The Psychology of War in The Red Badge of Courage

February 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the most famous war novels of the 19th century, can also be analyzed outside of the trope of military literature and along a psychological route. Crane’s novel follows the journey of young soldier Henry Fleming and his struggle to grow from an immature vanity and intense egotism in the face of an uncaring and often brutal physical reality of war and nature as well as the inevitability of death that comes along with it. In this view, the theme of nature’s indifference to human lives and the impact it has on Crane’s character ultimately marks a psychological warfare in addition a physical one. Though the novel ends on an optimistic note that Henry has at last become a “changed man,” this paper seeks to argue that Henry’s change from naiveté and vanity to an alleged maturity, especially regarding death, is not a simple and thorough shift but instead subtle and largely incomplete. Therefore, though readers can decisively point to physical examples of Henry’s military victories and heroics by the end of the novel, his psychological battle cannot be concluded as concretely. Henry’s shift, then, is illustrated as a complicated process with no exact “endpoint”: though his newfound psychological mindset of nature’s reality is self stated, Henry’s ultimate mental state can merely be seen as a mixture between his overwhelming egotism and the cold reality war has taught him. His change, therefore, is not as one dimensional as the text would lead readers to believe. From the onset of the novel, readers can immediately note Henry’s youthful naiveté and romantic conception of military life and war. Despite his mother’s ominous words, “I know how you are… you are jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others,” (Crane 8), Henry takes a self-centered attitude into his military duties when it is clear that the reality of a soldier was just the opposite: completely indifferent to individuality. This viewpoint is summed up in the narrator’s words, “Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity” (Crane 8). Additionally, imagining a military lifestyle of the Greek heroes of ancient times, Henry considers himself individually worthy of attention and praise before his first battle even begins. The narrator states this mindset, saying, “He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all” (Crane 10). At the beginning of the novel it appears as if Henry sees his tenure in the military as not a means to an end (victory in the war), but an end in itself. Henry is portrayed as too immature to grasp the cold reality of what a career in war entails. Fearing actual duty and instead going out of his way so as to not appear cowardly to other soldiers, Henry is only concerned with his outward appearance to others: duty is not as important as the self-imagined glory and revelry that comes with simply being called a soldier. For example, this innate egotism that Henry initially takes into his enlistment is recounted in Crane’s sequel to the novel, in which Henry is looking back on his military career. Henry describes his self centeredness, stating, “I thought they were all shooting at me. Yes, sir, I thought every man in the other army was aiming at me in particular, only me” (Dillingham quoting Crane 195). The fact that Crane puts such an emphasis on Henry’s profound personal traits this early in the novel helps readers to see Henry’s experience as a dual psychological war, rather than simply a physical one. Additionally, this focus on Henry’s inability to accept the cold and indifferent characterization of war and society that plays so prominently in the rest of the novel serves as evidence of a personalized inner battle that Henry faces: the fact that there is more to the war than physical heroism and valor. However, at a crucial point in the novel Henry comes face to face with a microcosmic image of the inescapable reality not simply of the military, but of life in general when he sees the corpse of a soldier in his regiment lying on the ground in the midst of a battle. This harsh image of the fleeting nature of life and negligence of nature works to undermine the Henry’s own delusional sense of self importance that he has held thus far. Henry makes a connection to the cold indifference of nature to human beings as he notes after a battle, “It was surprising that nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment” (Crane 52). In this larger sense, the soldier’s corpse, like nature’s sun, is simply a feature in the landscape; no human intervention or heroics can put a stop to man’s inevitable death. This brief moment of recognition illuminates the antithesis to Henry’s mindset: that physical illusions and appearances of glory do not matter; he too will experience the inevitable fate of the dead soldier and the rest of the world will continue, completely undisturbed by the event. In spite of Henry’s witnessing this sense of naturalism portrayed in war, the narrator notes the personal level at which Henry notices this crucial event stating, “…upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn” (Crane 52 emphasis added). The narrator’s focus on the fact that Henry saw this universal theme, yet did so completely in terms of himself—as if nature’s indifference to the soldier somehow was personally inflicted on him—is evidence of how long Henry had to travel on his route to the realization of this naturalism at work; he still sees events solely in terms of himself. The narrator later portrays Henry’s focus on death from the perspective that highlights this theme of the inconsequentiality of individuals, stating that the corpses “…lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky” (Crane 53). Again, the choice of the words “dumped from the sky” specifically highlights nature’s complete indifference for individuals, especially during wartime. These lines again urge Henry to see past his idealistic view of self importance. As seen through his own eyes during this scene, though his comrades might notice his death, nature certainly would not. In spite of this moment of brief epiphany, however, even though Henry actively participates in more military duties and