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The Red Badge of Courage | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Chapter 1 of The Red Badge of Courage, in what ways do Henry Fleming's reasons for enlisting reflect his level of maturity?

In Chapter 1 Henry views the opportunity to fight for his country as a patriotic and adventurous undertaking. He has read about marches, sieges, and great battles and yearned to become part of what he envisioned as the glory of the battlefield. Henry remembers he dreamed of "vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire ... He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess." He recalls his mother discouraged him from joining the war, but he had read daily news accounts of decisive victories and could not resist his urge for excitement. Thus, his dreams of performing heroic deeds on the battlefield show his lack of maturity and experience with the realities of war.

In Chapter 1 of The Red Badge of Courage, what is Henry Fleming's central conflict?

Henry's chief conflict in Chapter 1 is internal: he doubts his courage and worries he may run from battle. As he waits for his first battle, Henry's emotions fluctuate between fear and confidence, doubts and a sense of honor. He ignores the taunts of experienced soldiers who call him "fresh fish," because "there was a more serious problem. He lay in his bunk pondering upon it. He tried to mathematically prove to himself that he would not run from a battle." Henry finds he is not the only new soldier with this thought and is reassured when Jim Conklin, the "tall soldier," tells Henry he might run if the whole group runs, but that if the whole group fights, he would stand with them.

In The Red Badge of Courage, what is the effect of Crane's decision to tell the story with a third-person, limited omniscient narrator with insights into Henry Fleming's thoughts?

Crane uses a third-person, limited omniscient narrator to present a subjective point of view about the main character, Henry Fleming. Readers know only what Henry thinks because the entire story is told through his eyes. Although Henry himself is not the narrator, readers get Henry's perspective of being a young, poor farmer caught up in the American Civil War. Readers learn about other characters and events only through Henry's viewpoint. Readers are privy to his fluctuating evaluations of himself, other soldiers, officers, nature, and the battlefield. This way of telling a story is realistic because people's thoughts often are jumbled, changing, and contradictory as they digest the world around them. It also leaves it to readers to interpret Henry's motives, rationalizations, and false impressions. There is no objective point of view reporting the facts or giving the author's interpretation of his character and events. Instead, readers are thrown into Henry's world to consider and judge Henry, his conflicts, and his evolution as a character as he is tested by battle.

In The Red Badge of Courage, what is the significance of Crane's not naming the battle Henry Fleming participates in?

It's clear Henry is fighting in the Union army during the American Civil War, most likely at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in 1863, given Crane's detailed descriptions of the surrounding area and the troop maneuvers. However, Crane does not address the cause of the Civil War, its politics, its resolution, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, or the hundreds of thousands who died during the war. Readers don't even know whether Henry returns home after the war is over. Instead, he focuses on the experience of war from the perspective of a lowly soldier. The significance is that Henry could be a youth fighting in any battle in any war anywhere in the world. Further, Henry's internal conflict as he doubts his courage is a universal struggle that confronts many people during wartime. Thus, Henry's story is not about one battle or one war, but about an ordinary young man who leaves the farm to fight for glory as many people before him and after him have done to earn their own red badges of courage.

In Chapter 1 of The Red Badge of Courage, how does Henry's flashback to his mother's advice foreshadow events of the novel?

Henry's mother tried to talk Henry out of enlisting, saying she needed his help at the farm. When she learns Henry has enlisted despite her discouragement, she gives him the best advice she has, telling him to be careful and not to try to be a hero. She warns him, "Don't go a-thinkin' you can lick the hull rebel army at the start, because yeh can't. Yer jest one little feller amongst a hull lot of others and yeh've got to keep quiet an' do what they tell yeh." She also tells him not to shirk from doing what's right. Her words foreshadow Henry's maturing as he realizes he has been romanticizing war, that to an officer Henry's regiment comprises "mule drivers" and "mud diggers," and that, while he can lead a charge, the entire regiment has to work together as one machine in order to achieve victory.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of The Red Badge of Courage, how does Crane use animal imagery to give readers insight into Henry's mind while he marches?

