Henry Fleming: Brave Hero Or Mere Man?

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What is the definition of hero? Is it a person who performs a courageous act? Some may say that this is so, but what if the act was done out of fear? What if it was done because of an instinct? Would one still be considered a hero? These are a few of many questions that we can apply to the novel, Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Henry Fleming, the main character in the novel, undergoes some drastic mental and emotional changes throughout the book. He overcomes fears, and seems to be courageous, but has Henry really become a Hero? Before Henry enlisted into the Army, he thought that war was full of glory and glamour and was too naïve to even think about the gruesome and grotesque part of war. When Henry informed his mother about his interest in enlisting in the Army, she gave him several reasons why he should stay there on the farm rather than go to war.

After a lecture from his mother, Henry was selfish and still enlisted in the army thinking that when he came back from war, everyone would see him as a hero. As soon as he gets to their camp, he begins to doubt his courage. He begins to become very nervous and asks himself if he would run. This shows that Henry is very immature and never realized before that all the glory and glamour will not come easily without a long and tiring fight. During the first battle of the war, Henry does run and begins to think deeply about what he has done. He tries to convince himself that what he did was the "smart" thing to do, when he truly is a coward. One blatant example of him trying to convince himself that what he did was right was when he encountered a squirrel. He threw a pinecone at the squirrel and of course it ran away. He compared his actions to the squirrel's actions and came to the conclusion that any animal or thing that encounters danger will run. This shows that Henry is still immature by making excuses and will not take responsibility for his actions like a man.

Later, when Henry finally found his regiment again, he was hit in the head by the butt of a rifle and then told people he had been shot in the head. At this point in the story, Henry began to gain pride. Then he felt good about himself when his friend, Wilson, showed sign of weakness with the letters. In the following chapters, Henry seems to be more mature. Henry is suddenly brave in battle. One might ask, where did that bravery come from? Previously, he had overheard some higher ranking officer call his regiment a bunch of "mule drivers" and Henry wanted to prove him wrong. One can say this sparked this sudden urge to fight, but also Crane describes it as a primal instinct. Everyone is an animal, but Humans are the most developed. At some point, Crane thinks even humans will revert back to their animalistic mindset. Henry might have finally overcome his fear of dying and turned into an "animal" as Crane would say. After the battle had ended Crane wrote that they had become humans again which hints about his belief of the animal theory. Henry then feels quite good about being revered for shooting incessantly at a retreating army.

At the end of the novel, where his supposed change into a hero occurs, he thinks only of himself. He is still selfish. He does not seek to seek out the tattered man that helped him or confess his crime of running away, he puts it all in the past, which might have been okay, but then he congratulates himself about becoming a man. Even if one were of the opinion he did mature, one cannot be sure because his actions have showed only slight bravery, not maturity. The book ended before Henry could be put to the test, before one could see whether his new "manhood" is just a way of justifying his past actions. We know too much of Henry to trust his personal feelings of himself.

It is debatable whether or not Henry really matured into a man or still remained immature. Think of everything that Henry has done to make him both immature and dishonorable. He ran away from battle, then concealed himself amongst the wounded, abandoned the tattered man because of his pride, (the tattered man kept on asking Henry where his wound was), and then when finally back with his regiment, he lied about where he had been, and then felt good about himself when Wilson showed a sign of weakness. On the other hand, think of all the things he has done to make him mature. He led his regiment to victory, held their flag in the front of the line, overcame his fears, and acted like a true soldier in the battlefield at the end of the novel. All the actions, if analyzed, contradict each other and whether or not Henry is really a hero and matured is a matter of opinion.