.. It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. (Conrad 81)
Crane thus suggests how the heat of battle becomes focused on a symbol, in this case the flag, and soldiers emerge from battle with this new symbol clearly in mind. The imagery used makes an association between the flag and a goddess, thus indicating a sexual appeal at the same time.
Henry changes in the course of his experience, moving from the group of unseasoned soldiers toward the group that has been in battle and now knows the reaity of war:
He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. (Conrad 100)
Again, Crane here recalls the idea of war as an animal activity, though the dedication of the soldiers to the flag shows that there is more to it for the human animal than there would be for any other animal. Crane shows this as he describes the young man after the battle, noting how he has met the beast and been changed by it, his primal instincts brought to the fore. This brings an even deeper change in the young man: "He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member" (Conrad 25). Henry's individuality is lost in the mass of soldiers with whom he battles the enemy. Crane shows here how the individual becomes part of a group and begins to think of himself as part of something outside his own person. This can also link to the flag cited above, the symbol of that something greater with which the individual identifies.
Encountering death on the battlefield, Henry's first reaction is anger and a desire to fight even harder to get revenge on those who have meted out this death. However, the reaction of an older soldier is different:
Look-a-here, pardner,' he said, after a time. He regarded the corpse as he spoke. 'He's up and gone, ain't 'e, an' we might as well begin t' look out fer ol' number one.... (Conrad 44)
The older veteran thus suggests another response to death, one that the boy will also have in time -- acceptance, and concern for self. For the soldier, then, the tension of the battlefield includes a tension between dedication to the cause and the imperative for survival.
Crane's novel recalls the horrors of war in a direct way, using simple and direct language and the speech patterns of the men who fought in this war to communicate the experience to the reader. Naturalism as a literary style served this kind of material well. The story is simply told on the surface, but it is carefully developed and well-constructed to involve the reader in the events and to make a symbolic statement about humanity, using the different examples of humanity found in the war. The characters are deliberately sketched as types, in part because Henry experiences them only as faces passing in battle. However, they also have a humanity that comes through and makes them individuals who speak to the reader.
The book is important as a document describing this particular war, and though Crane did not himself fight in the war, he spoke to men who had and incorporated their attitudes and perhaps their personalities in his narrative. His work is also important as it make the American Civil War an example of all wars and of both the humanity and inhumanity that are part of war. The novel takes the reader directly into the mind of a young soldier from that time and then into the heat of battle, using strong and yet simple language to evoke the emotions and the thoughts a young soldier would have in such a situation. Henry makes the experience personal for the reader while also helping to universalize that experience so everyone can understand it and even see it in people they know who have to fight in a war. Historians find it accurate enough so they can identify the battle and recognize the more general truth about the experience of war.
Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Dover, 1990.
Howard, Leon. Literature and the American Tradition. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1960.