One of the reasons that Crane refers to soldiers as "tall," "loud," "young" and "tattered" instead of using their names is to show that this is a book about war in general. All armies have tall soldiers and loud soldiers and young soldiers and old soldiers. If you don't read carefully you can even miss the names of the soldiers. Here are the major characters:
The Youth: Henry Fleming
The Tall Soldier: Jim Conklin
The Loud Soldier: Wilson
The Tattered Soldier: not named
The book opens with a rumor. Look at that sentence on page 1 in the second paragraph that begins "He was swelled with . . ." The rumor that they are going to attack is three generations away from the original—and who knows how many days? War is filled with rumor and part of the reason for that is that most of the time soldiers are not fighting; they are drilling and practicing and talking. In Crane's novel they're bored. They want something to happen, so they want to believe or disbelieve the rumors they hear. On page 7 we read, "He[Henry] had had the belief that real war was a series of death struggles with small time in between for sleep and meals; but since his regiment had come to the field the army had done little but sit still and try to keep warm."
Notice what Henry thinks about concerning war. He calls it "one of those great affairs of the earth." He considers the wars of the past as something more glorious than these present battles. One of the reasons for that is that his view of war has been shaped by Homer. Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, two books that glorify war, that glorify the heroes of battles and that also glorify death in war. To Fleming these men seem to be different than the men of his day who he says are "better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions."(pg. 4) He's not sure if they are better. Maybe the men Homer writes about are braver and more manly then he'll ever be.
Henry's reflection of leaving his mother to go off to battle is important. First, notice that Henry has a preconceived notion of how his mother will react. He expected some wonderful scene, maybe in which his mother would tell him how proud she was of him to do such a noble thing, but she destroys his fantasy. She continues to be simply his mother, making socks for him and giving him advice about being a soldier and the company he keeps. Henry didn't want to be treated like a boy—like a son—he expected his soldiership to immediately change his mother's perspective of him.
Isn't this a common experience? Have you ever wanted to ask your parents something—maybe it's something you want to do that you know they will be reluctant to let you do and in your mind you work out all your answers to the objections they will have and you feel very prepared and think that there is no way they can say "no" and then when you ask them the first thing out of their mouth is a response that you had not expected and from that point on the conversation resembles very little what you imagined.
Henry's first problem is his uncertainty about what he will do in battle. He's never been in battle so he has no experience that will give him a clue as to what he might do when the bullets start flying. He thinks of himself as an "unknown quantity."(pg. 9) He's an enigma even to himself. Do you know what an "enigma" is? In other words, he's puzzled and perplexed about himself because he cannot, even with all the thinking about it that he does, determine what he will do in a furious battle. "For days he made ceaseless calculations, but they were all wondrously unsatisfactory. He found that he could establish nothing."(pg. 11, near the bottom)
There are two things at work in Henry Fleming. First, he does not want to be a coward and it seems to him that everyone around him possesses a "great and correct confidence."(pg. 11, end of chp. 1) One of the reasons that he likes Jim Conklin, the tall soldier, is because he admits he might actually run. Henry doesn't want others to think of him as a coward, but he also does not want to be a coward—he would have trouble living with himself. Henry is a kind of paradox. He thinks highly of himself and you can see this in the types of thoughts he has—thinking about Homer and Greeklike struggles and the philosophical implications of war and yet, he almost wishes he didn't think about such things—the things that his fellow soldiers don't think about— because it would make his life easier. "He told himself that he was not formed for a soldier. And he mused seriously upon the radical differences between himself and those men who were dodging imp-like around the fires."(pg. 16) He thinks of himself as a "mental outcast."(pg. 18)
Henry's second problem and really the biggest is his fear of death. That's "the Question" referred to on page 22. Henry doesn't want to die. Why? No one knows what happens after you die. There's no one to talk to with experience. It's difficult to put yourself in the same place as a soldier in battle, but try. What would it be like to be in a battle knowing that at any moment you might die? It's easy to think of yourself as being brave from the comfort of a cozy couch in the living room, but what if you were hitting the beach on Normandy in WWII knowing that very likely you were going to die? Again, Henry is paradoxical. Do you know what a paradox is? In a person it would be someone who possesses traits that are contradictory. On the one hand Henry is afraid of death and yet on the other he can think this: "Regarding death thus out of the corner of his eye, he conceived it to be nothing but rest, and he was filled with a momentary astonishment that he should have made an extraordinary commotion over the mere matter of getting killed."(pg. 26)
Henry survives the first battle and is very pleased with himself and his comrades. They assume that it's over that they've won——and then they attack again. Henry can't believe this. He just can't believe that men would charge again, so soon, directly into the face of death and he thinks of them as something more than men and this is when he falters, this is when he decides to run.
