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The Red Badge of Courage: Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:05 Crane's 'The Red Badge…
  • 0:23 Summary
  • 1:22 Themes
  • 3:16 Analysis
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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' is a story about a Civil War soldier who grows from a teenager to adult over the course of one battle. This lesson will focus on the themes and analysis of Stephen Crane's 'The Red Badge of Courage.'

Crane's The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane's most popular work, The Red Badge of Courage, was written when Crane was only twenty. Though he never fought in a war, he wrote this novel about the mind and emotions of a soldier, as he grows from selfish teenager to battle-hardened adult. This lesson will cover the themes and analysis of The Red Badge of Courage.

Summary

The Red Badge of Courage is the story of Henry Fleming, a teenager who joins the Union army because he is enamored with the romance of battle. When the actual fighting starts, Henry is worried that he'll run away. At the beginning of the battle, Henry fights, as a soldier must. But, during a lull in action, Henry's fear overcomes him and he runs from the field. He convinces himself to return, and as he does, he meets up with a group of wounded men. Henry wishes for a wound, a red badge of courage, of his own.

An old family friend, Jim Conklin, or the 'Tall Soldier,' is among the wounded. Henry witnesses Jim's gruesome death, and he rushes away, into the midst of scared Union soldiers. One of them hits Henry in the head with a rifle, leaving him dazed and bleeding. Eventually, Henry returns to his regiment, where he finds the courage to fight, eventually capturing the Confederate flag and ensuring victory in the battle. By the end of the story, Henry has resolved to accept both parts of himself, his cowardice and his courage, because they make him who he is.

Themes

Courage is obviously a theme of this novel; it's in the title. However, the novel questions what courage actually is. Henry equates courage with manliness. Henry weighs courage with survival at several points in the story, and sometimes survival wins, which leaves Henry feeling like a coward. His belief about what courage is changes as the novel progresses. While at the beginning, Henry believes courage is fighting bravely, he soon grows to understand that courage is doing what he has to do. Henry proves his courage by not only risking his life for the cause of the Union army, but also by accepting himself for all of what he is.

Masculinity is something that is on Henry's mind a lot in The Red Badge of Courage. Like courage, Henry's idea of masculinity changes as the novel progresses. At the beginning of the story, Henry sees manliness as a brave soldier who rushes headlong into battle. However, by the end of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Henry realizes that true masculinity is acceptance of himself and understanding what is worth risking his life for.

Solitude is another theme of The Red Badge of Courage. Henry feels very isolated from the rest of his regiment. He assumes he is the only soldier plagued by fear and doubt, leaving him feeling like an outcast. The solitude in this book is physical as well as emotional. While Henry is alone, separated from the rest of the fighting, he has the time and relative safety to discover the truths about himself that lead to his growth from childhood to adulthood.

The personal growth that occurs in The Red Badge of Courage makes it in some ways a coming-of-age novel. Though the book spans only 48 hours in the life of Henry Fleming, it is a pivotal time for him. Henry goes through an amazing amount of growth over the course of the battle, and changes from a selfish teenager to a courageous man. Henry's growth is reflected in that of his fellow soldier, Wilson, who starts the novel as the 'Loud Soldier,' an opinionated braggart, and ends up not only a brave fighter, but a good friend to Henry.

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