The Red Badge of Courage : Novel Summary: Chapter 5-7
The enemy advances on Henry’s regiment, and the battle begins. Henry wonders whether his rifle is loaded, but then as he sees the foe swarming toward him in the field, he fires a wild shot. Then he gets caught up in the battle and feels a sense of brotherhood with his comrades. He also feels rage at the enemy and regrets that he can only use his rifle against one man at a time. A man tries to run, but is pushed back into the fray by the lieutenant. He is immediately grazed in the head by a shot. After a period of fighting, Henry realizes that the enemy has been repulsed. The men celebrate. Wounded men make their way to the rear.
Henry feels very satisfied. He believes he performed heroically, and the men continue to congratulate each other. But then a shout goes up: the enemy is coming upon them again. Many of the men believe they will not be able to withstand this second assault. Henry feels physically weak, and finds that he is exaggerating the prowess of the enemy. He waits, horrified. He sees a few men fleeing, yells with fright, and runs too, as fast as he can, leaving his rifle behind. As he runs he fears death at any moment. He runs past the artillery gunners, and watches another brigade going to the relief of their comrades. When the noise of the battle subsides, he runs more slowly. He observes a harassed general on horseback. The general then gets word from an officer that the assault of the enemy has been repulsed.
Henry cringes when he overhears this news. He is angry. He justifies his cowardice by telling himself that he did the right thing by saving himself, because at the time it seemed as if death was imminent. It was his duty to save himself. Had his comrades been more intelligent, they too would have realized that it made sense to abandon their position. He thinks they are fools and is angry with them. He walks deep into a wood to get away from the sounds of the battle, which is still going on in other areas. He climbs a tree, still insisting to himself that he was right to preserve his own life. Then he continues to walk in the forest. He encounters a dead soldier, shrieks at the gruesome sight, and then flees from it.
The events that lead to Henry’s act of cowardice have great psychological veracity. On his first engagement in battle, Henry performs adequately, as does almost everyone else in the new regiment. They naturally feel relief when the battle is over, and they relax and celebrate. When they become aware that the enemy is about to charge again, they are simply not mentally prepared for another battle. It is not what they are expecting. Their resolve the second time around is therefore much weaker. As Henry realized in the first stage of the battle, an army is a collective thing. If the regiment fights well, there is a kind of group momentum that carries everyone along with it. But the same applies in reverse. Henry does not run away in a vacuum. He first sees two other men running. Once the cohesion of the regiment is broken, it is no longer a single unit with what he called earlier a “common personality.” The contagion now works in the opposite direction; he runs because others are running. In neither case is he really acting as an individual; he is simply caught up in what is happening to the group.
Henry’s attempts to justify his actions are also true to life. Like many a guilty person, he simply cannot admit to himself that he did something that was wrong or cowardly. For him to admit such a thing would make it almost impossible for him to go on living. So his mind spontaneously goes to work to convince him that in fact, he is the intelligent one who showed insight and foresight, and his comrades are the fools.
There is also irony in the fact that Henry flees what he believes to be imminent defeat, only to find later that his side have triumphed. This makes his position even more difficult.