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Free Study Guide-The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane-Online Summary
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CHAPTER 3

Summary

Henry's fears increase. One night finds the Youth feeling that any moment they might be assaulted from the nearby woods, but nothing happens. The next day there is more marching. Then again, "the army sits down to think." Henry, always aware of nature, enjoys the odor of the peaceful pines that surround him.

One dawn the soldiers are kicked awake and running down a road bewildered. The Youth is carried along by a mob. He tries to think, but cannot; he is too afraid that he will fall down and be trampled. He feels like the time has come when he is about to be tested as a soldier, and he will have the answer to his great trial. He considers desertion; but he realizes there is no escape from the regiment, for the "iron laws of tradition and law" box him in. He begins to believe that he had never wished to come to this war. He convinces himself that he has been dragged by a merciless government to be slaughtered. Then Henry sees his first corpse, a dead soldier lying on the road and seeming to stare at the sky. Henry now feels the reality of war; it makes him more lonely than ever.

Henry gets to a vantage point, expecting to see a battle scene. Instead he sees skirmish lines, a series of little combats. The battalions are "woven red and startling into gentle fabric of softened greens and browns." It looks wrong to him for a place of battle, for Nature here seems too calm. He takes a moment to reflect on things. He decides the generals are stupid and do not know anything about what they are doing. He thinks they are walking into a trap. The Youth wants to warn his comrades about it, but he cannot. Instead, he lags behind for protection; but the young lieutenant hurries him along. Henry decides the lieutenant has no appreciation of fine minds and is a mere brute.

The soldiers come to a cathedral light of a forest and are ordered to stop and dig trenches. They are interrupted in their work and told to march again. Before long, they are again ordered to halt and dig. Then they withdraw. They are marched with apparent aimlessness. The Youth ponders what he has been taught about battle. Soldiers become something through fighting, and there is salvation in the change. Henry keeps waiting for the ordeal, but is still afraid he will be incompetent. He lets his fears "babble," not suppressing them. He thinks he will be killed and accepts his fate. He watches the skirmishers and sees them running pursued by fire. The brigade ahead of them then moves into action. Because of the smoke, Henry cannot see what is going on. The Loud Soldier, who has earlier boasted of his bravery, tremblingly gives Henry his letters to deliver to his family, for he feels he will die in this skirmish.

Notes

This chapter depicts Henry's regiment as it marches to the front lines. It begins with the soldiers being kicked awake and moving out in great confusion. There are many stops and starts along the way. With each pause Henry's fears increase. At the end of the chapter, Henry has arrived at the front, witnessed the skirmishes of battle, and seen his first corpse. He has also had thoughts of desertion. An emotional battle clearly rages inside the Youth's head.


The Youth struggles between a healthy fear of fighting, a fear of finding out that he will act in a cowardly manner, and the social constraints that determine his action and force him to carry on toward what he fears. His feeling of being boxed in captures Crane's naturalistic approach to war. Henry feels that he is determined by his social upbringing to act in a particular way and that his own free choice is simply not an option.

It is important to notice Henry's attitude about his officers. He decides the young lieutenant is a brute who cannot appreciate fine minds. The officer does not care about Henry as a person, but simply hurries him along. As the regiment stops and starts repeatedly, everything seems disorganized to Henry. He decides that the generals are stupid and do not know what they are doing. He even convinces himself they are walking into a trap. He also convinces himself that he never wanted to come to this war, but was dragged here by a merciless government that did not care if he lived or died.

The peaceful, natural state of Henry's first battlefield is in contrast to the actual battle. The setting is green and wholesome; nearby is the cathedral light of the forest. Henry thinks that it is not the right setting for fighting. Throughout the book, Crane contrasts the peace of nature with the uproar of battle, suggesting that war is unnatural.

It is important to notice that the Loud Soldier, named Wilson, has undergoes a transformation when the regiment reaches the front. He finally faces his fear and determines he will die. As a result, he is no longer loud and boastful. Wilson's transformation foreshadows the Youth's own transformation, which happens more gradually.

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