Describe the elements of war and death in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. This book is divided into two parts. In the first part the main characters, Henry Flemings. illusions disappear when confronted by the reality of battle(WAH 642). During the first battle he sees vague figures before him, but they are driven away. In the next battle he is so frightened that he runs away becoming one of the first heroes in literature to actually desert his fellow soldiers in the field.
While Henry is separated from his fellow soldiers, he wanders through the forest. There he experiences the kind of illusions that predominate in all of the writings of Crane (WAH 642). First he tells himself that nature does not blame him for running. Next he finds himself in a part of the woods that he believes is religious. The insects are praying and the forest takes the appearance of a chapel.
Henry is comfortable with this until he finds a dead soldier in the heart of the "chapel".
Henry sees an ant carrying a bundle across the face of the dead soldier. That view is beautiful in the sense of conveying great emotion through minute detail(WAH 643). As he moves back henry sees a line of injured soldiers including his friend Jim Conklin,who is badly wounded and another friend called "the tattered man". Trying to make up for deserting his friends, Henry tries to help Jim Conklin who is dying.After Conklin dies, the tattered man probes deeply into Henry's conscience by repeatedly asking "where ya hit"(Bowers 132). Henry deserts the tattered man.
When Henry stops another soldier he asks him the novels most important question which is "why" The soldier hits henry on the head for starting trouble. Ironically this wound becomes Henry's "Red Badge of Courage". Henry is then lead back to his regiment by a "cheery soldier" who helps wandering soldiers. This leads Henry into the second half of the book. Henry's wanderings are over. Not until the end of the book does he ask questions. Most of the repudiations are complete: heroes do not always act like heroes; no one understands the purpose of life or death; nature may be malevolent, probably no different, but is certainly not the benevolent pantheist realm of the transcentalists, and God, is simply nowhere to be found(Weatherford 32).
In the second part of the novel Henry beco0mes a "war devil", the hero that he wanted to be originally when another battle is over, all Henry has accomplished is negated. Many critics found the last chapter confused and muttled, Henry's feelings range from remorse to the "sin" which is not responsible to pride as a great hero. Finally he feels "the world was a world for him" and he looks forward to a soft and eternal peace" (bowers 173). The end of the book is like that of many of Cranes conclusions completely ironic. No one lives" eternally peacefully" the world is not a world for Henry. As John Berryman says, "Cranes sole illusion was the heroic one, and not even that escaped his irony" During the course of his experiences Henry learns at first hand of the indifference of the universe, the chaos of the world, the illusory nature of religion and patriotism and heroism, but he learns these lessons in the heat of the moment, when recognition is virtually forced on him(reports of war 146). Henry becomes a representative of mankind.
The individual memory becomes a metaphor for collective memory, history. Everythings a lie. Not even heroism can last.