The Red Badge of Courage By Stephen Crane Summary and Analysis Chapter 20

Summary

As quickly as the charge begins and continues, it comes to an end. Henry sees that the remaining troops in the regiment are beginning to retreat. The officers entreat the men to keep firing, but to no avail. The regiment's remaining men return to the relative safety of the trees on the side of the clearing where the offensive began. Henry and Wilson have a brief argument over who will carry the flag. Henry pushes Wilson away and assumes the ownership of the flag. As Henry surveys his comrades, he sees a dejected, worn-out group of soldiers. The enemy forces begin their counterattack against the retreating regiment.

The regiment is in serious disarray, and Henry joins forces with his lieutenant to try to keep the men focused on their retreat toward friendly lines. Confusion builds, and some of the troops in Henry's regiment begin to think that they are moving toward the enemy instead of away from them. Henry moves into the middle of the confused troops, and he, while holding the flag as a rallying point, along with the lieutenant and the other officers, brings the men back to their senses. The lieutenant organizes the troops into a circle in order to cover any possibility that the troops have lost their direction and to protect the remaining men in the regiment from attack from any direction.

As the regiment waits, Henry studies the demeanor of the lieutenant. The lieutenant is calm as he stands straight and peers through the haze — when, suddenly, he hollers, "Here they come! Right on us, b' Gawd!" Henry and the others begin firing. The enemy is so close that Henry can clearly see, for the first time, the faces and uniforms of the enemy. The quick action of the regiment catches the enemy troops by surprise. The enemy returns fire, and the two forces engage in a fierce battle. Henry is impressed with the ferocity the regiment shows in fighting. The remaining soldiers of the regiment turn back the enemy. This "small duel" revitalizes the men and restores their confidence.

Analysis

In this chapter, Crane focuses on the collective regimental confidence. This focus on the regiment as a unit allows Crane to place Henry in the context of both his fighting unit in particular and of war in general. Henry is an infantry man, a foot soldier, no better nor worse than all the others in his unit. This war is not his war. It is a war involving the Henrys, Jims, and Wilsons on both sides of the conflict. Crane expects the reader to place Henry in this context because Henry, in reality, is but one small cog in the gears of war. The confidence of each soldier combines to form a confident unit of soldiers.

This chapter shows clearly how the unit's confidence, as a whole, is dependent on the confidence of individual soldiers. At the same time, Henry's willingness, indeed his eagerness, to be the flag bearer illustrates his courage and recognition of duty. His behavior can be coupled with the brave leadership of the lieutenant in leading the troops into battle and in protecting them when under attack. The actions of these two men help to build the confidence of the unit to the point that they can mount an offensive and eventually repel a counterattack.

Henry works closely with a bold leader, the lieutenant. Henry holds the flag as a rallying point for the regiment. He dismisses a friend who loses his confidence as he tells him, "Oh shut up, you damned fool!" Henry will not listen to whining men with a loser mentality.

Crane develops a strong broom metaphor as he discusses the idea that the regiment is to act as a broom to sweep out the enemy. This metaphor stops when the regiment's offensive stops. It is picked up again when the enemy's counterattack is suggested to swallow the regimental broom. If Henry's regiment (the regimental broom) is, in fact, going to be "swallowed" by the enemy, Henry hopes that, at least, he wants "the consolation of going down with the bristles forward." This metaphor for anger with the enemy, for choking the enemy, works well.

Crane uses the broom metaphor in conjunction with the regiment's offensive because the broom is a well-recognized cleaning tool. At the same time, a broom is not usually considered to be a weapon; however, in this case Crane makes the broom a weapon metaphorically by changing its use from a cleaning tool to a weapon (if used with the bristles forward to choke). In this way, Crane is suggesting metaphorically that the regiment (a common fighting unit) can use common tools (a broom) to achieve a common goal (victory in battle).

The use of smoke, haze, fog, and clouds as symbols for the confusion of war is especially important for this chapter. The battles are fought in smoke, haze, fog, and clouds. The war is unclear; the battles are hazy, even if they do end in victory. The use of these symbols leads the reader to ask, "Where is this all going?"

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