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The Red Badge of Courage is a classic Civil War novel that was written by Stephen Crane in 1895. Being a soldier in the Civil War was dangerous, with a death toll of over 600,000. Becoming one of those numbers was an obvious fear for most soldiers. The question is, are you willing to fight for your side or are you a coward? This question plays an important role throughout the story, as it is the key factor in Henry Fleming's mind. This question helps Fleming and his fellow soldiers in their transition from boys to men. Crane creates three major characters that develop into mature soldiers after going through a dramatic psychological change while they learn through the events and hardships they face in their first days of war.
Henry Fleming is the protagonist of the story and the story is told through his eyes and his thoughts. He is young and immature, so he enlists for all the wrong reasons. The only reason he joins the army is for the glory. He is not enlisting because of what he believes in. The duty of being a soldier is not important to him. He enjoys the attention he receives shortly before leaving home and he hopes to earn more glory in battle. Henry only thinks of the glory in the short run. He looks forward to coming home to tell all his stories of heroism before he even fights. Once he is actually in the situation of having to fight, Henry questions his courage. He wonders if he is a hero or if he is just a coward. In the beginning of the war, Henry fears fighting at the expense of his own life. In Henry's first skirmish, he quickly reveals himself to be a coward. "He began to exaggerate the endurance, the skill, and the valor of those who were coming. Himself reeling from exhaustion, he was astonished beyond measure at such persistency. They must be machines of steel. It was very gloomy struggling against such affairs, wound up perhaps to fight until sundown" (Crane 41). Henry cannot believe that the soldiers are coming for a second charge. He could barely accomplish holding them back once. Once Henry flees the battle scene, he is angry at his fellow soldiers. He resents the men for not being as intelligent as him. He claims that they are stupid to stay and fight against an inevitable death, just because they did hold the enemy. Henry is so immature that he tries to make himself feel superior with these feelings of jealousy. Henry wanted the glory of winning a battle but his lack of courage prevented him from earning it. He assures himself that he is right and that running is better for the army because he preserved his life. As he begins to wander and find his regiment that he had abandoned, Henry notices all the wounded soldiers and becomes jealous of their injuries, as he wishes he had a wound the show off to his comrades. Without a wound, Henry had no proof that he had fought alongside his regiment. Henry is an immature kid that only desires a wound to avoid being titled a coward. His fear becomes extreme when he leaves the tattered man to die, even though he knows that by abandoning him, the man has no chance of survival. If Henry was not so concerned with the man's constant questioning, he could have saved his life. Henry believes that being labeled as a coward is worse than the man dying. Henry is vain and does not care about anyone but himself. His fear of being exposed takes over him and he loses all of his morals. He drops to the point to where he even hopes his side loses the battle just so he can have the satisfaction of knowing he predicted the right outcome by fleeing. Once confronted about his head wound he received from his own side's soldier, he lies and claims it is a bullet wound. His regiment believing that he was grazed by a bullet gives Henry a false sense of accomplishment. Henry's main fear at this point shifts from death to being discovered to be nothing but a fraud. After Wilson retrieves his letter back from Henry, he feels superior to Wilson. "His friend at his side seemed suffering great shame. As he contemplated him, the youth felt his heart grow more strong and stout. He had never been compelled to blush in such manner for his acts; he was an individual of extraordinary virtues" (Crane 91). Henry's sense of pride over Wilson is ironic; Henry has done nothing but flee, while Wilson fought bravely and stood his ground. "He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man" (Crane 90). Henry convinces himself that he is a man and has nothing to be ashamed of because only he knows the truth of his cowardice acts. Henry is so full of false accomplishment that he blinds himself from the truth. Henry becomes so afraid of being discovered that he loses his sense of thought in his next battle and blindly fires at the enemy, even after the battle ended. He begins to worry so much about his reputation to the point where all he thinks about is looking like a soldier, and then he finally appears to be one. Although Henry is fighting for the wrong reasons in the battle, it is his turning point in his development as a man. He made the transition to a hero but did not even realize it. He finally realizes that becoming a hero is nothing like the stories that he hears from other soldiers, but the title comes from following orders and standing your ground. It is not as amazing and interesting as he had planned on it, so he becomes less fascinated with creating war stories to go home and share with his town. The glory does not control his actions anymore. He transforms from a selfish soldier who cares about no one but himself to a soldier in the 304th regiment. He becomes one with his regiment and his pride shifts from himself to the reputation of his entire regiment. When he overhears the lieutenant calling his regiment "mule drivers", he becomes offended and makes his new goal proving his officer wrong. Although he could have told his regiment about the insult, Henry finally keeps it to himself. This is the first time that Henry did not take an opportunity to insult his officers. He knows that this was the mature and obedient move that a real soldier would make. He did not want to hurt the pride of his comrades, which before he would have taken the opportunity in an instant just to make himself feel superior. "When the regiment's color sergeant was slain, he unhesitatingly seized the colors and thereafter kept them steadily to the front, showing again his fearlessness" (Lentz 259). Henry leads his army ahead and is not afraid of being killed or even thinking about his reputation. He grabs the flag without thinking because he does whatever he can to insure victory for his regiment. Henry started the war as immature, vain, and arrogant. Although the events only took place over two days, Henry matured quickly into a soldier who was proud of not only himself, but all his comrades. He evolved into a leader for his regiment and was willing to die for his army, just to make the battle more difficult for the enemy.
