The Absurdity of Henry Fleming's Red Badge of Courage
Although Henry Fleming goes into training as a new recruit, he doesn’t gather a soldier’s true discipline until he learns to overcome his fear on the war zone and accept the structure of military orders. For some people, Henry Fleming goes from a coward to a hero over the journey of The Red Badge of Courage. Henry Fleming doesn’t think about loyalty nor commands when combat; his mind is on self-preservation and his ego comes from his cowardice. So how does Henry Fleming go from being a coward on the battlefield to a hero?
Military service is traditionally associated with training in certain interrelated human virtues such as discipline, or loyalty to something larger to oneself, like a nation, a cause, a unit, etc. it could be easily assumed that any private soldier who succeeded heroically in combat, is because he/she possesses the virtues and that his conduct would demonstrate their worth. Private Fleming possesses none of the virtues. Even through all those winter months of drills and review, basic discipline-even discipline of a grudging but self-denying sort- plays no part in his constitution. His first act in combat was to ignore his commander’s expressed order not to “shoot till I tell you” and instead to fire “a first wild shot”. His training has obviously not instilled sufficient discipline in him to overmaster his panic, nor does discipline compel him back to the firing line thereafter.
In fact, of each of those performances, in which he had been witnessed by his fellow crew members, made him a hero because the results of him being spontaneous, self-absorbed, and his undisciplined moments. Completely absorbed in his personal early morning combat with the rebels, he continued firing even after “there isn’t anything to shoot at”, presumably even after an order to cease fire. When he joined Lieutenant Hasbrouck in trying to inspire the 304th New York as they faltered in their counterattack, it is specifically undisciplined action. During this counterattack, finding himself near the colors, he was seized by a sudden “love”, powerful but lurid, for the thing: “It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability”. His final action as a flag bearer is of a piece with these other: motivated by the still-rankling damage to his own self-esteem, by thoughtless impulse, by a vainglorious desire to capture that rebel flag. None of this is to suggest that Fleming is an isolated instance in the ranks of the 304th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment: endemic problems with its discipline appeared both early and late. But you have to note that, in his case, both his abject failures and his subsequent successes occur not because he has absorbed military discipline, but because he hasn’t.
Private Fleming isn’t necessarily bereft of loyalty to the Union cause of the cause of freedom for the slave, but if he does feel any, it never surfaces in his mind and isn’t significant enough to motivate him. During his first engagement, when he was aware he had become “not a man but a member,” he was more dimly aware of feeling loyal to something larger than “concern for himself” at this moment; “He felt that something of which he was part- a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country- was in crisis”. His inability to define the object of his loyalty confirms that it is no such thing but, a sort of back- construction. Soldiers go into combat because they are loyal to something greater than their own self-interest; he is in combat and is not as self-absorbed as he was; thus, he must be being loyal to something, even if he isn’t sure just what it is. He is willing to sacrifice any of these; his regiment, then his army, cause, and country, if such would assuage the wound to his self-esteem inflicted by his panicked flight. When he learned that the line from which he fled had “held im” after all, he cringed “as if discovered in a crime.” The 304th New York became to him that “imbecile line” that held because of its “blind ignorance and stupidity.” He wished instead that the regiment had been shattered, “every little piece” in it” rescuing itself if possible,” because then his own flight would be vindicated. He felt” a great anger against his comrades” and “ill-used”. As he later watched the panicked stricken retreat of the Eleventh Corps, he was “comforted in a measure by this sight”- the sight, that is, of the single greatest catastrophe to befall a corps of the Army of Potomac during the course of the Civil War. “There was an amount of pleasure to him in watching the wild march of this vindication”. Though his thinking during those minutes did waver, “yet, he said, in a half- apologetic manner to his conscience, he could not but know that a defeat for the army this time might mean many favorable things for him”. And “he said, as if in excuse for this hope, that previously the army had encountered great defeats and in a few months, had shaken off all blood and tradition of them, emerging as bright and valiant as a new one; thrusting out of sight the memory of disaster, and appearing with the valor and confidence of unconquered legions”.
It is at once both hilarious and appalling to see a private soldier rationalizing so readily his private “hope” that his army’s present campaign would end in another “great defeat.” To fulfill this “hope,” Fleming “felt no compunctions for proposing a general as a sacrifice,” even if the public outrage might “hit the wrong man”. Although Fleming would have no way of knowing this, it was probably beyond the power of the outnumbered rebels to inflict such a “great defeat” upon the Army of the Potomac. But had they been able to do so and had that army collapsed, more than a single general would have been sacrificed. So too, most likely, would have been the “cause” and the “country” for which it had assembled.
“On entering the army, the young man must sacrifice every atom of manhood and dignity in order to comply with the foppish rules of the Army Regulations, which are enforced with demon-like persistence. He must bow in servile obedience to do most accomplished bacchanalian that holds an army commission. No Vassal or slave was ever required to show greater humility to their masters than the soldiers of the United States Army are required to show toward their “superior” officers.” The Tensions between external and internal models of military discipline is represented in The Red Badge of Courage. As Henry Fleming is transformed from a raw recruit to an effective soldier, his own vigilant internal gaze eliminates the need for constant supervision by his officers. Henry’s disciplining reflects a broader tension in nineteenth- century American culture between a discourse that celebrated the freedom of the autonomous individual and a discourse that emphasized the need for effective mechanism of social control.
The Gap that exist between Henry Fleming meaning of courage and alternative that his mother suggest goes throughout The Red Badge of Courage,, sometimes narrowing when henry fights decent in his first battle and sometimes growing wider when he abandons the dying soldier. At the end of the book, as henry matures and marches victoriously from a battle, a more subtle and easier understanding of courage rises; it’s not simply a function of other people’s opinions, but it does involve egocentric concerns such a soldier’s regard for his reputation.
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