The Red Badge of Courage – Chapters XX–XXII

Summary: Chapter XX
After seizing the flag from the fallen color bearer, Henry
and Wilson see the regiment slinking back toward them, the enemy
having broken their charge. The lieutenant cries out angrily, but
the men fall back to a row of trees, relatively safe from the deadly
hail of gunfire. After a scuffle, Henry succeeds in pulling the
flag away from Wilson, and bears it himself. As the men march across
the battlefield, they are pelted with bullets, and surrounded by
fortified groups of enemy soldiers. Henry, who entertains the notion
of a victory as “a fine revenge upon the officer who had referred
to him and his fellows as mule drivers,” mulls with shame and rage
that victory is not to be. Still, he holds the flag proudly and
urges the men to fight, even though the regiment is in tatters and
men are beginning to scatter.
Soon, the enemy is upon Henry’s regiment, which, at the
last minute, mounts a respectable defense. Henry comforts himself
with the thought that if the enemy is meant to win the battle, their
victory will at least not be an easy one. As the 304th
fights, he is assured of its confidence in combat. In a pitched
battle, Henry’s regiment succeeds in forcing the enemy soldiers
to retreat. The spirits of all the men in Henry’s group are uplifted;
they feel as though they have regained their capabilities, and proceed
with a new enthusiasm.
Summary: Chapter XXI
At last the regiment returns to the fortified
position of its army. The other soldiers mock the 304th
for stopping “about a hundred feet this side of a very pretty success,”
which fills Henry’s group with impotent rage. Looking back across
the field from his new position of safety, Henry is astonished to
realize that a distance that seemed so great is actually quite small—the
line of trees from which he and his companions so perilously made
their escape seems ridiculously near. As Henry contemplates this
fact, the officer who called the men mule drivers suddenly rides
up to the group. Accosting the colonel, he berates the men for their pitiful
behavior and calls them “mud diggers.” This enrages the men, and
a murmur rises up from the ranks about the incompetence and condescension
of the blue army’s commanders.
As the soldiers gripe to one another, a few men approach
Henry and Wilson, excitement glowing on their faces. They say that
they have overheard the colonel of the regiment talking to the lieutenant about
Henry and Wilson: the two soldiers are, in the colonel’s estimation,
the best fighters in the regiment. Though they pretend to be uninterested
in the report, Henry and Wilson are deeply satisfied and feel a
renewed confidence in the war effort.
Summary: Chapter XXII
This praise fortifies Henry for the next battle, which
he meets with “serene self-confidence.” The blue and the gray form
for “another attack in the pitiless monotony of conflicts.” As the
battle rages on, Henry’s regiment thins. Great losses of life and
energy hamper the regiment, and Henry loses himself in spectatorship
for a while. He can only stand and watch the events around him,
but does not feel his idleness: “He did not know that he breathed;
that the flag hung silently over him, so absorbed was he.” Henry
maintains his resolve not to retreat, regardless of what happens,
thinking that his dead body would be the ultimate revenge on the
man who called the 304th Regiment “mule drivers”
and “mud diggers.” As bullets whir in the air around him, Henry
sees the regiment growing starker. Many of the blue soldiers are
hit, some falling to the ground in vivid gore. Henry notes that
Wilson and the lieutenant are unhurt, but that the regiment’s fire
is rapidly weakening.
Analysis: Chapters XX–XXII
This short section continues Crane’s withdrawal from the
explicit exploration of abstract themes, in favor of a graphic portrayal
of battle. It also pushes Crane’s sardonic commentary firmly into
the background, as the impressionistic depiction of battle scenes
occupies all of Chapter XX. With an incredible economy of language, Crane
is able to put the physical and psychological demands of battle
into words:
“Where in hell yeh goin’?” the lieutenant
was asking in a sarcastic howl. And a red-bearded officer, whose
voice of triple brass could plainly be heard, was commanding: “Shoot into
’em! Shoot into ’em, Gawd damn their souls!” There was a mêlée of
screeches, in which the men were ordered to do conflicting and impossible
things.

Such details as the “voice of triple brass” and “mêlée of
screeches” contribute to the general sense of the disorienting bedlam
on the battlefield. They are impressionistic in that they evoke
a distinct feeling and mood but can be interpreted in various ways.
Using a slightly different tone in Chapter XXII, Crane
issues a startlingly convincing portrayal of the graphic violence
of battle, one that falls into the genre of realism rather than
impressionism:
The orderly sergeant of the youth’s company
was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw
hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing
mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry
out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he
conceived that one great shriek would make him well.

With his meticulous attention to gory detail, Crane paints
a haunting picture. The inclusion of such details as the manner
in which the sergeant’s jaw hangs down and the “pulsing mass of
blood and teeth” resonates within the reader’s imagination, and
is effective in part because of the journalistic objectivity in
which it is narrated.
In Chapter XXI, the regiment’s new cohesion
is far from total: Henry and Wilson are insulted by the derisive
officer’s disparagement of their regiment, but pleased by the individual
praise they have won from their own officers. Henry still places
great stock in the opinions of others. While he seems, at some moments,
to be coming into a new sense of inner security, at others he retains
his old narcissistic vanity, as when he imagines that his own death would
be the ultimate revenge on the derisive officer: “It was his idea,
vaguely formed, that his corpse would be for those eyes a great
and salt reproach.”
Henry’s belief that his death would be significant enough
to affect an officer who does not even know his name and who probably
does not have the inclination to mourn individual privates, reveals
that he has not yet fully internalized the lessons of the first part
of the novel. He has encountered hard truths about the indifference
of the universe that have somewhat broadened his perspective. Nevertheless,
he is still unable to accept the idea that his death would go largely
unnoticed. It seems to him—as, Crane implies, it does to every individual—that
his own perception is the measure of his existence, and that the
end of the individual consciousness would be apocalyptic for the
entire world. The fact that Henry’s growth is not complete should
not, however, detract from it. Henry has grown
considerably. For instance, when the soldiers report to him the
colonel’s praise, Henry is able to celebrate his victory with “a
secret glance of joy” toward Wilson, a stroke of modesty of which
he would have been incapable at the beginning of the novel. It is
a testament to the novel’s realism that such a profound and complex
change in character is neither immediate or easy.