The Red Badge of Courage | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Red Badge of Courage | Symbols


Red Badge of Courage

The red badge of courage is a bloody wound that symbolizes bravery. If a man is injured, others automatically think he fought bravely. When Henry walks with the wounded soldiers, he envies them their wounds—their bloodied badges of courage. When Henry returns to his regiment, the men think he is brave, especially because he returns to the unit with a head wound rather than going for medical help. Wilson calls Henry a "good 'un" because Henry does not complain about his injury. This inspires Henry and provides him with the confidence to act as if he did indeed earn the badge of courage.


The corpses that lie on the battlefield and among the trees, gullies, and groves symbolize the destruction caused by the war, the futility of fighting, and the final end of every living thing. Henry, with his Homeric views of war, thinks he is destined to survive and be a hero. By the end of the novel, however, "he had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death." Death is inevitable and is not something to be feared as it comes with being a part of nature.


The Union and Confederate armies both have flags, which represent their beliefs and values. Each regiment has a color bearer who carries the flag at the head of the charge. When Henry watches the fighting from a hilltop, he can see the flags of each regiment going back and forth, thus distinguishing the front lines. This is a literal interpretation of the flag.

It isn't until Chapter 19, when Henry is in the throes of battle, that he realizes not only what the flag symbolizes but also what he is fighting for:

Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power. He kept near it, as if it could be a saver of lives, and an imploring cry went from his mind.

The flag symbolizes all the hopes and dreams, not only of Henry, but of the men on their respective sides of what they want their country to be. By carrying the flag, Henry not only leads the charge into battle and encourages his comrades to push forward, but he also states that the fight, the struggle, the pain, suffering, and death are worth it to defend the beauty of what the flag represents.

Later in the battle Henry wishes to capture the enemy's flag and is pleased to see Wilson is able to snatch the flag from the dying Confederate soldier. By literally taking the flag the enemy regiment is defeated.

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