim’s, family.
The men of the regiment exchange rumors of what is happening in the battle. The noise increases and the bullets begin to fly close to them. The lieutenant is shot in the hand. As the battle intensifies, the men of the new regiment are breathless with horror. Many men are fleeing from the battle, although Henry has not yet seen what they are fleeing from. He resolves to get a good view of it, thinking all the time that once he has done this, he will probably run faster than any of them.
Although surrounded by his comrades, Henry is very much alone with his thoughts, knowing that the question he has asked of himself will soon be answered. His verbal abuse of the generals, which other characters also express, show that this is a novel written from the point of view of the ordinary soldier who knows nothing of what his generals are planning. The commanders in this war are seen only from afar.
Although this is a realistic novel, many passages are tinged with irony. For example, there is a quiet irony in the description of how the soldiers of the new regiment, as they march, start to look like more experienced soldiers. But there is one thing about them that is different from veteran regiments: “Veteran regiments in the army were likely to be very small aggregations of men” (ch. 3, p. 32). What this means is that large numbers of the soldiers in the regiment have been killed. The understated way of expressing this fact is probably more horrifying than a simple statement of the number of casualties would have been. And the passage that follows, in which other soldiers mistake the decimated regiment for a brigade (which is much smaller than a regiment) underlines the irony. It is also significant that rather than react with horror, the other soldiers laugh when they realize their mistake. This is a defense mechanism whereby they keep the knowledge of their own possible, even likely, fate at bay.
In these chapters, Henry is contrasted with two other characters. The first is the lieutenant. Henry considers himself to have a fine mind, and he contrasts himself with the lieutenant who roughly pushes him on faster. Henry regards the lieutenant as a mere brute. Later in the novel, however, this will change. The two men will find they have a lot in common and they will form a bond.
Henry is also contrasted with Jim Conklin, who gives every appearance of being brave and confident, and with Wilson, who feels sorry for himself and expects to be killed. (But at least Wilson admits to Henry what he is feeling; Henry always keeps his thoughts to himself.)