The Changing Role of the Hero in The Red Badge of Courage
With Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, the concept of the heroic figure begins to shift farther away from clearly defined characteristics. The idea of a single individual rising up to heroically conquer in any situation lost favor with the changing views of the nineteenth century leading Crane to address as a theme "the quandary of heroism in an unheroic age" (Beaver 67) by creating in Henry Fleming a figure both heroic and non-heroic all in one. His exploration of the concepts of courage and cowardice shows them to be opposite sides of the same coin as evidenced in the heroic figure.
Through Henry's progression in thoughts, Crane explores this changing view of the hero. As the book opens, "the youth [Henry] had believed that he must be a hero" (Crane 50), as he set out as a newly enlisted man. Awaiting the call of his first battle, Henry reflected that "[s]ometimes he inclined to believing them all heroes" (Crane 75) based simply on their role as soldiers. However, when confronted with the reality of battle, Henry soon noticed that "[t]here was a singular absence of heroic poses" (Crane 86). Trying to cope with his own inadequacy, Henry finds himself always lacking in comparison with those around him. As they marched along he thought that heroes "could find excuses . . . They could retire with perfect self-respect and make excuses to the stars" (Crane 123). Marching among those heroes wounded in battle, "they rendered it almost impossible for him to see himself in a heroic light" (Crane 125). Henry began to despair "that he should ever become a hero" (Crane 126). However, through a new confrontation in battle, Henry found himself functioning in the traditional heroic role. "[H]e was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process" (Crane 166). Through all this Henry came to realize "that he was very insignificant" (Crane 171) by recognizing that the same person who fled was the same one who stood to fight.
By addressing the specific aspect of heroism in battle, Crane presents the victim as a hero (Beaver 72) or perhaps, conversely, the hero as a victim. When Henry flees the battle he does not do so thinking himself a coward, but rather, a wise person who recognizes overwhelming odds. Later after his head is wounded and bandaged, the wound and bandage become his "red badge" reminding him of his inadequacy when the moment of battle came, his...