Once he gets away from the battle he begins to justify himself. He does not want to think of himself as a coward and he wants to see his running away from the battle as the best thing to do—as a necessary and intelligent thing to do. Look at the 2nd paragraph on page 33. But he knows that his fleeing will not be seen that way and that, he thinks, is unfair. He looks to nature for answers and tries to convince himself that because a squirrel runs from danger he too is justified in running from danger.(pg. 44, bottom)
Next he meets the tattered soldier who wants to know where his wound is and then he finds his friend, Jim Conklin, who dies shortly thereafter after they meet up with the tattered soldier again who also dies but not before he asks Henry about his wound. "The simple questions of the tattered man had been knife thrusts to him. They asserted a society that probes pitilessly at secrets until all is apparent."(pg. 59) Henry feels that all must know his secret and it does not occur to him, as it often does not occur to us, that those around him are more concerned about themselves than him to notice that he has no wound. Those around him seem to assume that he is injured even though no wound is visible.
Henry's thoughts torment him. On the one hand(pg. 61) he begins to convince himself that he will go back to the battle, back to the front and he envisions himself leading a great charge and dying gloriously before everyone—-but then the reality sinks in—-he has no gun, it would be difficult to find his regiment—then doubts—then fear—and finally he ends "In despair, he declared that he was not like those others. He now conceded it to be impossible that he should ever become a hero."(pg. 62)
When Henry considers himself to be a "slang phrase" he is thinking about the possibility of his name being used as a symbol for cowardice. For instance, someone might say before a battle, "Don't pull a Henry Fleming on us, boys!" and that would be a slang phrase.
In one of my past classes I showed scenes from the 1951 movie, The Red Badge of Courage, directed by John Huston.
Gwynne Dyer entitled, simply, War. I'll send you the quote I read in class from Heller's book in a separate email.
Gwyne Dyer wrote a book entitled simply, War. It contains a startling statistic from a study done in 1943-45. They found that of the trained combat riflemen only 15 percent fired their weapons in battle, even if their life was in danger. The book also has a couple of pictures of Civil War soldiers who look like they were 15, 16 or 17.
In Tolstoy's famous novel, War and Peace, he writes about, among other things, the frenzied state of battle, how, quite often, orders from generals are irrelevant by the time they reach infantrymen. In battle men are attempting to preserve their lives and are not necessarily fighting for a cause.
Pages 65-129; Chps 12-24
The second half of The Red Badge of Courage begins with Henry Fleming, the youth, getting clobbered on the head by someone from his own side. Before that, however, he asks, several times, "Why?" In the first instance you see the whole question, "Why—why—what—what's th' matter?"(66). In the following paragraphs we only get "why." What do those words mean? On one level, it's the youth asking where everybody is running to. He wants to know what's going on. On another level, however, it is Crane asking about war: Why? Why do we have to continue fighting like this? Why are there wars? Why are humans unable to get along together? Why do they, finally, resort to war to solve their differences?
Here's a quote from All Quiet on the Western Front that relates to this "why" question. Some German soldiers are talking about the war, in their case World War I.
"Then what exactly is the war for?" asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. "There must be some people to whom the war is useful."
"Well, I'm not one of them," grins Tjaden.
"Not you, nor anybody else here."
"Who are they then?" persists Tjaden. "It isn't any use to the Kaiser either. He has everything he can want already."
"I'm not so sure about that," contradicts Kat, "he has not had a war up till now. And every full grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books."
"And generals too," adds Detering, "they become famous through war."
"Even more famous than emperors," adds Kat.
"There are other people back behind there who would profit by the war, that's certain," growls Detering.
Remarque in his excellent novel offers political and personal reasons for war both relating to men who desire to be remembered and who wish to be famous.
Once Fleming receives his wound he eventually makes it back to his regiment. The first person he meets is the loud soldier, Wilson. He does not get the treatment he expects. Wilson is glad to see him and so is his corporal. Fleming notices a big change in Wilson and it is important to notice that the loud soldier, Wilson, becomes "the friend." If I'm not mistaken this is the first time he is referred to as "friend."(75) He gives up his bed so that Henry can sleep on it. It is clear he feels a strong affection for Henry that he didn't have before the battle.
Read pages 78 and 79. On 78 beginning at the top down to 79 where Wilson says, ". . . I was a pretty big fool in those days." "Those days" refers to yesterday. It's been one day! Not only does Henry see the change in his friend, but Wilson recognizes the change in himself. He passed from boyhood to manhood in a matter of 24 hours. Why? Look what happens when Wilson breaks up the fight between the three soldiers. He says, "I hate t' see th' boys fightin' 'mong themselves." The day before he was willing to fight. Why this dramatic change? The war did something to him. He saw his comrades die beside him. The text isn't clear on what happened inside Wilson's head to bring about this change but as readers we can surmise. When one faces death one begins to realize that much of what we think of as so important really is not. It changes the way a person sees life. The question for us, as readers and as people who probably will not experience war as soldiers, is this: is it possible to gain this different view of life without going through that kind of experience? Can you learn not to worry about trivial things without going into battle? I think so.
