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The Red Badge of Courage: Summary, Characters & Setting

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

'The Red Badge of Courage' by Stephen Crane is a story of one soldier's thoughts and emotions during two days of brutal fighting during the Civil War. This lesson covers the summary, characters, and setting of that novel.

The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane wrote his most lauded work, The Red Badge of Courage, when he was only 20 years old. Despite never having been in a battle, he perfectly captured the multitude of emotions a soldier feels, according to critics, and showed that soldier grow from a teenager into an adult.

Stephen Crane three years before writing The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane, age 17

Summary

Teenager Henry Fleming has always dreamed of war, so he enlists in the Union army during the Civil War. But war is nothing like his romantic dreams. In the beginning of his service, Henry doesn't get involved in any battles, and he worries that when he actually does see real action, he'll turn tail and run away. His fears consume him, so he begins to have conversations with his fellow soldiers. None of the others will admit to fear, and Henry feels even worse about his cowardice. This feeling grows stronger when he sees a gruesome corpse.

Wilson, a fellow soldier called 'The Loud Soldier', gives Henry some letters to deliver to his family in case he's killed in battle. When the battle itself starts, Henry does what he has to. But after a brief lull in the fighting, it resumes. Henry is overcome by his fear and runs off.

Later, he tries to call it merely instinct, to ease his conscience. His guilt eventually overcomes his terror, and Henry convinces himself to return to battle. As he nears the fighting, he sees some men who have been wounded leaving the battlefield. Henry looks at their wounds and wishes for some of his own. He sees the blood as a red badge of courage. A Tattered Soldier demands to see Henry's injury, which makes Henry's guilt worse. Henry then sees Jim Conklin, the 'Tall Soldier', whom he has known for years. Jim dies right in front of Henry.

It's too much to bear. Henry runs away again and races into the midst of another regiment of his own army. One of the men hits him on the head with the butt of his rifle. Confused and hurting, Henry somehow ends up back with his own regiment, the 304th. No one realizes that he ran away; the entire group got separated in battle. One of the men comments on his injury.

Wilson asks for the letter back, and Henry feels like he is a better soldier than Wilson. Henry proclaims the general's lack of strategy is the reason the men were lost. In the next battle, Henry fights bravely and is praised by the lieutenant. After the battle, Wilson and Henry overhear a conversation where a general refers to the 304th regiment as 'mule drivers.' He says they'll be sacrificed at the front of the next battle. Henry takes this as a challenge and vows to be even braver.

When the battle arrives, Henry and Wilson watch the man bearing the Union Flag get shot down. They take up the flag and motivate their comrades. They are praised for this, and Henry takes pride in that. In the last battle of the novel, Henry manages to capture the Confederate flag, and his regiment is victorious. The book closes with Henry thinking about his actions and deciding to accept both his courage and his cowardice.

Major Characters

Henry Fleming is the main character of this novel. His growth from a child to an adult is shown over the course of two brutal days of fighting. In the beginning of the novel, Henry is a selfish teenager who wants to go to war for the glory of it. However, the fierce fighting soon forces him to face his own cowardice. Henry realizes that he can overcome his fears and fight bravely, and he has to reevaluate his own belief of what it means to 'be a man'.

Wilson is a soldier whom everyone calls 'The Loud Soldier'. He earns this nickname because he is always arguing with the other soldiers and spouting his opinion of everything. Wilson changes in the war just like Henry does. Henry even helps Wilson through his fears and doubts. Wilson and Henry become great friends, and together help lead their regiment to victory.

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