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Free Study Guide-The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane-Online Summary
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CHAPTER 20

Summary

Henry and Wilson scuffle over possession of the rescued flag, for each wants to show his courage by carrying it. The Youth finally wins possession. It is a changed Henry, for he shows no fear. He knows that if he carries the flag, he will be more vulnerable. The enemy always shoots at the standard bearer, because he is clearly visible.

When the two soldiers turn around and direct their attention to the fighting around them, they see the regiment depleted and retreating. Those remaining feel despondent and betrayed. The officers seem useless; Henry notices that they scream contradictory orders to the soldiers. While they scream, the Youth notices that the lieutenant has been shot in the arm. He suddenly feels a great rage for him, for he remembers the officer had called him and his comrades "mule drivers."

Henry thinks the retreat of the regiment is a "march of shame." He begins to harangue his fellow soldiers, pushing against their chests and urging them onward to battle. He suddenly feels a fellowship with the lieutenant, who is also urging the men on. The encouragement is useless; the regiment is a "machine run down" and an easy target for an enemy charge.

The Youth "walks stolidly in the midst of the mob." Suddenly, the lieutenant yells, "Here they come! Right on us!" The enemy is so near that the Youth can see their features and notices their uniforms, which seem new. The enemy is strong in number, but the regiment fights hard. They exchange intense gunfire at close range. The enemy begins to weaken and soon retreats. The soldiers jump up and dance with joy. They feel happy and proud, "and they were men."


Notes

Although movement has been apparent in many previous scenes, this chapter centers on motion. There is the rhythm of battle, the sinking and rising of the men's spirits, and a variation between advance and retreat. The whole effect creates a chaotic scene of confused action and emotion. At one moment the men are so despondent they are ready to die; at the next moment they are jumping for joy.

Crane shows how Henry has greatly changed by this chapter. The Youth, through his own efforts, has become the flag bearer and continues to act as a leader to his comrades. He is ashamed when his regiment attempts to retreat and urges them back into the battle. When the enemy attacks, he stands firmly and bravely, holding the flag.

The last sentence of the chapter is ambiguous. It could mean that fighting in this battle makes the soldiers into men; but such a message endorses the ideology of war. More likely it means that after the battle, which so dehumanizes them and makes them feel like brute animals or machines, they become human again.

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