Friday, March 5, 2010

What is Courage? -- According to the Red Badge of Courage, Part 1

What was the most frightening thing you've ever experienced? As we all know, it can be hard to have courage in the most scary situations; but perhaps never more so than in war. In the civil war novel by Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, the concept of courage is explored and defined as not shrinking back in the face of danger, but stepping forward and conquering fear.

We first see this definition of courage in the beginning, when Henry Fleming, the protagonist, runs away from battle. He thinks his action is the opposite of courage, when afterwards he finds out that his regiment had held the enemy, and there had been no need to run. Feeling guilty and ashamed of his cowardly behavior, Henry tries to logically convince himself that it had been the right thing to do. According to the book, “He had fled, he told himself, because annihilation approached... His actions had been sagacious things. They had been full of strategy. They were the work of a master's legs.” From this quote, we see that Henry is desperate to explain his action as the correct and wise decision; most likely, because he is too ashamed to admit that it was cowardly, even to himself. Nonetheless, he goes deep into the woods for a while, away from everyone else, to hide his shame.

When he comes back out of the woods, Henry joins a procession of wounded soldiers walking away from the battle. One of them assumes Henry is injured – since he is walking with the injured soldiers – and asks where he is hit. Henry feels “instant panic at this question”, stutters a moment, and slips away through the crowd. His shame for running away is particularly obvious here. It is as if his lack of a wound proves his lack of courage, because it “proves” he had not been at the battle to receive one.

As Henry continues to look at the injured people around him, he feels a spark of jealousy: “At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.” From this quote, we can conclude that in Henry's mind, having a wound is a symbol of bravery. To him, a wound proves that one had stayed in battle, and had looked death in the eye but not shrunk back in fear, as he had done.

Although he does not have a red badge of courage, Henry still feels he wears a badge of a different type. In chapter eleven, it speaks of “the sore badge of his dishonor.” His dishonor is, of course, the fact that he ran from battle. The word usage is interesting here. When Henry runs, he calls it a “badge of dishonor”; when people stay, fight, and are wounded, he calls it a “badge of courage.” One badge is internal; the other external. One is emotional; the other physical. And while a physical wound may sound more painful than the wound of guilt, Henry suggests that his guilt is more unbearable. He would much rather have the bloody, physical badge that displays his courage, than the sore, emotional badge that displays his cowardice.

To be continued...