The Red Badge Of Courage: Courage Via Social Stigma

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Stephen Crane’s American war novel The Red Badge of Courage follows Union Army private Henry Fleming who runs away from battle during the American Civil War. The concepts of courage and cowardice both have significant roles throughout the course of the novel. The story chronicles Fleming’s ongoing internal struggle with finding courage, beginning with his overwhelming amount of cowardice and ending with his apparent transition into heroism. However, the authenticity of Henry’s intentions and maturity are ultimately questionable upon a close reading of the text, as social stigma is what ultimately defines what he perceives as courage and cowardice.

The actual answer to this question is not very black-and-white. In order to come to a conclusion, one must first understand the context of war in Henry’s eyes, and its relationship with cowardice and courage. Henry first clings to a naive view of what war looks like, viewing it as something that will be seen as a picture of heroism so to speak. “He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess” (Crane, Ch. 1). His simplistic and idealistic worldview quickly become challenged as he begins to come to terms with just how cowardly he is. A large portion of the first few chapters are dedicated to exploring Henry’s observations, admiring the soldiers around him, while accepting the fact that he is full of fear, to the point of giving into it, and ultimately choosing to flee from battle. Interestingly, the shame that comes of this as a result seems to stem more from social factors than anything else.

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He imagined the whole regiment saying: “Where’s Henry Fleming? He run, didn’t ‘e? Oh, my!” He recalled various persons who would be quite sure to leave him no peace about it. They would doubtless question him with sneers, and laugh at his stammering hesitation. In the next engagement they would try to keep watch of him to discover when he would run. (Crane, Ch. 1)

From excerpts like this, one can deduce that the ultimate source of the fear and shame that dominates the protagonist’s internal thoughts during the first half of the novel is less rooted in his innate sense of morality–his will to do what he ought to–and has a lot more to do with how others will view him. Whether he consciously realizes it or not, Henry places significant value in his social position, including his reputation, as well as what others think of him in general. Henry wants to project an image of courage and success in order to find his sense of worth, as determined by the opinions of those around him.

The first chapter in particular focuses on such social dynamics as Henry observes other soldiers, in order to determine what courage and cowardice look like to them. Some soldiers begin to discuss the temptation to run away from battle. The discussion is at first thought of as a joke before the tall private voices his thoughts on the matter, saying that he would run away from battle if his peers did such.

The tall private . . . [said] ‘I’ve thought it might get too hot for Jim Conklin in some of them scrimmages, and if a whole lot of boys started and run, why, I s’pose I’d start and run. And if I once started to run, I’d run like the devil, and no mistake. But if everybody was a-standing and a-fighting, why, I’d stand and fight. Be jiminey, I would. I’ll bet on it.’ (Crane, Ch. 1)

The tall private acknowledges that a personal theoretical act of arguable cowardice is justified, or at least understandable so long as it is carried out alongside other people. This excerpt exemplifies the idea of social dynamics playing a role in the choices of the soldiers. Of course, Henry is relieved to hear this, of course. In addition to realizing that his fears are not alone, his temptation to run away and indulge in his cowardice becomes rationalized. This reassurance allows him to feel more at ease, largely because his cowardly actions would be at least somewhat accepted socially.

However, Henry ultimately regrets his act of cowardice, and begins longing for a wound, or the titular red badge of courage. Shame shakes him to his core, but his biggest fears, as expressed through his thoughts, again revolve around what his peers think of him. For example in the eleventh chapter, Fleming imagines the regiment mocking him for his cowardice. “He recalled various persons who would be quite sure to leave him no peace about it. They would doubtless question him with sneers, and laugh at his stammering hesitation” (Crane, Ch. 11). This social position is what drives Henry’s actions and what leads him to pursue what he perceives as courage. However, the legitimacy of the courage that he pursues is still questionable. Because of just how much social factors play into his decision making, Henry longs more for the image of courage, so that others will view him with respect. In order to achieve this projection of courage, however, Henry must move past his fears and earn this image of courage. So while the courage may be authentic to some extent, it is the motivations and intentions that remain questionable.

Because social factors play such a prominent role in Henry’s approach to courage and

cowardice, it can be reasoned that he does not grow significantly. Theoretically, an argument could be made that the story does see growth and maturity in Henry as he progresses beyond what is required of him by social influence. Consider the following line: “[h]e saw his vivid error, and he was afraid that it would stand before him all his life” (Crane, Ch. 24). This may seemingly indicate that Henry undergoes introspection; however, this “vivid error” just as well could be determined by social pressure, and “stand[ing] before him all his life” could not only be mentally, but socially as well, as nobody would let matters down. Henry does not want others to judge him, thus he acts accordingly.

Work Cited

  1. Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. The Project Gutenberg Ebook, 1 July 2008. ISO-8859-1.  


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