The Red Badge of Courage: The Struggles of Adolescence

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Perhaps a more fitting title for this novel is The Pursuit of Courage, as each interaction showed 18-year-old Henry Flemming learning to find courage. Henry’s mind was a canvas painted upon with fantasies of warfare on par with the works of Homer. Encouraged to enlist solely based on the possibility of becoming an Achilles-like hero, it was clear that he was quite naive and self-absorbed. Faced with his first battle, Henry repeatedly contemplated the idea of abandoning his fellow soldiers and retreating until a brush with death and the loss of a friend left a profound impact on him. He developed his character by confronting his cowardice, eliminating the narcissistic need to become a war hero, and owning up to his mistakes, all in the pursuit of courage. Throughout the book, Henry matured from a self-centered coward to a courageous soldier.

Cursed with the ignorance and naiveness that goes hand-in-hand with adolescence, Henry’s first battle and the events leading up to it expose his cowardice. Overtaken by an intense fear of death, Henry pondered the idea of abandoning his comrades on the battlefield. After retreating from his first battle, Henry could not grasp why the other soldiers held their ground and fought as opposed to fleeing; he felt Mother Nature justified his actions.

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He threw a pine cone at a jovial squirrel… The squirrel immediately upon recognizing danger, had taken to his legs without ado. He did not stand stolidly baring his furry belly to the missile, and die with an upward to the sympathetic heavens. On the contrary, he had fled as fast as his legs could carry him (Crane 34). Though he did retreat from the conflict, the embarrassed Henry was desperate to gain courage. Throughout the rest of the novel, he steadily became more courageous, with Henry eventually bearing the Union flag in battle. In summary, Henry’s lack of courage was an attribute that, if it had not altered, would likely have led to his demise.

Another trait of Henry’s was the hubris he expressed in the early stages of the novel. Much to his mother’s disappointment, Henry enlisted in the Union army, desperate to create war stories of his own. Blind to the reality of war, he wanted nothing more than to show off and be thought of as a brave and daring soldier. ‘He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life… He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess’ (Crane 3). The false notion that he will either come home as a hero or be killed in the process was impressed upon him by way of Greek epics. The true horrors of war were exposed to Henry when he lost a fellow comrade in battle. From that point on, he understood, that he was not fighting to be crowned a hero, but rather fighting for his life. It was unfortunate that it took the death of a friend to enlighten Henry, but it ultimately would lead to his victory in a later battle.

One of Henry’s internal conflicts was appearing masculine. Once again connected to the struggles of Ancient Greek warriors, he felt that society had been domesticated as opposed to their war-oriented ancestors. “Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions” (Crane 3). Much to his disappointment, Henry also learned that war was not the nonstop heroic conflict he had envisioned, but a monotonous camp life that was barren of action. His longing for action was quickly quenched, as he was humbled by the fear of death he felt marching into battle. Comforted by the words of another soldier, Jim Conklin, who openly admitted to the possibility of him retreating, Henry gradually re-evaluated his definition of masculinity. He came to the conclusion that being a man meant owning up to his mistakes, which he exhibited when he redeemed himself on the battlefield late in the novel by seizing the Confederate Flag. In retrospect, it is clear that Henry was not the same immature boy after his final battle. His psychological maturation showed that even the most callow characters can grow and develop as a person.

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