battles, he continues to lie to those around him and keep his sense of vanity rather than accepting this naturalistic reality. This sense of egotism is highlighted in Henry’s continued delusions of personal grandeur. Henry persists in seeing “…Swift pictures of himself, apart, yet in himself, came to him—a blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with one knee forward and a broken blade high—a blue, determined figure standing before a crimson and steel assault, getting calmly killed on a high place before the eyes of all. He thought of the magnificent pathos of his dead body” (Crane 84). Again, these lines indicate that Henry still believes in the significance of his own death and a personal glory that he believes will come with it. Perhaps the most prominent indication that Henry still has yet to grasp the reality of his own inconsequentiality is the incident in which he lies to his regiment about obtaining his own “red badge of courage.” After being accidentally struck by the butt-end of a gun by a member in his own regiment, Henry lies to his fellow soldiers, instead telling them that he had been shot. Crane emphasizes the cowardice of Henry’s actions, allowing readers to see his inability to transition from his egotistical former self. Crane refers to Henry’s lie about his injury, stating that he had now begun to wear “the sore badge of his dishonor” (Crane 58). The sheer importance that Henry puts on the idea of a battle wound is a testament to his mindset. Henry undoubtedly sees these badges of courage as proof of military glory that he so desperately seeks: a symbol not only of courage but also an entire value system that nature ignores completely. Henry cannot come to terms with the inconsequentiality of individual battle wounds or individuals in the grand scheme of war and reality in general.According to critic John McDermott, this incident of Henry’s deceit over a battle wound to obtain what he sees as “glory” is not simply Crane’s description of a war-time occurrence, but an event that has meaning in Henry’s own personal psychological struggle. Further, McDermott contends that Crane’s description of the incident it purposeful in describing the incomplete struggle and journey that Henry makes throughout the novel in his inability to let go of his egotism and foolish military vanity. McDermott states, The total symbol of Fleming’s wound, meticulously constructed by Crane in this central portion of the novel, thus becomes the principal device by which he manages to embody the complicated development of his unsophisticated hero. If Crane had attempted to present too directly the necessarily confused thoughts of his rather inarticulate and intellectually limited character he might have… an unrealistic psychological portrait. But in its multiplicity his symbol is the perfect vehicle to convey gracefully the complexities and ironies of his limited character’s psychological development (McDermott 327).Therefore, agrees McDermott, Henry’s continued acts of selfishness in the face of his experience with nature’s cold reality—specifically the lie over the red badge—illustrate that though Henry looks completely courageous and honorable on the outside, his lie holds significance in showing his character’s true disjunction in his personal “war” of development. Many more examples of this disjunction between Henry’s military advancement versus his psychological plateau occur throughout the course of the rest of the novel, where it appears on the outside that Henry is finally taking on further military responsibilities and accomplishments. Henry is quite obviously becoming a veteran soldier and willingly throws himself into battle, seemingly unafraid of the dangers and risk of death that war carries. However, Henry’s sense of vanity cannot be shaken off. For example, in one of the final battle scenes Henry highlights this inability to let go of his egotistical flaw when he overhears an officer saying that his regiment will probably be lost in the upcoming battle. Henry takes great offense and shock in hearing his regiment referred to in such a marginalizing manner, thinking, “…the most startling thing was to learn suddenly that he was very insignificant. The officer spoke of the regiment as if he referred to a broom” (Crane 172). Henry then imagines that if this officer were to see his corpse, it would somehow serve as the ultimate form of revenge for offering these comments. The narrator adds, “It was his idea, vaguely formed, that his corpse would be for those eyes as great salt reproach” (Crane 172). This passage is clearly indicative of Henry’s static mindset: he still foresees his death as significant, believing it would have a profound impact on this officer—not realizing that it would more than likely go largely unnoticed. Henry’s belief that his death would be significant enough to affect an officer who does not even know his name reveals that he has not fully internalized the lesson found within the naturalistic worldview that he briefly realized in his experience with the dead soldier in the first part of the novel. Though the narrator gives indications that Henry has at once let go of his egotism in battle, major regressions such as the incident above show that Henry has been unable to expel his major flaw. By the conclusion of the novel, it is clear that Henry has established himself as a successful military veteran, risking his life and capturing the flag and prisoners of war from the enemy—something he feared and tried to avoid at beginning of novel. Finally, on the surface, it looks as though Henry had made the transformation from egotistical youth to selfless military veteran and courageous hero, a soldier accepting of his own fate regardless of what it may be. Henry’s thoughts on his new change underscore this. For example, the narrator states that “It was revealed to him that he had been a barbarian, a beast. He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion. Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy. … [H]e was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process. He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight” (Crane 102). Though these lines look to celebrate Henry’s new transformation, it is important to note the level of egotism hrough which Henry views this, seeing himself as “heroic” and “knightly.” Though he may have changed on the battlefield, his mental processes still look to be fully encompassed with the immature idea of a personal glory that war—and nature—does not afford to him. Adding to this argument, Dillingham’s “Insensibility in The Red Badge of Courage” states, “[Henry] has simply adapted himself through experience to a new and dangerous environment. When the last battle is over, he is still the same prideful youth bragging on himself as he reviews his deeds of valor” (Dillingham 197).In another instance, the narrator further illustrates Henry’s psychological shift at the end of the novel, stating, “His mind was undergoing a subtle change… Gradually his brain emerged to more closely comprehend himself and circumstance” (Crane 183). However, though Henry had indeed changed, this passage alone hints at the lingering effects of his narcissism, as his thoughts are still preoccupied with himself. Additionally, readers should be careful in noting Henry’s “transition” so clearly. Rather than become this dramatically transformed character, Dillingham states that “Otherwise, Henry remains essentially unchanged during the course of the novel. It is a mistake to think of him as having become rejuvenated through humility or in any way changed into a better person morally” (Dillimgham 197). Dillingham’s statement adds to the argument that Henry’s subtle psychological change is not similar to a struggle on the battlefield: there is no clear cut result. Though the novel ends on a sensationalized note, it is a mistake to interpret Henry’s shift in black and white language. Again, when the narrator describes Henry’s shift to an apparently “new” character, Henry’s egotism can be noted in the manner in which he still thinks. The narrator notes “for in [his memory] his public deeds were paraded in great shining prominence” (Crane 183). This focus on himself and his own glory again shows that perhaps Henry’s youthful egotism hasn’t been completely erased. As the narrator states, his change was a “quiet… non-assertive manhood” rather than a ground-breaking (and perhaps unrealistic) type of reaction. Henry is undoubtedly changed at the novel’s conclusion, but the narrator’s note suggests more of an optimism at the concept of change, rather than the concrete change itself that is present. Henry’s process of change and maturity was not complete; he still clung to basic elements of his egotism that showed that in matters of his own psychological warfare, he still had a long way to go. By the novel’s conclusion, readers cannot define Henry’s change one dimensionally, knowing only that he falls somewhere on the thin gray line. This again reiterated by critic Eric Solomon, stating: The novel ends on an ambiguous note: is Henry Fleming a hero manqué who has gained an outward semblance of courage by his battle exploits but who still shows the egotistic lack of moral integrity that forced his original act of cowardice and his later betrayal of the tattered soldier—a betrayal that he cannot forget even after his triumphs—and his lies? Or has the youth actually matured through his war experience… (Solomon 111). Solomon’s lines help to show the distinction between the two “wars” at work. Henry clearly experiences military victories, evolving from his inherent fear of battle he initially had. However, his inner mental workings have not changed by such great leaps and bounds. The existence of an outward shift in military accomplishment is not necessarily correlated with an inner growth as well. As readers can see, Henry simply cannot rid himself of his self centered importance in the face of a ruthless and uncaring world around him.Henry’s most significant proof in illustrating that his psychological shift was, at best, incomplete, is Henry’s closing thoughts about death. The narrator states, “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man” (Crane 183). In these lines, Henry obviously still holds the idea of death in a high regard. He may have evolved in his ability to witness the event in the heat of battle, but Henry still perceives it as “great,” even after countless brushes with the overwhelming theme of its insignificance. Though Henry may not personally fear death by the novel’s conclusion, his inner perception and categorization have not truly shifted. As McDermott contends, though, “As an author, [Crane] was willing to let The Red Badge of Courage remain ambiguous; within the artistic construct of the novel, the uncertainty adds a dimension of reality” (McDermott 324). Therefore, Henry’s inner maturity does not have to follow his outward military growth. At the novel’s conclusion, the best interpretation does not have to follow such a clear upward line of growth that it appears to assert on the outside. Henry’s complicated psyche is extremely fitting in categorizing not simply the mind during wartime, but psychological growth in general. The conclusion of The Red Badge of Courage ends with what appears to be a clean cut theme in a young soldier’s maturity into a seasoned veteran who holds a vast amount of wisdom obtained from years in battle. However, a close reading of the text shows readers that there is more than one war at work in the novel. Though Crane undoubtedly portrays a tale of military struggle and ultimate accomplishment, Henry Fleming’s simultaneous psychological journey cannot be ignored. Crane’s underlying literary naturalism at work in the novel works to show Henry’s complicated struggle to realization and acceptance of nature’s indifference to his own life and death—on the battlefield and beyond. Uniquely, Henry’s personal war of his inner psyche does not have a clear result as the one he experiences on the battlefield. Though Henry describes his maturation into a man, readers must not neglect his own egotism that he has failed to expel. Therefore, in examining Crane’s dual war portrayed in The Red Badge of Courage, one cannot label Henry’s psyche as new or transformed; the ambiguous conclusion only illustrates to readers the vast complexities in a war of moral proportions: with no winner or loser, one must fall somewhere in between.

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