Critical Essays The Structure of The Red Badge of Courage


The novel is organized into many short chapters, which creates the impression that the reader is looking at a series of snapshots in a photo album. This technique works most effectively in the chapters which relate to battlefield action; the short chapters highlight the interactions between the soldiers and their environment. The short chapters allow the reader to enter Henry's mind and become part of Henry's mental debate.

In Chapter 1 of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry is totally immersed in his own thoughts. As he waits for war, he daydreams about his home, his farm, and the conversation he had had with his mother. By staging the first chapter of the book almost exclusively in Henry's thoughts, Crane sets the stage for Henry's mental transition throughout the book. His initial mental state is one of excitement and unrealistic thoughts of glory. Henry is a dreamer; boys dream; a youth does not think of death — especially the possibility of his own death.

In Chapter 2, Henry begins to interact with the other soldiers in the regiment. Crane shows Henry listening to his comrades discussing the enemy and the battles to come. Henry, the inexperienced youth, can't judge how much truth is in the veterans' tales. This lack of knowledge contributes to his fear, which he internalizes completely, leaving him isolated from the other men. Henry's isolation allows Crane to focus on Henry's mental transition throughout the book; rarely does the story diverge from Henry's thoughts or actions.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Crane uses rumors to play on Henry's fears and doubts. To this point, Henry has observed battles, but his regiment has not yet been in a battle. Fear — in this case, fear of the unknown — grows because Henry has not yet seen the enemy. (The reader experiences the war through Henry's eyes, so the reader easily identifies with Henry's fear of the unknown, unseen enemy.) Indeed, the fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of facing the problem directly. This fear of the unknown is a normal human behavior, one with which all people can identify, and, as a result, the reader can empathize with Henry.

Chapter 5 brings the first real shift in Henry's character. It is the first day of the first battle for Henry and his regiment. Henry stands his ground and fires, forgetting his fears and doubts about his performance. The reader wonders if Henry has crossed the line from youth to man as a result of his first battle. The answer to this question comes in Chapter 6, when Henry experiences another character shift. In Chapter 6, the enemy troops immediately regroup to begin another charge. This move surprises the Union troops, including Henry, and his fears return. Indeed, he becomes so afraid that he drops his rifle and runs as the enemy approaches. Henry, as a result, returns to being a boy. Crane uses the quick shifts in Henry's character from chapter to chapter to show Henry's unstable mental condition; his courage and commitment to duty don't come from within, but are entirely influenced by external forces which whip him from one extreme to the other.

Henry remains a frightened boy as he continues to run and to try to determine if, when, and how he should return to his regiment to face the ridicule which he thinks that he will surely receive. In Chapter 12, a cheery soldier befriends him and returns him to his regiment. Prior to meeting the cheery soldier, Henry received a head injury inflicted on him by another fleeing soldier, and he left another comrade, a wounded, tattered soldier, wandering in a field because this soldier asked too many questions about him — questions which he refused to answer at that time. Henry's behavior continues to be boyish and immature.

The fact that Henry, ironically, sustained a head wound from another soldier also running from the front line is known only to Henry and to the reader. In this way Crane brings the reader into Henry's mind and allows the reader to speculate regarding just how Henry will explain what has happened to him. The omniscient point of view used by Crane comes into play as Crane tells the reader how the other soldiers react to the wound — the reader and Henry being the only observers having knowledge of how he sustained the injury. Recovery from the head injury buys Henry a little time to consider if he can tell what really happened to him. He determines that he cannot face the ridicule which he might receive if he told the truth, so he does not tell what really happened. (He tells two untruths instead.) It is not until the head wound heals, and he finds Wilson's letters, that he can begin to rebuild his confidence.

On being returned to his regiment, Henry is welcomed by Wilson, a soldier friend, and given treatment for his injury. In this way, Crane shows that Henry is not totally isolated; his fellow soldiers are prepared to accept him as an important and valued member of their team. Henry, however, can't face Wilson to answer any questions because he is ashamed of what he has done. Henry sleeps that night as a boy waiting to be scolded — and forgiven, if possible.

The next morning, in Chapters 14 and 15, the day after he runs from the enemy, Henry realizes that he may not be the worst soldier in the regiment. Wilson asks him to return several letters which he had given to him. (The letters were given to Henry by Wilson because Wilson thought that he was going to die in battle.) Henry realizes that Wilson could also show weakness and fear (in this case even before the regiment had engaged in battle.) As a result, Henry regains some of his lost confidence. Henry's reaction to Wilson's letters — building strength on someone else's weakness — may show some immaturity on Henry's part, but it does move him from boy to youth because he is, at least, trying to find something to reestablish his confidence.

From this point on in the novel, the second day of Henry's combat experience, he develops rapidly into a man, into a courageous duty-bound soldier. Indeed, he reaches his full, soldierly manhood in Chapter 17 when he participates in a battle and fights like a "wild cat." Crane shows Henry's transition as he awakens to the realization that he is, in fact, a soldier who must kill. This is Henry, the new Henry, the soldier hero. Henry is a changed person; he is now a soldier and a man.

In the remainder of the novel, Chapters 19 to 24, Henry becomes a model soldier, showing courage and bravery and allegiance to duty. Henry also determines that he will use his poor treatment of the tattered soldier as a reminder that he must balance humility with confidence, a sentiment that marks Henry as a mature person.

Crane structures the novel to show Henry's quick growth from boy to man by the evening of the second day of combat. Crane speaks to a universal truth about war: that boys must quickly become men in order to survive.