The Red Badge of Courage – Chapter I

Summary: Chapter 1

Whatever he had learned of himself was
here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

On a cold, foggy morning, an army wakes on the banks of
a river. A tall soldier named Jim Conklin begins his day by washing
his shirt, and rushes back to camp to report a rumor he has overheard:
the regiment will move into battle the next day. As the men in this
particular squad have yet to face any military action, Jim’s words
provoke much excitement and debate. One private loudly declares Conklin
a liar, and a corporal complains that he would not have made costly
renovations to his house if he had known he would be called to leave
it. Henry Fleming, a young private, listens attentively to the arguments,
then retreats to his bunk to collect his thoughts.
Having dreamed of the glory and valor of battle since
childhood, Henry cannot believe that he may find himself in the
heat of combat the very next day. He wonders if soldiers in his
regiment can possibly achieve the same glory that the ancient Greek
war heroes did. He believes that religion, education, and common
household concerns have tamed men, sapping them of “the throat-grappling
instinct,” but that, in battle, they can still prove themselves
worthy. In fact, the conviction that battle may be the only way
for a man to distinguish himself prompted Henry to enlist in the
first place. He remembers how his mother discouraged this course
of action, how she refused to share in his romantic ideas of dying
a celebrated war hero. He thinks of her parting advice to him: never
to do anything he would feel ashamed to tell her. She encourages
him to do the right thing and not to shirk his duties for the sake
of returning home alive to care for her; she assures him that she
will carry on whether or not he returns.
Henry remembers his journey to Washington, where the regiment
assembled and enjoyed an abundance of food, the friendly smiles of
girls, and the assurances of men. There, Henry felt as if he had become
a hero. The months that followed his enlistment, however, were monotonous
and static. The daily grind of camp life has forced Henry to abandon
thoughts of glory. He struggles, instead, to preserve his own personal
well-being. Given his discomfort, Henry wonders if he will be capable
of thriving in battle. With rumors of a march into a fierce skirmish
the following day, Henry realizes that his character has gone untested
up until this point in his life. He wonders if he has the fortitude
to endure battle, or if cowardice will make him flee. When Jim returns
to the tent, Henry asks him if he would ever consider running from
battle. Jim answers that he would likely follow the cues of the
men surrounding him, fighting when they fought, running when they
ran. Henry feels relieved that he is not alone in questioning his
own courage.
Analysis: Chapter 1
Readers at the end of the nineteenth century, for many
of whom the American Civil War was a recent memory, were accustomed
to reading about the Civil War as a grand, morally charged clash
of ideals. Writers such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln,
and Walt Whitman treated the conflict—especially the fight to abolish
slavery—as a means of fulfilling the American dream and promise
of freedom. Crane, however, skirts the moral terrain of the war
by focusing instead on the day-to-day reality that an untested regiment of
soldiers faces. If a clear-cut dividing line can be drawn between the
concerns of the warring North and South, Crane does little to honor
it. He does not introduce a band of righteous, well-fitted soldiers
who represent all that is good and glorious. Instead, he depicts a
group of soldiers who are, for the most part, utterly amateur. They have
never fought, they hold their commanding officers in contempt, and
they have no sense of the glory commonly associated with military
service. In short, Crane places the reader squarely in the sphere
of realism, which attempts to portray life as it is, rather than
allegory, which uses symbolism to convey meaning.
Whereas the early nineteenth century brought forth writers
who sought to escape or transcend reality, and who often wrote in
a flowery style, writers in the latter part of the century, according
to William Dean Howells, insisted on “nothing more and nothing less
than the truthful treatment of materials.” Although powerful and
evocative, Crane’s descriptions of the army, life in the camp, and
the natural surroundings are stripped of unnecessarily ornamental language.
Crane records both the daily life of the soldiers and Henry’s complex
inner musings in clear, direct, unadorned prose:
The youth was in a little trance of astonishment.
So they were at last going to fight. On the morrow, perhaps, there
would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged
to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance
an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs
of the earth.

The main battle of The Red Badge of
Courage is the psychological one that takes place in Henry’s
head. From the moment he is introduced, Henry struggles to reconcile
the fanciful narratives of larger-than-life heroes emerging from
bloody but valorous battles with the much plainer, much less glorified
existence of life in the 304th Regiment.
When he learns that he may soon be placed on the battlefront, he
begins to weigh the war that he imagined against the war in which
he actually finds himself. He wonders if he, like the heroes of
Ancient Greece before him, will return from battle “with his shield
or on it.”
The novel focuses on Henry’s concern about dying without
recognition versus achieving public glory. Within the first few
pages, Henry appears vain and self-centered. His idea of glory falls
short of the Homeric heroes whom he praises, for he lacks their
requisite sense of duty. He does not consider earning or proving
himself worthy of public recognition nearly as important as the
recognition itself. So long as he is met by smiling girls and appreciative
men, he is content to think of himself as a hero. However, as the
possibility of battle draws closer, and Henry begins to question
whether he deserves the accolades he desires, both Henry and the
reader are forced to question traditional understandings of such
abstract concepts as glory, cowardice and, of course, courage.