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The Red Badge of Courage | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Why does Crane refer to "hot plowshares" in Chapter 24 of The Red Badge of Courage when describing what Henry has gone through in reconciling himself to his early decisions?

The term hot plowshares comes from an ancient tradition of determining guilt or innocence through what was known as trial by ordeal. In this type of judicial decision people believed God could point to a person's innocence by allowing a miracle to occur when the person was subjected to a dangerous test. One of the tests required the accused walk barefoot a certain distance over metal plowshares that had been heated over a fire until red hot. According to how well the person's burns healed or how badly they festered, the person was deemed innocent or guilty. When Crane writes that Henry "came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility ... as if hot plowshares were not," he is saying Henry has decided he is innocent of crimes associated with his early decision to desert the war. He has freed his mind to move on to resting on his laurels as a soldier who was observed to be heroic.

Why is the use of dialect in the dialogue of The Red Badge of Courage important?

Crane's use of dialect in the dialogue of The Red Badge of Courage contributes to the realism of the text. For example, the sarcastic man speaks lazily: "Mebbe yeh think yeh fit th' hull battle yestirday, Fleming"; his pronunciations are typically Southern (hull instead of whole), he elides some of his words (indicated by th'), and some of his verb forms are informal (fit instead of fought). The dialect is authentic to the times and the location. Since Crane lived not long after the Civil War, he had most likely heard many of the dialects he uses. Crane even employs different accents from different regions, representing the wide diversity of the soldiers. He also changes the speech of officers as compared to enlisted soldiers, reflecting the difference in educational levels between the two groups of men, as when the general speaks in formal English in Chapter 18: "I don't believe many of your mule drivers will get back." Finally, Crane uses dialect as a tool of characterization, so that readers are soon able to recognize who is speaking even without the use of speaker tags.

How does the depiction of Henry Fleming as a hero in The Red Badge of Courage show his maturity?

Henry Fleming develops into a hero over the course of the novel. Although he begins full of misgivings and terror, through his experiences he develops a stronger sense of himself and the importance of the Union cause. Instead of fleeing battle, as he does early in the book, Henry charges into the action as a leader and standard-bearer, gaining "respectful comments of his fellows upon his conduct." Perhaps even more heroic, though, is the way Henry chooses to leave the "red sickness" of the war behind him by turning "to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace."

What does The Red Badge of Courage contribute to a historical understanding of the Civil War?

With its frank descriptions of the soldiers' feelings and movements, battlefield scenes, and scenery, the novel depicts what someone might actually have experienced in the Civil War; considering he calls his main character "the youth," Crane's intention may very well be to give us the perspective of any one of the tens of thousands of young men who fought. This kind of account fills in gaps that might be present in a simple list of facts about the war or a straightforward biography of someone involved in it—the personal aspect, including the helplessness many soldiers felt. Although the novel avoids placing its action in a particular place, its descriptions offer a glimpse of the universal experience of soldiers. Missing from the picture is the female side of war, but the novel's focus on the male side brings the war to life and helps readers understand the motivations of soldiers.

Based on The Red Badge of Courage, what was Stephen Crane's opinion of war?

Crane's opinion of war is fairly negative but nuanced. His writing does not glorify war, but rather it focuses on how the war affected the people taking part in it. War is portrayed as gruesome, stressful, and random. On one hand Henry matures because of war and becomes a hero at the end of the book, demonstrating the strength of human spirit. On the other hand, Henry also intentionally leaves the awful memories of war in his past. This action seems to indicate that Crane, while conscious of the heroism and sacrifice of the soldiers—as well as the importance of the causes they supported—recognizes war is a catastrophe.

How is manhood defined in Chapter 24 of The Red Badge of Courage?

As Henry considers his actions in the war, he no longer appreciates the bragging way he used to act. He also recognizes leaving the tattered soldier to die alone was a grave error, but one he needs to leave in the past. Gaining maturity and becoming a man involves being "of sturdy and strong blood"—being steady of mind and spirit rather than flighty. It also requires comfort with the death that will inevitably end his life. By shifting his mindset in this way, Henry becomes a man, allowing the scars of his earlier actions to fade "as flowers" and moving from weapons to "prospects of clover tranquility."

In The Red Badge of Courage, how does the symbol of the corpse help develop the character of Henry Fleming?

Corpses are all around Henry as he joins the war. As symbols of death and destruction they contribute to his fear, which leads to his running away from battle. But corpses aren't just symbols of war; they also lead Henry to the realization that death is a normal part of existence. When men die, even in war, they are submitting to a natural process. Once Henry understands this, he gives up fear and gains the courage he needs to fight like a hero. His new outlook allows him to change and even shifts the symbolic meaning of the corpses in the novel.

How does Henry Fleming demonstrate the theme of courage in The Red Badge of Courage?

By running away from battle, Henry lets himself and his regiment down. This display of fear and cowardice weighs on Henry, despite his efforts to justify it. As he gains a deeper understanding of his place in war, though, Henry realizes the cause of the Union is more important than his fear. He also comes to see that despite knowing the awful reality of what happens in war, brave soldiers continue to fight and support the people around them. He turns his attention to defeating the South and proving himself as a soldier and standard-bearer, embodying the courage referred to in the title.

What is the significance of women's roles in The Red Badge of Courage?

Throughout the novel men take the forefront. The main characters are all men, and women barely appear except as memories or in incidental contact, most notably when during a flashback Henry recalls his mother's words to him. During the war women's roles were often to maintain their households and farms, to work, to raise children, and even to run plantations while the men went to fight for their cause—in addition to those women who got directly involved in the war effort. In the novel women are not commonly seen at war, and the difference between roles highlights Crane's understanding of men's and women's roles. Although women were expected to fill some roles that were typically men's, such as running farms, they were kept away from the physical and psychological difficulties of battle. This separation in the novel supports the idea that men had to maintain a singularity of purpose in order to prove their courage and not get distracted from their goal of winning the war.

How does psychological realism develop the story and its impact in The Red Badge of Courage?

Much of the novel is caught up with Henry Fleming's thoughts and with his day-to-day movements, including the travels of his regiment and battles. The focus on his thoughts helps the reader understand the real effects of war on the human psyche—including boredom, fear, courage, exhaustion, pride, anger, confusion, and more. In Henry's personal development from the beginning to the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that the human mind is an ever-evolving, sensitive thing. This way of showing how Henry struggles and changes brings a greater understanding of history and how events like the Civil War affected the country.

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