The Red Badge of Courage – Chapters V–VII

Summary: Chapter V

He suddenly lost concern for himself
. . . He was welded into a common personality which was dominated
by a single desire.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

After a tense wait, the enemy soldiers attack and Henry’s
regiment begins to fire upon them. The captain stands behind Henry’s
regiment shouting instructions. As he faces the threat of the advancing troops,
Henry loses his sense of being a lone, miserable outcast and begins
to conceive of himself as a single cog in a machine. The battle overshadows
his individuality by making him one with his fellow soldiers, just
as the instinct to fight overcomes his timid, intellectual musings.
The battle rages and Henry fires and reloads, fires and reloads,
in a continuing, automatic rhythm. A “red rage” overtakes the men,
who chant a “wild, barbaric song” as they fight. The lieutenant
beats a soldier who tries to retreat from the front line. The captain
is shot and collapses. At last, the enemy soldiers begin to retreat.
Henry’s regiment lets out a cheer and the survivors heartily congratulate
one another. Henry looks around; seeing the sun on the treetops
and the bright blue sky, he is surprised that nature keeps on going,
with no regard for the bloody events of the field.

. . . upon his face there was an astonished
and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an
ill turn.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary: Chapter VI
A short while later, Henry awakes and feels delighted
with himself. He thinks he has survived the horror of battle and
proved his courage. He and the other members of the regiment draw
themselves up proudly and praise one another’s fortitude and valor,
shaking hands in an ecstasy of mutual self-satisfaction. Suddenly,
someone cries out that the enemy forces have renewed the charge.
The men groan dejectedly and prepare to repel the attack. This time,
Henry does not feel as though he is part of a machine. He thinks
that the enemy soldiers must be awe-inspiring men to have such persistence,
and he panics. One by one, soldiers from Henry’s regiment begin
to jump up and flee from the line, and after a moment, Henry too
runs away.
Henry flees the battlefield, convinced that at any
moment, the charging enemy horde will burst out of the forest and
overrun him. He darts past a battery of gunmen, pitying them their
position in the path of the enemy. He skulks past a general giving
orders to his staff from atop a horse, and feels the desire to throttle
the general for his incompetent handling of the battle. To his shock,
he overhears the general declare that the enemy has been held back.
Summary: Chapter VII
Henry feels a sudden resentment toward those in his regiment
who did not run but, rather, defeated the enemy without him; he feels betrayed
by their stupidity. To assuage his own feelings of guilt and incompetence,
he assures himself that any thinking man would have realized that
the best interest of the army lay in each soldier’s own self-preservation.
Consumed by these rationalizations, he plunges into the woods. Now
far from the battle, Henry feels comforted by nature. He tosses
a pinecone at a squirrel, and the squirrel scampers into a tree.
Henry considers this sequence proof that fleeing from danger is
a natural, universal tendency. He stumbles into a forest grove whose
high ceiling of leaves makes it resemble a chapel. There he discovers
the dead body of a soldier in a tattered blue uniform much like
Henry’s. Ants swarm over the corpse’s face. Henry stares in shock
for a moment and then runs from the glade, half expecting the corpse
to cry out after him.
Analysis: Chapters V–VII
Henry’s loss of individuality in the heat of battle marks
his first experience with the nature of war and its powerful effect
upon the mind. He realizes the emptiness of his belief that glory
is bestowed almost automatically upon individuals who meet battle
squarely and fiercely when he observes “a singular absence of heroic
poses.” Rather, he loses all sense of self and fights with his fellow
soldiers as though all were components of a single machine. This
sense of commonality allows Henry’s recognition of the greater good
of the regiment to prevail over his selfish desire to avoid death.
The cheerful, self-congratulatory mood following the battle
initiates a cycle that repeats itself throughout the novel: when
the soldiers prevail, they feel confident and satisfied until forced
to fight again, at which point their fearfulness returns; when they
lose, they feel dejected and unsure of themselves until they receive
a chance to fight again and redeem themselves. As the novel progresses,
however, the regiment gradually hardens and shares an increasingly grim
and controlled attitude toward combat, keeping their emotions
in check until the fighting is really over. In this way, the regiment
of inexperienced soldiers matures into a veteran unit.
Henry’s second experience of battle further complicates
his assumptions about war, as he unexpectedly panics and flees.
The egotistic nature of Henry’s mind (which, because it is the only
mind in the novel to which the reader has access, represents every
soldier’s mind) reveals itself as Henry works desperately to restore
his own self-confidence by making irrational justifications. These
passages, which Crane wrote in his most sardonic and detached voice,
are often quite comic. For example, when Henry imagines that “he
had been wronged” by the regiment’s success in the battle after
his flight, and when he condemns the victorious soldiers for being
too stupid to follow him. This criticism is ironic, given Henry’s
belief that fine minds keep men from fighting bravely in battle.
The network of naïve assumptions and grandiose self-delusions in
Henry’s mind supports him as he struggles to restore his own sense
of importance.
This struggle renders Henry far more complex than a merely
vain and self-absorbed character. The briefest glimpse of war has
challenged Henry’s understanding of his own significance and has shaken
the foundations of his deepest beliefs: his understanding of courage,
honor, and manhood. This threat to Henry’s faith in his own special
and deserving nature opens the way for the most important thematic
exploration in the novel: his acknowledgment that the universe does
not care whether he lives or dies. Henry realizes that just as the
world spins around the anonymous soldier’s dead body, so will it
spin around his. This important insight about the relative inconsequentiality
of a given life finds representation throughout these three chapters,
as in the sun’s gleaming on the trees after the first battle, surprising
Henry that “nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process
in the midst of so much devilment.”
The corpse is one of the most important metaphors in the
early part of the novel, symbolizing both the finality of death
and the indifference of nature to the elimination of a human consciousness. Rooted,
immobile, and swarming with ants, the corpse is an undeniable part
of the scenery. No amount of mediation on courage or investigation
into whether the dead soldier lived honorably will change the essential,
inescapable fact of his death—neither his deeds nor his reputation
matter. The sight of the dead soldier undoes the comfortable moral
assumption that the squirrel’s flight from danger affords Henry,
and shows him that his logic has been too simple: there may be no
compass of right and wrong to which he might cling in this situation,
no overriding moral truth fundamental to the nature of the universe.
Henry learns that death may simply be death and that the universe may
not care about his fear of it.