Man Versus Fear In The Red Badge Of Courage

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Fear is a powerful motivator. A naïve, young man named Henry Fleming decides to join the Union army simply for the glory of becoming a Civil War hero. He quickly realizes that war is terrible and struggles with his conscious as to whether-or-not he can face the deadly battle. After hating himself for being a coward, Henry strives to find the courage to overcome his fears and transforms into a brave man who becomes admired by others. In Stephen Crane’s novel, The Red Badge of Courage, he validates his theme of courage defeats fear through the setting of a bloody battlefield to show the effects of war, the outcome of leaving home to show how a cowardly and conflicted main character transforms, and a symbolic flag to stand for bravery.

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The Red Badge of Courage is Crane’s most famous work. Stephen Crane’s usual themes include: courage, cowardice, and isolation. He was very proud of his American heritage and did not get to enjoy the fame that he received from The Red Badge of Courage since he died, soon after its release. While he was alive, he experienced life during two brief wars in 1897 and 1898. “Crane had high temperament and obstinate neglect of his health” (Cazemajou). Stephen Crane’s interest in war brought him to visit and explore many battlefields which enables him to describe the setting of war in the most realistic way.

The setting and presence of war causes severe mental anguish to Henry which leads to an internal battle within himself. Being on the battlefield causes Henry to discover his severe fear of dying, and he cannot escape it because death is all around him. Even after Henry flees from battle, he stumbles upon a group of dead bodies: “Farther off there was a group of four or five corpses keeping mournful company. A hot sun blazed upon the spot. In this place the youth felt that he was an invader. This forgotten battle ground was owned by the dead men, and he hurried, in the vague apprehension that one of the swollen forms would rise and tell him to begone”. Convincing himself that he is doing the right thing, Henry runs from battle to protect himself as his regiment is being demolished. Even when trying to escape through the woods, the discovery of dead bodies makes Henry panic. He is scared he will end up like them. He thinks nature is so beautiful and peaceful, but it too is now a battlefield. Henry feels like an outsider among the dead soldiers. He admires them because they are brave, unlike him. The psychological impact of war has the strongest effects out of any other conflict that Henry experiences. Running from the battlefield does not free Henry from his internal battle, but rather escalates it to a point where he is so desperate, he starts living a lie. Henry is filled with anxiety not only over the fact he ran from battle, but he feels like he is the only one without a red badge of courage: “Ashamed and guilt-ridden, Henry joins a retreating column of wounded men, one of whom (Jim, the tall soldier) dies before his eyes. Another soldier, a tattered man also near death, tries to talk to Henry, who callously ignores him, fearful that someone will discover he ran from the enemy”. The soldiers in Henry’s regiment are being injured in battle as he escapes to safety. Henry is extremely distraught with himself for being such a coward, especially after finding his good friend, Jim Conklin with a gruesome wound. Even with his entire side looking like it was eaten by wolves, Jim remains strong and determined until his last breath. His death devastates Henry because Jim is everything that Henry is not. The tattered soldier tries to befriend Henry thinking he is injured like so many others. Ashamed with himself and angry with the tattered soldier’s question, Henry deserts him to die alone instead of helping him. He is fearful his secret will be known. When Henry first enters the state of warfare, constantly fearing for his life, he wants nothing to do with it and runs from battle. He tries to justify his behavior by claiming his selfishness saves his life. As the days go by, he constantly witnesses soldiers brutally dying and others fiercely fighting for their lives. Henry begins to feel guilty and grows a sense of admiration for the soldiers who continue to fight. His anger and homesickness finally give him the desire to fight next to his comrades and earn his red badge of courage. This thrust in Henry’s attitude motivates him to become a key aspect in winning the war.

