Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having witnessed combat. However, his use of vivid imagery, color motifs, and his ability to describe the emotional highs and lows of an insecure soldier have earned the novel many accolades. While the novel only takes place over the course of a few days, it is a story of a lifetime for a young private named Henry Fleming. The story of Henry Fleming and his journey from a young fearful boy to a bold young soldier highlights important themes that many students will encounter in their own lives, including overcoming fear, a soldier’s duty and honor, defining manhood, and finding redemption.
Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Red Badge of Courage
THE SOLDIER IN THE WOODS
The red refers to war and the blood spilled in battle. The blue is the colors of the smoke and the line of Union uniforms. The gray is reflected in the smoke and the Confederate uniforms. The yellow is the sun and the color of honorable memories for Henry. The black is in the passion of the men, the oaths of the officers, and the soot of the soldier’s faces.
The flag is a beacon that each side looks for when they are disoriented in battle. As long as the flag is waving, the soldiers know the battle is still being fought. Often times the flag is like a soldier itself, struggling amidst the smoke and guns. For Henry who becomes the color bearer, it becomes his symbol of redemption for his cowardice the day before.
After Henry deserts his regiment, he wanders into the woods. He comes into a clearing where he finds a sight that horrifies him: it is the corpse of a dead soldier, probably there for weeks. Its eyes seem to bore into Henry’s, and as he runs away, he feels sure that the corpse will yell out after him. In the corpse, he sees his worst fears.
The woods seem to be a character within the novel. They are constantly described as speaking or humming to Henry as he walks through them. Nature is both Henry’s enemy and his friend as he uses the woods to hide, or he feels he is being betrayed by its sounds. Henry sees nature as the religion of peace, the one thing that makes sense in the midst of the chaos and bloodletting of battle.