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The Red Badge of Courage | Themes

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Nature

Nature is a recurring theme in The Red Badge of Courage. Henry and the narrator notice it frequently. Henry is usually surprised by the beauty of nature after being enveloped in the smoke, dirt, and grime of battle. In Chapter 5 after Henry's first battle, he is stunned to see the blue sky: "the youth felt a flash of astonishment at the blue, pure sky and the sun-gleamings on the trees and fields. It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment."

When Henry is fleeing, he throws a pinecone at a squirrel, which runs up a tree to safety. He takes this as a sign that he did the right thing by fleeing in the face of danger, "feeling that Nature was of his mind."

The trees provide protection and cover for the men. At one point Henry runs toward a tree; reaching it becomes his goal and a marker of success of forward movement. In Chapter 17 during his first battle after fleeing, Henry takes up a position by a little tree and is determined "to hold it against the world. "The tree not only protects him, but it also provides him with something to focus on.

Nature also plays a role in the fighting: natural elements—the river, woods, open fields, and hills—play strategic roles in the movements of the troops. The natural landscape is just as much a part of the war as the two opposing sides.

At the end of the novel, after a successful day, the men march in the rain. However, by this point, they are no longer "fresh fish," "mule drivers," or "mud diggers." Henry is a confident, battled-tested man who no longer fears the enemy or death, so the rain does not dampen his spirits: "he turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace." The underlying message of the theme of nature is that life continues, even in the face of death and the intense brutality of war.

Courage

The theme of courage in The Red Badge of Courage is that all people possess varying degrees of courage and that courage can come and go depending on the situation and on how a person perceives the impending danger.

In Henry's first battle he stands and fights and is proud of himself. In doing so he feels a brotherhood with his fellow comrades. His courage diminishes in the next round of fighting, however, when he thinks only of himself, causing him to flee in terror. During his second day of fighting, in Chapter 17, Henry again has a shift in thinking away from himself and focuses his rage on the enemy. This gives him the mental strength to lead the charge, to encourage his comrades when they lag behind, to work with Wilson and the lieutenant as a team, and to ignore his personal danger for the betterment of his regiment. He realizes he was a hero but does not know how he did it.

It is human nature for people's courage to vary in intensity. On the first day, when Henry is observing the fighting after he has fled, he envies the stoutness and strength of a regiment heading into battle only to be surprised shortly after to see the men fleeing in fear. In reality these are ordinary men, just like him. Courage and fear are a part of human nature; when a person thinks outside of his or her own personal danger and acts for the good of all, then courage typically comes to the forefront.

Maturity

There are levels of growth and maturity in The Red Badge of Courage. Henry Fleming is mainly referred to as the "youth." He is called "Henry" 32 times, and "Fleming" only seven times. During the chapters when he is having self-doubts and when he flees, he is consistently called the "youth," reflecting his lack of psychological growth and experience. After his first battle, he is proud of himself and perceives himself to be a man, a "magnificent" fellow. But when the enemy charges again, he is shocked that another battle is happening so soon and refers to the enemy as "dragons." This shows his lack of maturity and experience with battles. The reality of war conflicts with his Homeric views of war and heroism, and he flees in terror, along with other men. The 304th Regiment is referred to as "fresh fish" because of their lack of experience, and Henry's and other soldiers' actions reflect this freshness.

After Henry is nursed by Wilson, he realizes Wilson has matured after one day of fighting: "There was about [Wilson] now a fine reliance. He showed a quiet belief in his purposes and his abilities. And this inward confidence evidently enabled him to be indifferent to little words of other men aimed at him." The ability to be indifferent is what sets Wilson apart from how he acted previously. This serves as a rule to measure Henry's growth during the second day of fighting.

As Henry succeeds in battle, he gains more confidence, becomes less pompous and more modest. However, he rankles when the colonel calls the soldiers of the 304th Regiment "mule drivers" and is awakened to learn he is insignificant. And after a successful battle, the experienced soldiers mock the less experienced ones, and "the youth's tender flesh was deeply stung by these remarks." It is when Henry stops thinking of himself and thinks of the regiment, the army, the flag, and the cause, that he loses his self-importance and contributes to something larger than himself. He grows emotionally and intellectually, thus maturing into a man by the end of the story.

The universal truth represented by the theme of maturity is that people grow, change, and develop through experiences, especially ones that test them, through interactions with others, and through contemplation of their words, emotions, and actions.

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