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Have you ever imagined that you were a hero-running into a burning house to rescue a child, racing after a mugger and getting someone's wallet back, or walking on the moon? Have you ever read about great battles of the past, like Iwo Jima or the Normandy landings, and pictured yourself fighting in them? Have you ever thought to yourself that there really isn't any way to be a hero anymore? And have you ever worried that you might not have what it takes to be truly brave?
Then meet Henry Fleming, a farm boy from upstate New York in the 1860s. Henry wants to be a hero and he isn't sure he's got the guts. To find out, he enlists in the Union army during the American Civil War. The Red Badge of Courage is his story. As you read the book, you will find yourself asking, along with Henry, what courage means, who has it, and how you get it.
The Red Badge of Courage opens like a movie: the camera pans to take in the whole scene. Spread over a range of hills are the tents and campfires of an army camp. As the camera turns, we see the color of the fields begin to change from brown to green, the fog lifts, and we hear the first noises in the camp. It is morning. We guess that it is spring, because the roads are ribbons of mud.
Now the camera focuses on a man who walks down to the muddy river at the bottom of the hill to wash a shirt and returns waving it above his head like a flag. This man, identified only as "the tall soldier," has something to tell the rest of the men. He has heard a rumor that the army is about to move, that the soldiers will cross the river and attack the enemy from the rear.
As the tall soldier delivers his news, some of his buddies begin to argue with him. One of them, "the loud soldier," shouts, "It's a lie!"
Crane does not immediately tell us the names of the characters in The Red Badge of Courage. They are referred to as the tall soldier, the young soldier, the loud soldier. This makes us think that this is a story about kinds of people rather than specific people, that it is about any young soldier, not just this one.
As we, the readers, watch and listen to this argument, we pick up a number of facts. First we learn that the army has been camped in this place for a long time. The loud soldier says that he's gotten ready to move eight times so far, but they haven't moved yet. Then we learn that nobody has been telling these soldiers what's really going on, so they are trying to figure it out for themselves. That is why they are so dependent on rumors like the tall soldier's; even if they aren't true, they're all the information these men have. Finally we learn who the men are. They are soldiers of the Union (northern) army, because they wear blue shirts; and from their accents we can tell that many of them grew up in the country.
One of the men leaves the group and goes into his tent to lie down and think about what he has just heard.
We still don't know the young soldier's name, but we know a lot about what his tent looks like! Crane tells us about the pictures on the walls, the cracker-box furniture, and the way the sunlight comes through the small window to make a square on the floor. And the way the soldiers talk-dropping the final d's and g's from their words, using words like ain't-is the way country people really sounded in the 1860s.
It's hard to believe that they are finally going into battle. As a boy, he had dreamed about war and had imagined himself a hero. But he had also come to believe that the time of the great wars was as far away as kings and castles. People would never again fight the way they had in the olden days.
The fancy language Crane uses to describe the young soldier's daydreams-"He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth"- is very different from his usual short sentences and matter-of-fact way of putting things. Here Crane is poking a little fun at the young soldier's fantasies about being a hero.
When the Civil War had started, the boy had wanted to enlist. His mother had discouraged him, saying that his work on the farm was more important than what he would do in the army. But he had probably thought that the army would be more exciting than milking the cows. Lying on his bunk in the tent, the young soldier remembers how he had signed up. One night at home he had listened excitedly as the church bells rang out the news of a great battle. When he went to his mother's room to tell her he was going to enlist, she replied, "Henry, don't you be a fool," and pulled her quilt over her head. This scene shows us that Henry's mother doesn't take him very seriously, and that she still treats him like a child. It also lets us know the young soldier's name-Henry.
But the next day Henry had enlisted anyway. When he got home his mother was milking a cow. A little hesitantly, he told her the news. "The Lord's will be done, Henry," she sighed. But Henry was disappointed by his mother's response. Although she cried a little, she continued to go about her chores. And the advice she gave him was as down-to-earth as milking the cow. "I know how you are, Henry," she said, and she told him not to "go a-thinkin' you can lick the hull rebel army at the start, because yeh can't. Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others...." She warned him against falling in with a bad crowd and not to do anything "that yeh would be 'shamed to let me know about. Just think as if I was a-watchin' yeh." But at the same time she urged him not to shirk and to do "what's right." Finally she gave him eight pairs of socks, some shirts, and a glass of blackberry jam. He is to send the socks back to her for repairs.
His mother's attitude-resigned, homey, still not taking him entirely seriously-almost spoils Henry's mood. He had hoped that she would say good-bye to him like mothers did in history books. But as he turned back for a last glimpse of home, he saw her sobbing as she peeled potatoes, and he felt ashamed of what he had done. Still, he had other chances to feel excited. He stopped by his school, where a dark-haired girl he liked stood at the window, watching him leave. And on the train to Washington, the new soldiers had been treated like heroes.
But life at camp had been disappointing. Henry and his fellow recruits had nothing to do but sit around and try to keep warm. He began to return to his old idea that the time for heroic warfare was past, and that he and his fellows were only part of "a vast blue demonstration." The only Confederates he saw were soldiers across the river, with whom the Union soldiers talked comfortably while they were all on guard duty at night.
The older soldiers liked to tease Henry and the others, calling them "fresh fish." They were full of stories of the horrors of war. But it was hard for Henry to know whether or not to believe them. Lying on his bunk, realizing that he was finally about to enter his first battle, he wondered whether he had the guts for it. "It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself."
Now the tall soldier, the one who had started the rumor that they were on the verge of fighting, and the loud soldier who had disagreed with him, come into the tent, still squabbling. Henry asks the tall soldier, whose name turns out to be Jim Conklin, whether any of the boys will run once the fighting starts. Jim thinks that some of them might, but that even though they are untested, the boys will do all right. Then Henry asks Jim the really hard question: "Did you ever think you might run yourself, Jim?" "If a whole lot of boys started and run, why, I s'pose I'd start and run," Jim answers. "But if everybody was a-standing and a-fighting, why, I'd stand and fight." Jim's answer makes Henry feel better, because it shows him that not everyone else is a storybook hero, either.
In this first chapter we meet people with different attitudes toward war. Henry imagines himself as a legendary hero like the ones he has read about, and likes to show off to the girls at school, but at the same time he is terrified that he will run at the first sign of fighting. The old veterans like to scare the new recruits with their war stories, making themselves seem brave. Henry's mother doesn't think much of war, and urges Henry to take care of himself and not to try to fight the whole Rebel army himself. Jim's idea is something like Henry's mother's-he sees himself as part of a group of soldiers. He isn't worried about individual courage. What they do, he will do; what they can't, he won't. Notice the behavior of the loud soldier. Why does he keep quarreling with Jim? Perhaps, even if he doesn't say so, he's a little frightened himself.
Crane introduces another theme of the book when he has Henry admit that "as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself." In the chapters that follow, Henry will learn what war is like, and will learn something about the meaning of courage; he will also learn what kind of person he is.
This first chapter also reveals quite a bit about Crane's style. In general, he writes in short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, and his vocabulary is fairly simple, except when he is laughing at one of the characters. He shows us many realistic details of camp life; still, some of the descriptions of the scene are rather poetic, such as the opening paragraph. In reading The Red Badge of Courage, pay close attention to Crane's language. Where is he being poetic and using unusual metaphors? Where is he being realistic and giving us the details of daily life? Where is he being abstract and making the story seem like a fable? Crane's language communicates a great deal of meaning.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes