What defines a hero? What constitutes courage? What separates heroism in battle from aggression, and courage from sheer ignorance? The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, attempts to answer these questions through the perspective of a naïve young soldier, fighting during the civil war. The soldier, Henry Fleming, struggles with his desire to obtain a “red badge of courage” as proof of his heroism and transformation from an adolescent into a man. Crane illustrates that while courage, heroism, ignorance, and aggression are all a part of warfare, there are crucial differences between the four. Henry’s view of true valor evolves throughout The Red Badge of Courage, as he becomes more mature and selfless. Through the exploration of Henry’s evolving conscience, Stephen Crane suggests that selflessness discerns true courage and heroism from less noble influences such as ignorance, arrogance, and aggression.
Henry enters the army with a rather distorted view of warfare. He seeks the “vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire” (Ch. 1, Red Badge of Courage). In chapter one, Crane writes of Henry: “He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements hook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them.” This early desire to join the war does not stem from true courage or heroism. Rather, it reflects Henry’s youthful misconceptions about battle and selfish desire for glory. Henry’s mother recognizes his questionable motives for wanting to enlist. In chapter one, Crane explains: “She had affected to look with some contempt upon the quality of his war ardor and patriotism”. She knows that he is not inspired by selfless desire to do his part and, therefore, disapproves of his superficial search for glory.
Another character who confuses ignorance and arrogance with courage is Wilson. In chapter 2, Wilson is certain that he will exhibit heroism in battle saying, “I’m not going to skedaddle. The man that bets on my running will lose his money…”. This sureness doesn’t indicate courage; it indicates blind fearlessness. Courage, unlike fearlessness, which can come from inexperience and ignorance, is a conscious choice to disregard danger in favor of helping others. Wilson, in this early chapter, exhibits nothing more than arrogance and ignorance.
Both arrogance and ignorance are selfish tendencies, stemming from narcissistic pride. By featuring this distinction in The Red Badge of Courage, Crane seems to argue that selflessness is the crucial factor that constitutes true courage.
In the first battle, Henry confuses aggression with courage. In chapter 5, Crane writes:
He had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be used against one life at a time. He wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers. He craved a power that would enable him to make a world sweeping gesture and brush all back. His impotency appeared to him, and made his rage...