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• HENRY FLEMING
Henry Fleming is the major character in The Red Badge of Courage. Because Crane never tells us what he looks like, just how old he is, or exactly where he comes from, and usually refers to him as "the youth" or "the young soldier," Henry could be any young man experiencing war for the first time.
Yet even without these facts about Henry, we do know quite a bit about what he's like. We know that he grew up on a farm in New York State. His father is apparently dead, and he was raised by his loving mother. We know-from his mother's warning as she says good-bye to him-that his life has been pretty quiet and protected.
Henry signs up in the army because he is excited by the idea of being a hero. He has read in school about the ancient warriors (he knows that war is no longer like that), and he is thrilled by the sound of church bells in the night, sounding the news of victory. He doesn't think at all about the Union cause. He joins the army even though he knows that his mother wants him to stay on the farm, but he is a little apologetic when he tells her. We can see how immature Henry still is by how he feels about his mother's reaction to the news. She gives him hand-knitted socks and sensible advice; he wants a speech about heroism. But he does have a chance to play the hero when he visits his old school, and also on the train to Washington.
But these visions of glory sink quickly in the mud of camp life. Henry's regiment, the 304th New York, doesn't see any action for quite a while, and Henry is bored and uncomfortable. He is also insecure, and worries about whether he will really be as brave as he'd like to be. He tries to talk to some of the other soldiers-his friend Jim Conklin from back home, and a loud soldier named Wilson-but the others don't seem to be as apprehensive as he is, or at least they don't show it. He can't explain his fears clearly, so he doesn't get the reassurance he needs, and he feels frightened and alone.
Henry fights well enough in the regiment's first engagement with the enemy, but in the second he is exhausted and very scared. When two men standing near him run, he throws down his gun and races away from the fighting. He rationalizes his action by telling himself that the regiment was about to be wiped out. When he realizes that instead they had won, he becomes angry at his fellow soldiers. Now Henry's flight becomes emotional as well as physical. He is running away from what he has done.
During his flight, he has many important experiences. He comes upon a dead man in the woods, and he watches the death agonies of his friend Jim Conklin. When the tattered soldier questions him about his own wound, Henry runs away again. His discomfort at being found out is stronger than his feeling of responsibility for a dying man.
Being wounded by a retreating Union soldier is the beginning of a change in Henry. Until now he has been full of rationalizations and denial. He is afraid not only of battle, but of being teased by his fellow soldiers. When the panicked soldier strikes him on the head, Henry has a real wound to match his inner wound of fear and shame. (The tattered man had asked Henry whether he was wounded inside, and in a way the answer was yes.) Even though Henry's "red badge of courage" is phony, it helps him to feel and act like someone who has experienced war. As Henry begins to think about the previous day, he realizes that he has really seen a lot.
But Henry's achievement of courage and maturity isn't easy. Even after he is wounded, and finds his regiment again, he is full of poses and hot air. He tells the others a lie-that he was wounded while fighting with another regiment-and they believe him. By the next day he feels pretty good about himself, conveniently forgetting about the cowardly and irresponsible things he did. Henry is feeling so smug that he begins to criticize the generals and boast about his own heroism, until he is brought down a peg by one of the other soldiers.
When the regiment goes into battle on the second day, Henry stops thinking about himself and begins to act on instinct. Then he is able to fight bravely, even heroically. He is pleased with these real achievements, and enjoys being singled out for praise by the lieutenant and the colonel. When the fighting ends, and Henry has time to evaluate all of the events of the past two days, he is able both to take pride in his courage and to look at his cowardice realistically. Now, at last, he has become a man.
Some readers of The Red Badge of Courage disagree about Henry's character. Those readers who think that the book is a Christian allegory (that the red sun in the sky is a communion wafer and that Jim Conklin represents Jesus Christ) think that Henry is redeemed by Jim's death. Others, who see it as a psychological study of the effects of war on a young man, think that in human terms Henry has grown and matured, that he has given up his dreams of individual glory and learned the real meaning of courage, the giving up of selfishness. These readers see Henry's realistic evaluation of himself in Chapter 24 as proof of his development.
But some people think that Henry has not changed that much by the end of the book. They point out that there is no steady growth in Henry's understanding. Even after the horrible experiences of his day of flight, when he looked death in the face, he can still tell himself that he is braver than Wilson. These readers see Henry's feelings of love for the flag in Chapter 19 as silly romanticism. And they argue that after his experience in the forest in Chapter 7 he should know better than to fantasize about the beauty of nature, as he does at the book's end. To these readers, Henry's visions of the comforts of peace are daydreams every bit as boyish as his earlier thinking about war. Besides, the war is hardly over; it will continue for two more years.
Another dispute over Henry's character focuses on how much he is in control of what he does. Some readers see Henry as a creature of instinct throughout the book. He runs away out of instinct (he is tired, he sees two soldiers deserting), he returns to his regiment out of instinct, and eventually he fights bravely out of instinct. These readers point to the patterns of imagery in the novel to support their argument. Crane repeatedly describes war as a beast or a machine. Either way it is a force bigger than any one man. Henry himself thinks of the regiment as an iron box he's caught in, and as a hand of which he's one finger. He returns to the regiment like a moth to a flame. Henry's maturation, these people claim, is the same as the regiment's growth in experience; these things just happen. Heroism, they say, isn't individual; it's acting according to instinct within the regiment.
But other readers, while agreeing that Crane shows war to be a force larger than individual men, argue that Henry does make choices. He does not wind up winning the battle himself as he once dreamed he would. That kind of warfare no longer exists, if it ever did. But within the boundaries set down by the nature of the war and the regiment, Henry does reflect, and he does become, at least in part, responsible for his actions.
This debate about Henry's character is part of a larger question about whether The Red Badge of Courage is really a naturalistic novel, that is, whether Crane sees people as being totally in the grip of forces outside themselves.
You must decide for yourself what you think about Henry's character. One way to do that is to pay close attention as you read the book to what is going on in Henry's mind. Remember that much of the vivid and unusual language in The Red Badge of Courage describes how things looked to Henry. He is thoughtful and observant, and we really do hear a lot about his reactions to things. You should also try to separate what Stephen Crane thinks about Henry from what you might think. You can do that by listening carefully to the narrator's voice on the rare occasions when it describes characters or comments on the action.