The Red Badge of Courage : Theme Analysis
Coming-of-Age, Self-knowledge and Courage
When Henry leaves his mother’s farm to sign up for the Union army, he knows little about the world, or about himself. He appears to have led a sheltered life in a rural environment. What he knows about war is only what he has read in the classics of the ancient world. He thinks war is a glamorous thing, and he looks forward to playing his part in it and performing great deeds of valor. At the same time he doubts whether modern man, made timid by education, can still muster the “throat-grappling instinct” that is the nature of true heroic struggle. (At least that’s what he thinks heroism is, based on what he has read in books.)
There is a vast difference between Henry’s idea of military service and that of his mother, who, naturally enough, is older and wiser. After he tells her he has decided to enlist, he is disappointed that she does not give him the instructions supposedly given to warriors in ancient Sparta: return either with your shield or on it. In other words, conquer or die in the attempt. His mother has a more realistic view of what is necessary; she tells him not to think that he can defeat the entire rebel army by himself: “Yer just one little feller amongst a hull lot of others, and you’ve got to keep quiet an’ do what they tell yuh” (p. 17). She also tells him that when a difficult situation arises, he must just do what is right.
Henry hardly listens to her. His education in courage only begins when the battle starts. To his dismay, he founds out what he is capable of, and it is the opposite of courage. He deserts under fire. And then he allows his mind to perform all kinds of tricks to prove that what he did was right, that it was a reasonable response to circumstances. Henry reaches his lowest point when he deserts the tattered soldier—he cannot even offer support to a wounded man who will probably die soon if he receives no assistance. If war is quickly showing Henry what he is really made of, the verdict so far is not a happy one. He has found that he can sink very low.
That Henry manages to redeem himself is greatly to his credit. He becomes desperate to prove himself, so he too, like the wounded men he encounters, can have a “red badge” of courage. And when the time comes, he just does what he has to do. This time, he does not think too much of what he is doing. That was his error the previous time, when he ran away. He allowed his mind to take over. This time he gives full rein to his instincts. He allows the “war god” to take over. By doing so, he discovers resources within himself that he had not known were there, and he becomes an inspiration to officers and men alike.
In the course of just a few days, Henry has received an education about war and about himself. He has discovered that the reality of war is very different from what he had imagined it to be, and he now despises his former, idealistic, romantic notions. He has had a gruesome initiation. He has seen wounded men, dying men, dead men, men under the terrible stress of battle. The noise of battle has pounded in his ears, and he has become familiar with what today is sometimes called “the fog of war.” In the fog of war, rumors fly, uncertainty abounds. The individual soldier knows little about the larger details of the battle. The only sure thing he knows is that the bullets are flying and that he must fight back.
At the end of the novel, Henry has come to know what he is capable of. He remembers his act of cowardice but he does not let it dominate his thoughts. He also knows that he showed courage when it mattered. Like his friend Wilson, he has become wiser and more mature as a result of his experiences in war.