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The Red Badge of Courage takes place in and around Chancellorsville, Virginia, during the course of several days in late April and early May 1863. Not that Crane tells us either of those things. He doesn't even tell us that Henry and his friends are fighting the Civil War, although we can guess that from the soldiers' blue and gray uniforms. A reader who knows Civil War history will recognize some details in the novel-the strategy of crossing the river and circling behind enemy lines, the pontoon bridges, the plank road-from accounts of the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville. But not until Henry says sarcastically in Chapter 16, "All quiet on the Rappahannock," the name of the river that flowed through Chancellorsville, are we absolutely certain of the setting. The battle took place on May 2-3, and the story begins several days earlier, in the Union Army camp.
Henry and his regiment fight in the fields, forest, and hills around Chancellorsville, and occasionally he notices a house or a farmer's horses tied to a fence. The natural beauty of the scenery is sometimes contrasted to the ferocity of war. But there is not much detailed description of the setting. These woods and hills could be anywhere, just as the battle could be anywhere. The lack of specific detail generalizes the story for us. This is not only, maybe not even, a story of the American Civil War, but about war in general.
The central theme of the book is courage-what it is and how to get it. When the book opens, Henry Fleming thinks courage is displayed by storybook heroes, the knights and Greek warriors he read about in school. Despite his mother's warning that he can't fight the whole war alone, Henry thinks he will. That is what courage means to him. Once he joins the army, and sees how horrible war is, he becomes terribly frightened. He worries that he will be a coward.
A number of other characters in the novel show various types of courage. Hasbrouck, the young lieutenant, is always brave, always urging his men forward, and always sticking up for them. Jim Conklin, Henry's friend, is calm and collected, follows orders, and faces death with matter-of-fact dignity. Henry's mother shows courage, too, when she sends Henry off to war even though she loves him and needs his help on the farm, saying, "The Lord's will be done." And the tattered man, who is kind and uncomplaining despite his wounds, also shows a kind of courage.
But the courage that is prized in this book is courage in battle. Crane describes it as unthinking, savage, and almost more animal than human. "It is," Crane writes, "a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness."
By the second day of battle Henry and Wilson have achieved this kind of courage, as has the rest of the regiment.
"The red badge of courage" referred to in the title is a wound. It is ironic, of course, that Henry is finally wounded by a retreating Union soldier, not by an advancing Confederate one. His wound is really a badge of shame, not of courage. But he and the other soldiers treat it as if it were a wound honestly gotten-and perhaps, in a way, it was. Henry's experiences during this first flight from battle eventually teach him a great deal about life and death. When Henry shows real courage in the second day's fighting, he is not wounded.
The theme of war is closely related to that of courage. Crane describes war with a realism unusual for his time. He gives us the boredom and mud of camp life, the repetitiveness of soldiers' conversations, the arrogance of the officers, the constant thunder of the guns. He also shows us war in its almost surrealistic horror. We see the dreadful deaths of Jim Conklin, Jimmie Rogers, and many unnamed men. Again and again we see bodies twisted into unbelievable positions. And we see the terrible randomness of war. There is no reason why a bullet strikes one man and not another.
When the novel opens, Henry has a romantic view of war, which events quickly poke holes in. Even at his most heroic, when he picks up the falling Union flag, there is a gruesome detail-he has to pry the flagpole out of the dying color bearer's hands. War turns out to be much grimmer than Henry ever imagined, just as courage turns out to be a matter of animal instinct rather than individual grace. Still, Crane seems to accept Henry's view that war takes the measure of a man, and he certainly believed that in his own life. Some modern writers about war, like Ernest Hemingway, would agree; others, like Joseph Heller, would not.
3. THE INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETY
This is a less important, but still recognizable, theme in The Red Badge of Courage. Again and again Henry has to be told, "You can't fight this war alone." He imagines himself turning back hordes of gray soldiers. He always knows better than the generals. Becoming a real hero-and a man-for Henry requires becoming a better member of the group. He learns to follow orders without complaining, and he begins to feel like part of the regiment. When Henry was concerned about saving himself, he ran away. Only when he learns that he's one man among many is it possible for him to show courage.
4. GROWING UP
In the course of The Red Badge of Courage Henry Fleming-and Wilson and Conklin-do a lot of growing up. The generalized setting and Crane's habit of not using the soldiers' names makes this a story about the effect of war on young men, not just about the effect of the Civil War on a few individuals. But in some ways the story is even more general than that. It is about overcoming fear, and learning to be brave; about giving up romantic dreams, and looking at the world as it really is. In this way The Red Badge of Courage is not just the story of how Henry Fleming became a man, but a story about growing up. In that respect it resembles many of the great classics of western literature, from the Greeks on.