The Red Badge of Courage – Chapters II–IV

Summary: Chapter II
The next morning, the soldiers learn that Jim was mistaken:
the army does not move. Henry continues to worry about his courage, and
watches his comrades for any sign that they share his self-doubt. One
day, the army is given orders and begins to march. While marching,
the soldiers debate when and if they will see battle. Henry keeps
to himself, too preoccupied with his own speculations to join the
other men. The regiment enjoys itself, and is wildly amused when
a fat soldier attempts to steal a horse but the young girl who owns
it stops him. At night, the men set up camp, and Henry, feeling “vast
pity for himself,” asks Wilson if he can imagine himself running
from battle. Wilson indignantly claims that he would do his part
in a battle and leaves Henry feeling even more alone.
Summary: Chapter III
The next night finds the increasingly exhausted
soldiers marching through a dark forest. Henry worries that the
enemy might appear at any moment. When the enemy fails to materialize, Henry
returns to thinking that his regiment is nothing more than a “blue
demonstration.” One morning, however, Jim shakes Henry awake. They
hear the crack of distant gunfire, and the regiment begins to run.
Boxed in by his fellow soldiers as the officers goad them toward
the battle, Henry realizes that even if he wanted to run, the throng
of surrounding soldiers would trample him. Pressed forward, the
regiment parts to move around the body of a dead soldier. As he
passes the corpse, Henry grows increasingly vulnerable, and curses
the commanding officers who, it seems, are leading them to certain
death.
The men stop several times, many using branches and stones
to build protective trenches which they must abandon as the march drives
them forward. The more the regiment moves, the faster the soldiers’
morale wanes. They gradually begin to think that their leaders are
incompetent and indecisive. As the fighting draws closer and the
sound of gunfire grows louder, Wilson tells Henry that he believes
he will die in the battle. He gives Henry a yellow envelope and
asks him to deliver it to his family, should he not make it home.
Summary: Chapter IV
The regiment stops in a grove with the chaos of battle
raging around them. The regiment’s lieutenant is shot in the hand.
The soldiers of the 304th take their place
on the line, and veteran soldiers who mock their inexperience surround
them. As a group of enemy soldiers thunders toward them, Henry and
his regiment load their weapons and prepare to engage. Miserably,
Henry remains convinced that when he has to confront the worst that
war has to offer, he might distinguish himself not by how bravely
he fights, but by how quickly he runs away.
Analysis: Chapters II–IV
The self-doubt awakened in Henry in Chapter I continues
to plague him as he draws closer to battle in Chapter II. He oscillates
between grand, dramatic fantasies of the “traditional courage” that
leads to glory in the field and an innocent belief that the army
is never going to fight—that his regiment, rendered impotent by
Christian education, constitutes merely a “blue demonstration.”
Henry’s experiences eventually shatter these preconceptions. His
development into a man who understands that courage, duty, and manhood
are complicated and sometimes compromised is the most compelling
aspect of The Red Badge of Courage.
Even at this early stage, there are excellent opportunities
to scrutinize Henry’s conflicted character. He is incredibly vain,
obsesses over his own feelings, and seems unwilling to differentiate
between moral behavior and behavior that simply wins him the envy
and praise of others. In other words, he is less concerned with duty than with glory. He
fears being exposed as a coward, not because cowardice marks a shirking
of his responsibilities as a soldier, but because such exposure
would deny him an illustrious reputation. After all, Henry’s desire
for a noble name prompts his enlistment in the first place—he feels
little obligation to earn the title of hero. Rather, the “lavish
expenditure” of food, smiles, and compliments that he meets on the
way to Washington proves to be enough to make him believe that he
deserves such rewards.
As the novel progresses, Henry comes to the painful realization of
his own insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe—as his mother
tells him in Chapter I, he is “jest one little feller amongst a hull
lot of others.” When the marching troops come across a corpse, Henry
feels “the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer
to the Question.” “The Question” is never articulated, but the answer,
which Henry moves closer and closer to learning, has much to do
with understanding the modest and fragile proportions of one’s life
and the meaning of honor. Crane uses passing moments such as Henry’s
memory of his mother’s advice and this first encounter with a dead
soldier to plant some of the novel’s larger ideas in the reader’s
mind. The narrative’s major thematic concerns, such as the irresolvable
tensions between self-preservation and the impetus to behave honorably,
begin to be defined.