Crane uses animal images in Chapters 2 and 3 to reveal Henry's view of both the Union and the Confederate troops. Henry sees troops positioned in long lines like "serpents" and describes an enemy in the dark that "moved like monsters." Union soldiers are "busy as bees" who dig into the ground "like terriers." War itself is the "red animal." Henry is fearful the Confederate troops might kill the Union soldiers "like pigs." Henry also is anxious that if he warns his regiment, he will "turn into a worm." These descriptions develop the theme of nature in the novel. They also show that Henry isn't seeing individuals. He distances himself from the humanity of each soldier by viewing them as animals rather than as men. Seeing others as less human and more like animals helps soldiers become desensitized to wounding or killing another person during battle.

In Chapters 1–4 of The Red Badge of Courage, what is the purpose of showing Henry's regiment's waiting for battle instead of immediately describing battle scenes?

Crane uses the first four chapters to introduce major characters, to show Henry Fleming's inner conflict about how he will perform in battle, and to portray war realistically. It is so common in military culture for soldiers to be ordered to move quickly and then wait in unnerving suspense that a humorous phrase evolved by World War II, "hurry up and wait." Thus, it is part of Crane's authentic portrayal of the realities of wartime that the soldiers in Henry's regiment are suspended between tense inaction and intense life-or-death action for days. Crane convincingly portrays the soldiers' prickly reactions over the confusion of rumors and orders. Henry embodies their boredom, frustration, uncertainty, doubt, weariness, and insecurity. The more he is inactive, the more time he has to dwell on his fears.

In Chapters 5 and 6 of The Red Badge of Courage, why does Henry Fleming behave so differently in the two skirmishes described?

When Confederate soldiers attack Henry's regiment in Chapter 5, Henry becomes one with his regimental machine as he fires and reloads repeatedly without stopping. When the Confederate troops retreat, Henry feels he's spent a hellish day in a factory and wants to enjoy the celebratory mood. He is proud of himself for having passed his trial by fire. However, when the Confederate troops return to charge again, Henry is mentally unprepared to match the Confederate troops' determination. Seeing some Union soldiers flee the skirmish, Henry loses his sense of being part of a fighting machine. Overwhelmed, he bolts from the battlefield in terror. Henry acts in accordance with Jim Conklin's earlier prediction that soldiers may run if the entire group runs, but when the entire group fights, a soldier will stand with them. At this point Henry does well when the soldiers around him do well, but runs when he sees other soldiers run. Henry's perspective is complicated when he hears his general say his regiment held off the charge until reinforcements arrive. Thus, he actually let his regiment down, running before the skirmish is over.

In Chapter 7 of The Red Badge of Courage, why does Crane describe the copse, or thicket, of trees where Henry Fleming finds the dead Union soldier as a chapel?

Having learned the Union troops won the battle after he fled, Henry cringes at realizing his "brotherhood" showed the courage he lacks. He is amazed, then angry, and then he feels wronged. He fears the derision of the other soldiers for having fled. With immaturity, he pities himself as he struggles through wooded undergrowth to a field alive with nature, giving him the assurance "of peace." In this frame of mind Henry comes to a "place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light." Crane uses the arch, the allusion to pushing doors aside, and the grass "carpet" to evoke a sanctuary where Henry can escape his troubles after wandering lost and confused in the woods. Henry seems to attribute a spiritual element to nature. However, instead of finding sanctuary, Henry discovers a dead body with ant-encrusted eyes that seem to stare at him accusingly, and he runs away in horror.

In Chapter 7 of The Red Badge of Courage, how does Henry Fleming justify his flight from the front lines, and what does this justification reveal about his character?

Henry struggles with self-preservation and bravery, and after fighting courageously in his first skirmish, he flees in fear in his second skirmish. He justifies abandoning his regiment by rationalizing that he will be of better use to his army later by saving himself. He looks to nature for an example that he is correct in deserting his "brotherhood." Henry interprets a squirrel's running up a tree as a sign that reacting out of self-preservation is natural. His need to justify his running away in order to deal with his guilt reveals his immaturity. A more mature soldier would realize it is human nature to feel both fear and courage, acknowledge his failure to be heroic, and pledge to develop more courage when next tested by fire.

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