There are a series of paintings by Thomas Cole called "The Voyage of Life." They include "Childhood," "Youth," "Manhood" and "Old Age." The middle two relate strongly to the change that Wilson goes through. In youth one is often very sure of himself or herself and the world seems to be a place that is easily managed. The goal is seen clearly and, it appears, easily attained. In adulthood one begins to realize the difficulties of life and it can temper that youthful certainty about things. In "Manhood" notice that the river is no longer calm, that there is a darkness in the sky that was not there in youth. You can view these images at:
What about Fleming? Has the youth changed? Has he become a man? Look at him. On page 82 he feels superior to his friend and adopts "an air of patronizing good humor" toward him. His "self-pride" is back in force. He feels superior to all those poets who he thought about in his misery. That's a reference to writers and philosophers, probably many of the people we will be reading in this course. He considers himself a "successful man."(83) When he gives the letters back to his friend he considers it a "generous thing." He has a new kind of confidence that he did not have before. Where does it come from? Ironically, it comes from his "red badge of courage." He gets knocked on the head by one of his own men. His regiment thinks he's been shot, grazed by a ball and suddenly Henry Fleming feels like a war veteran. He gives grandiose opinions, but can suddenly fall silent if he feels that someone might find out what he did the day before.
The story becomes even more ironic when Henry shows his courage in battle. Where does that courage come from? He's not even conscious at the times he is fighting bravely. Look at pages 92, 99 and 107. You'll see the words, "not conscious" or "unconscious" in reference to what he is doing. Much of his so-called "courage" is a response to the insults he has received. He's upset that people think of him as a "mule-driver." Look at page 105 where it says, "He had thought of a fine revenge upon the officer who had referred to him and his fellows as mule drivers." In the paragraph after that his "greater hatred" is not toward the enemy but toward the man who called he and his comrades "mule drivers." There is a similar sentiment on page 118 in the first full paragraph. It's the "scorn" that bothers him. There's no great cause that Henry Fleming is fighting for. He seems to be fighting because he's worried about his reputation.
Try to imagine what it would be like to charge toward another line of men with guns who are shooting at you with the intent to kill you. It would be a frightening thing. In one of my past classes I read a letter written by George E. Pickett to his wife about the charge at Gettysburg. Pickett was a General for the Confederate army during the Civil War. Here are some excerpts:
"The sacrifice of life on that bloodsoaked field on the fatal 3rd was too awful for the heralding of victory, even for our victorious foe . . . No words can picture the anguish of that roll call—the breathless waits between responses . . ."
"Even now I can hear them cheering as I gave the order, 'Forward'! I can feel their faith and trust in me and their love for our cause. I can feel the thrill of their joyous voices as they called out all along the line, 'We'll follow you, Marse George. We'll follow you, we'll follow you." Oh, how faithfully they kept their word, following me on, on to their death, and I, believing in the promised support, led them on, on, on. Oh, God!"
"I can't write a love letter today, my Sallie, for, with my great love . . . comes the overpowering thought of those whose lives were sacrificed—of the brokenhearted widows and mothers and orphans."
"This is too gloomy and too poor a letter for so beautiful a sweetheart, but it seems sacrilegious, almost, to say I love you, with the hearts that are stilled to love on the field of battle."
An interesting statistic about the American Civil War is this: more soldiers died in that war than in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and in the Vietnam War combined. 622,000 American soldiers died in the Civil War.
Anyway, Henry's attitude at the end the battle, at the end of the second day, is one of happiness and elation. He looks at the universe in a completely different way than what he did in the beginning of the novel. In the beginning he felt the universe was against him, but at the end he feels as if he understands it. He still feels a twinge of guilt when he reflects on his "sin" as he calls his flight from the battle.(128) But he is able to forget about this. What has happened to Henry? Has he really changed? If so, is this a significant change? Is it an important one? Or is he simply the same youth he used to be?
What would Henry's attitude toward the universe be had he been shot and needed to have one or two limbs amputated? Would it be different? Is Henry simply swept along by circumstances? When they're good, he feels good, when they're bad, he feels bad? What happens tomorrow in a different battle?
I will leave you with a quote by General William T. Sherman made in 1880:
"There's many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."
Dyer, Gwynne, War, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1985, pg. 75.
Picket, George E., "George E. Pickett: Reflections on the Charge at Gettysburg," in The Annals of America published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., Volume 9: 1858-1865, 1976, pp. 429-430.
The Pocket Book of Quotations, edited by Henry Davidoff, Pocket Books, New York, 1952, pg. 425.
Remarque, Erich Maria, All Quiet on the Western Front, translated by A. W. Wheen, Fawcett Crest, New York, 1975, pp. 180-181.
Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace, translated by Ann Dunnigan, A Signet Classic, New American Library, New York, 1980.