35 pages 1 hour read

Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1895

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Summary and Study Guide


The Red Badge of Courage was written in 1895 by Stephen Crane, a novelist, poet, and journalist well known for his naturalist style and for incorporating the inner lives of common and marginalized people. The novel won wide acclaim for Crane, though his life after the book’s publication was distinguished by scandal and money troubles. Its themes reframe the concept of military duty as a rite of passage, detailing a highly individual and self-searching act of discovery within a vividly described landscape of war that leaves little horror, tedium, or difficulty to the imagination. This summary refers to the Fourth Norton Critical Edition, published in 2008 and edited by Donald Pizer and Eric Carl Link.

Plot Summary

Henry Fleming, a Union soldier in the American Civil War, awaits orders on the brink of battle. Young and inexperienced, Henry wonders if he’ll be up for the task; in particular, he wonders about the quality of his own courage. He attempts to reconcile his doubts with other soldiers, but they are as outwardly confused and uncertain as he is within himself. Nothing in his experience helps, either. He has only known the comforts of farm life and a dull winter entrenched within a military camp. Several days of marching and repositioning through the Virginia forest only increase his anxiety.

Soon, Henry’s part in the battle begins, and it looks like nothing out of Henry’s youthful imagination. Lines form and reform, men appear frightened and isolated, and Henry fires blindly into the battle, uncertain of himself. He runs a gamut of emotions, as he sees men around him succumb to injury and death, and as the certainty of victory waxes and wanes. At a critical juncture, however, Henry’s senses are overwhelmed. Seeing soldiers near him retreat, he also retreats. Laying low for a time in the wilderness, Henry eventually gets word that the Union side held the Confederacy at bay. Ashamed, Henry retreats further into the forest.

Lost in a world of self-recrimination, Henry stumbles across many incidents that bring him back to reality. He joins a marching procession of the Union wounded, only to discover his friend Jim Conklin, who dies soon after. Ashamed, Henry separates from the march. Later, he witnesses a particularly bloody battle in which he sees many men retreat, regroup, and fight again. During this skirmish, Henry takes a blow to the head from a retreating soldier. Night falls. Hungry, thirsty, and in pain, Henry loses himself in the forest. Soon, however, a mysterious stranger guides him back to his own regiment, camped out in a clearing. Henry realizes that his guide has disappeared without ever revealing himself.

Henry worries about the reception he’ll receive but soon learns, through his friend Wilson, that many soldiers have been wandering back into camp after a long day of fighting. Henry allows his fellow soldiers to believe that his wound is that of a glancing rifle shot. Wilson feeds Henry, dresses his wound, and puts him to sleep in his own bedding. Henry closely observes Wilson and notes a change in the formerly brash soldier’s character. Wilson is now of service to others and more comfortable filling his role as a soldier. Henry is relieved not to have been caught retreating but remains alienated by the secret he holds.

The tedium of marching and repositioning begins anew. Henry allows his imagination to wander but is brought back to earth by the sounds of battle. As the army continues to reposition, rumor flies up and down the line, and the soldiers become disgruntled. Suddenly, battle erupts. Henry swings back and forth from feelings of impotence to bloodlust, firing blindly into battle. His peers take note of his wild bravery. In a break in the battle, Wilson and Henry go to fetch water and happen upon a group of officers discussing their low opinion of Henry’s regiment and their willingness to sacrifice them for the good of their strategic plans for victory.

When Henry’s regiment next joins battle, victory is less certain. Henry, seeing a color bearer fall in the battle, roars to life, taking up the flag. The enemy retreats to high ground, and there is another break in the action. Though Henry’s regiment is singled out for condemnation by their commander for their hesitancy, Henry himself is praised for his unique bravery. Battle begins anew, and soon, Henry’s regiment is in a bad position. Henry takes up the flag and charges at the enemy, encouraging his fellow soldiers to do the same. The ensuing battle is won for the Union, but with many losses on both sides. As signs of the larger campaign subside, Henry now knows a deeper inner peace than when he started.