Henry’s internal battles to overcome his fears quickly transform him from a scared and selfish young man to a brave soldier who becomes a war hero. After joining the army, Henry enjoys the stardom of being a soldier. However, his immaturity is obvious once he reaches the battlefield because he immediately fears for his life and cares only about himself. Before the first battle, Henry is uncertain if he will be able to fight:

He wished, without reserve, that he was at home again making the endless rounds from the house to the barn, from the barn to fields, from the fields to the barn, from the barns to the house. He remembered he had often cursed the brindle cow and her mates, and had sometimes flung milking stools. But, from his present point of view, there was a halo of happiness about each of their heads, and he would have sacrificed all of the brass buttons on the continent to have been enabled to return to them. He told himself that he was not formed a soldier.

Henry joins the military because he likes how the uniform makes him feel like an instant celebrity. But after stepping foot on the battlefield and experiencing the devastation of war, Henry realizes his decision to join the military might not be a good one. He compares himself to the other soldiers and realizes he lacks their courage and dedication. He remembers his farm back home which he considers boring and mundane, but is also where he is confident and brave. Now, he will give anything to be home instead of at war. His decision to join the military clearly demonstrates his immaturity. He has no idea what it takes to engage in battle, he just wants others to view him as a hero. As he thinks about running from battle, he shows his youth by being selfish and not as part of the unified regiment. Henry’s fear causes him to develop feelings of shame, cowardness, weakness, and regret. But it is through his experiences on the battlefield that he is able to find the courage to be brave enough to face his fear. Even after being mortally injured, Jim Conklin refuses to let anyone watch him die. Wilson flourishes from the “loud soldier” to a man of compassion. Henry realizes his hometown friends have matured from their experiences in battle and are now brave men. Henry desperately wants to be like his friends and this pushes him to start his own transition: “After Henry’s great display of bravery on the third day of battle, the army retreats and all the ground won at great cost is given up. The moral, however, is implicit, for as the novel ends Henry feels great pride in himself: ’He was a man’”. The cost of war is expensive. Countless men lose their lives for senseless reasons on the battlefield. But Henry won his internal battle with himself and is able to overcome his fear with courage. Henry’s personal battle is won when he captures his regiments flag and embraces it.

Soldiers view their Union flag with the utmost pride and their most significant job is to protect it from the enemy. The flag symbolizes bravery and Henry finally overcomes his fear and finds the courage within himself to fight in a bloody battle. In the end, Henry realizes what he is fighting for: “Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, the bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power”. The flag prominently waves during every battle even though sometimes it is hidden by smoke. It is relentless, just like the soldiers. To Henry, the flag means everything. It represents the men who lost their lives in battle fighting for something they believe in. It represents power, hope, and comradery. But most important to Henry, it proves that he is no longer a coward. He once receives negative criticism by other soldiers for not having a “red badge of courage,” but now earns their praises. He finally becomes the real hero he always wanted to be. Like the relentless flag, Henry never stops demonstrating his bravery. Henry makes certain to keep the morale of his regiment positive as he leads them into another battle. Capturing the Confederate flag is the ultimate honor: “When the battle begins Henry fights like a pestered animal worried by dogs, and on the third day he plunges like a mad horse at the Confederate Flag”. Henry’s final battle gives the biggest portrayal about his change in attitude and character. His transformation into a man is complete. Now that Henry has reached his glory, he helps his fellow soldiers earn their honor. He does this in the final battle when he and Wilson reach the enemy’s Confederate flag at the same time. Instead of capturing it himself, he lets Wilson take the honor to earn the ultimate victory. The horrific loss of life in war motivates Henry to find the strength within himself to overcome his fear of death.

The Red Badge of Courage is a controversial novel that depicts a clear and explicit image of life as a soldier during a deadly war. Due to the controversy that the novel brought, it did not receive any awards. The Red Badge of Courage brought widespread attention everywhere in 1895. “As a result of the gore and violence that the book depicts, it is banned in some parts of the United States”. Stephen Crane meant for the book to be fiction, which is why the book should have never been banned. Many English publishers and reviewers praise the book.

Henry’s experiences in war cause him to transition from being young and naïve to a man who conquers his fears. It is not an easy personal battle for Henry, but in the end, courage defeats fear. The stronger one’s fear, the more heroic one feels by overcoming it. Courage is the only way to overcome one’s fear.

16 August 2021

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