The Red Badge of Courage – Chapters XXIII–XXIV

Summary: Chapter XXIII

He had been to touch the great death,
and found that, after all, it was but the great death.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

The officers order a full-scale charge upon the
fence, and the men comply with a final burst of energy. Bearing
the flag as he runs through the smoke, Henry perceives dimly that
many of the enemy soldiers are fleeing from the fence at the sight
of the blue charge. Only a small, determined group remains. As the
men battle, Henry sees that the enemy’s standard bearer is wounded.
Thinking that capturing the opponent’s battle flag—that “craved
treasure of mythology”—would be a supreme accomplishment, he rushes
toward him. He and Wilson lunge for the flag at the same time, and
Wilson succeeds in prying it from the dying enemy’s fingers. At
last the gray soldiers are driven from the fence, and Henry’s regiment
begins to celebrate. They have even taken four prisoners—one curses
the regiment, one talks to them with interest, one stares stoically
into space, and the last seems ashamed to have been captured. Henry
nestles into a long patch of grass and rests contentedly, chatting
with Wilson about their achievements.
Summary: Chapter XXIV
After a while, the regiment receives orders to march back
toward the river. As Henry walks, he ponders his experience of war
and reproaches himself for his early behavior. His mind undergoes
a “subtle change” as he feels elated about his recent success in
battle, but is tormented by his cowardice in the first battle and
reprehensible abandonment of the tattered man. Milling over both
his accomplishments and his failures, Henry is finally able to put
his life into proper perspective, to “criticize [these deeds] with
some correctness.” At last, he is able to distance himself from
the guilt that he feels about his initially selfish behavior. As
a pouring rain begins to fall from the sky, Henry smiles, imagining
a world of beauty, happiness, and eternal peace. He feels a “quiet
manhood” within himself, and over the river a symbolic ray of sun
breaks through the clouds.
Analysis: Chapters XXIII–XXIV
The final, climactic charge that culminates in Chapter
XXIII cements an important fact: Henry, whether by an act of courage
or simply by following the momentum of his environment, has now proven
himself to be an experienced and successful soldier. Along with
the other surviving members of the regiment, he has earned the title
and perspective of a veteran fighter. Crane portrays these soldiers
as exhibiting epic heroism: after having almost been defeated, and
with numbers dwindling, these remaining men resolve themselves to
their goal and rally courageously to overcome the enemy.
The description of the actual charge focuses on the desperate, ludicrous
futility of the action: “[Henry] did not see anything excepting
the mist of smoke gashed by the little knives of fire, but he knew
that in it lay the aged fence of a vanished farmer protecting the snuggled
bodies of the gray men.” That the men endure such catastrophe simply
to seize a line of fence is simultaneously appalling, inspiring,
and grotesquely comical.
No section of The Red Badge of Courage has
raised as much analytical debate as its ending. Many critics of
the novel, especially in its early years, argued that Crane’s portrayal
of Henry’s coming-of-age process is without irony, so that the closing
lines regarding Henry’s new appreciation for life, his newfound
security in himself, and his new sense of manhood are meant to be
taken at face value: Henry gains perspective on his life and grows
up. Other critics of the novel, particularly in recent years, have
noted strands of sarcasm in Crane’s closing. They argue that the
reader is meant to believe that Henry has simply fallen back on
his old habit of covering up his psychological wounds with self-justification
and delusion. According to this view, Henry is still the vain, uncertain
boy he is at the beginning of the novel, despite his experience
and success in battle.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between these interpretations.
In light of the sardonic tone that pervades much of the novel, it
seems simplistic to take the somewhat melodramatic, optimistic conclusion
on its own terms. One can argue that Henry’s remarkable transformation
is not realistic, given the brief period of time over which it occurs.
On the other hand, there is reason to believe that Henry has matured.
Although his new maturity seems in part a function of his vanity—Henry
wants to believe that he has matured—he is also
far less plagued by self-doubt and self-importance at the end of
the novel than he is at the beginning. In all likelihood, Crane
did not intend the reader to believe that Henry has simply transcended
all of his shortcomings; he is still prone to fall back on illusion
and vanity, and to shield himself from the crushing indifference
of the universe to his existence. However, he is also more experienced,
more confident, and more knowledgeable about himself. In this way,
the optimistic tone of the end of the novel is convincing, even
if the reader does not entirely share Henry’s conviction that he
has conquered “the red sickness of battle” and fully adapted himself
to the blunt, cruel realities of the world.