The Red Badge of Courage | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Red Badge of Courage | Chapter 4 | Summary



The youth's brigade stops in the woods at the edge of a field. They can see skirmishes through the smoke of gunpowder, and men running back and forth. Bullets start to whiz through the trees, and the lieutenant is shot in the hand. Suddenly, the whole unit that is fighting starts to flee, running toward the men in flank position. The veteran regiments jeer at the fleeing men, and the officers, in retreat with their men, are cursing and yelling at them. The reserve troops watch this chaos but have to stay put: "They grew pale and firm, and red and quaking." The youth is determined to see the "composite monster" that has caused the troops to flee and then thinks "he might very likely run better than the rest of them."


So far this is the closest the youth comes to witnessing a battle. Before, Henry Fleming could see where the battle lines are by the smoke; now he can see the chaos of men running. As he witnesses the unit that was fighting flee in terror, the youth's regiment stays in place. Although the young man has built up the enemy as "monsters" and "snakes," he stays put, surrounded safely by the other men of his regiment. While he wants to test himself and face the enemy, he considers that he might flee like the unit he witnesses.

The image of chaos hearkens back to Greek mythology, which states that Chaos was the first being, a void out of which all else was created, including Earth, the Underworld, love, darkness, and night. Sensory details such as the smoke suggest that the battle takes place in the Underworld, a place of death. The use of the term composite monster reflects Henry's desire to see that enemy as something evil but undefined, stripping the enemy soldiers of their individuality and thus making them easier to kill if necessary.

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