Updated by Mary Bowen on March 19, 2020
Although not our favorite book, we have provided The Red Badge of Courage book summary because Stephen Crane's novel does hold many useful lessons as they are learned by his main character, Henry Fleming.
In this novel, Stephen Crane's main character, Henry Fleming, develops into manhood in a way that only war can accomplish while he fights through the terrors presented to him as he fights for the Union during America’s Civil War.
Henry’s chief weakness in the beginning of the novel is fear. As Henry is surrounded with the bravery of the other soldiers, he compares himself to them and is disgusted with himself. Henry transforms into a true hero by the end of the story. Follow Henry on his adventure through the emotional struggles he faces during the war.
Henry’s greatest fault is fear. He is afraid of the enemy, afraid of death and, in a way, afraid of himself. He has a twisted perspective of the enemy as a sweeping monster that will strike death in any it touches.
Although he tells all around him that he was made for war and that he will hold out to the end, Henry's fear of death comes to him when he first starts contemplating what it would be like to be in an engagement.
He habitually overthinks things. When he imagines himself in the battle, he is afraid that he will not have the strength to stay and fight. It is his telling himself that he does not have this strength that makes his courage fail when he is on the battlefield.
When he realizes that he has deserted, he is filled with shame when he deserts and does not what anyone to know about it. Henry is faced with a new fear: the fear of what his fellow soldiers will think of him. If Henry continues feeling these fears, he will never be a good soldier, and he knows it.
Henry, overthinking as always, tries to first tell himself that he will not run when the time for fighting comes. When he is actually in an engagement, he deserts. He realizes his mistake but, instead of being humble and admitting he was wrong, he tells himself that he was a reasonable being and everyone who stayed to fight was out of their minds.
He returns to the soldiers and tries to pass himself off as though he fought and was there all along. He tells no one of his fault and continues to have the same attitude as before. “He had performed his mistake in the dark, so he was still a man."
When he meets an old friend, Wilson, in his regiment, Henry compares himself to his friend, trying to make them the same. He knows deep down, however, that they are not the same because he is a deserter and Wilson is a loyal soldier.
By the end of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry has put his fears behind him and “learned as a man does”. He and Wilson are recognized by their officers for their noticeable good courage while fighting. Through his fighting during these later engagements, Henry recognizes his past foolishness and is able to look at his failings as a learning experience.
He realizes he learned much from being the deserter and fighting through his doubts. Studying his deeds, failures and achievements, Henry knows that his greatest achievement is that he overcame his many childish fears. When four prisoners are taken he sees that they are only men like himself, fighting for a cause that they believe is right. He understands death in a new way too. “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.” He is gleeful when he discovers how he despises his failures.
Henry comes to understand that to become a man to is to recognize mistakes and to loathe them. He sees that he was good. Henry now knows that pride will get him nowhere. He sees what he was in the beginning and is disgusted with himself. He now feels that he is like Wilson, able to look back at his past actions on the field with nothing but soldierly satisfaction.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry murdges from a stuck-up coward into a courageous man. Although he is overcome with the fear of death in the beginning, he learns that he must face his fears if he wishes to overcome them. He sees how his companions are like him but, because they possess courage they overcome their obstacles sooner than he did.
He sees his mistakes with new eyes and is glad to recognize them for that they are and despises them. Henry knows who he is and that it is far more rewarding to be in danger and later praised for his courage than to be safe from danger and know that he was a coward.He becomes a true hero by the end of the story.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane demonstrates how war is a combination of good and bad. There is a strong sense of evil that men should be so divided, especially fellow Americans. But, the reader sees the benefits. All the characters’ personalities improve in the story.
The war made them realize that they were one, together, and that nothing could be won by an individual. “Sometimes he inclined to think them all heros. He admitted in secret the superior development of the higher qualities on others.” Compared to the other characters, Henry’s developments seem to delay as a cause of his deserting and pride.
It was a very interesting read in the fact that it was based on the viewpoint of a common soldier. The other works I have read or watched such as the movie Gettysburg or the chapter on the Civil War in Anne Carroll's book Christ in the Americas are very focused on the prominent people such as General Longstreet, General Lee, or General Grant.
This book, however, was focused on a no body who did not realize that the generals had a good knowledge of the situation. Henry was actually many times angry with the generals, based solely on the knowledge of what was going on with just his regiment. I found that very interesting.
On another note: I really dreaded The Red Badge of Courage because of how very disagreeable it was to BeeJay, who read it before me. Now I know why she disliked it so much. I didn’t really feel like it had a very satisfying ending. It ended as the regiment is going to attack the enemy from behind. I know the story could not go on forever, ending with Henry’s death as an old man, but I still felt like Now what?
I also found the style of writing very confusing. Stephen Crane often referred to Henry as “the youth” and Wilson as “his friend”. I did keep in mind that Stephen Crane lived a long time ago and maybe that is the reason the style is so hard to follow, but Jane Austen lived a long time ago as well and I don’t have the slightest confusion when I am reading any of her books.
Also, I am a Civil War fanatic and was a little disappointed that The Red Badge of Courage had no mention of who the head general was, what the date was, nor where it took place, all of which would have at least provided a hint as to what was going on elsewhere during the story. My guess is Gettysburg, maybe? These various aspects did affect my love for the story.
Faustina Bowen is a founding member of industriousfamily.com. She is the second of ten children in a homeschool family. This high school Senior likes writing scripts for movies, helping mothers with their babies and playing the flute. She contributes to society at large by making wholesome movies and writing amazing articles and entertainment reviews.
Mary Bowen is a founding member of industriousfamily.com. Not only is she our resident artist but she is also a choir director, GAPS dessert guru, Angora lover, and director at Industrious Family Films. Always cheerful and optimistic, Mary loves sharing her gifts with others. She has walked the Chartes pilgrimages twice and hopes to go as often as is realistic. Her first movie, Outlaws of Ravenhurst premiered in 2018.
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