Jim Conklin is the perfect example of an obedient, respectful soldier. Jim is Henry's childhood friend. Jim follows orders with no difficulty and maintains his dedication to the union. His duty as a soldier is fulfilling enough for Jim, as he does not care about any type of fame or glory. He spreads rumors that the regiment will move the next day because he tries to get them excited about their first march in months. Jim acts as close to an officer as you can get. He stops arguments, gives advice to his comrades, and attempts to raise morale throughout the camp and the regiment's marches. Jim has no fear of death and does not worry about being called a coward. He claims if his comrades fight, he will fight. If they run, he will run. He will follow his regiment and support whatever decision they make. Although Jim is passionate about what he does, he is quiet when he needs to be. He does not criticize his superiors or complain in battle, but he complies with everything that is demanded of him. Whenever Jim is later found by Henry, he seems to be quieter than usual, keeping to himself. Jim knows he is dying and does not crave the attention of others to give him a dramatic death. He does not seek the Greek tradition of being laid upon his shield like Henry desires. He actually prefers the thought of dying alone with nothing there to bother him as he tries to go peacefully. He does not curse the gods or the war he is fighting in, he dies as a fine soldier does.
Wilson is a loud, arrogant soldier that is similar to Henry Fleming. Because we only have access to Henry's thoughts, we do not know if Wilson fears the title of a coward. When questioned by Henry if he would flee, Wilson becomes angry and walks off in a rage. It is safe to assume that Wilson fears the title but uses his anger as a protective barrier from the subject. Wilson is confident in himself that he will succeed in war, but deep down he knows that it is possible that he could run. The question does not control Wilson like it does Henry, but he puts on the front of the tough guy to convince himself that he will be a force on the battlefield. Wilson shows his vulnerability early by giving the letter to Henry, showing he is terrified of fighting and he loses all confidence in himself. Wilson does not believe he will survive and that brings out his true character. Although it appears that he does not flee, he undergoes a drastic change in personality. When reunited with Henry, he nurses his friend back to his feet. "Ironically, pride and arrogance is now completely lacking in Wilson, who had only shortly before been supremely cocky" (Johnson 8). He transforms into a quiet, obedient soldier. Although he loses his overwhelming personality, he keeps the same confidence. He no longer speaks as if he is a god, but he is confident in himself and he does not need anyone else to know it. It is almost as if he takes over Jim's personality after Jim had died. He shows this by keeping quiet and even breaking up a fight that starts inside the camp he is watching. He no longer lets his pride control him. When he asks Henry for the letter to his family back he faces a great amount of embarrassment, even making him blush, but he does not care about his reputation or if he is called a coward. He later forms into his regiment and leaves the individualism he used to seek behind.
These three soldiers all have three different personalities to start the story, but by the end of the novel they all have their personalities altered into the ideal soldier. Henry and Wilson both begin the story as soldiers terrified to die, but they eventually evolve into soldiers willing to die for their side, almost a mirror of Jim. It just shows that a young inexperienced soldier needs a mature mentor resembling Jim to teach them the right attitude in war.