Themes in The Red Badge of Courage
Henry's concept of courage changes as the novel progresses. His initial concept of courage is derived from classical literature. He dreams of epic battles, damsels in distress, and gallantry. He relishes the fanfare that accompanies him on his trip to Washington and devours the praise of others.
He laments after joining the army that war heroism no longer exists, believing that religion and civilization has stamped out the war spirit. As Henry goes through the trials of battle, he realizes that heroism is not defined by what others think; it exists inside the individual.
Although he enjoys the praise heaped on him by his colonel, he understands his true value as a soldier without needing the praise of others.
An internal struggle between self-preservation and courage occupies Henry throughout much of the novel. He rationalizes his cowardly behavior on the premise that he must save himself now so he can be of use to the army later.
Despite his fellow soldiers winning the battle, Henry derides them as fools. He throws a pine cone at a squirrel, watches it run, and philosophizes that the natural state of living things is to preserve itself. Henry concludes eventually that in order to save himself he must become become part of the "blue demonstration."
As part of the regiment, Henry ironically realizes his true potential as an individual soldier, preserving his dignity and honor at great risk to his physical well-being.
Stephen Crane was a realist and a naturalist, believing that nature was indifferent and that humans were controlled by things of which they had no understanding. Examples of nature's indifference include Henry's surprise that the sun is shining, caring nothing for the gruesome goings-on of war, after his first battle.
Henry discovers a dead soldier, covered in ants, and stripped of his identity. Whatever honors the dead soldier achieved in life had been stripped by his death.
Crane presents different views of manhood in the novel. Henry's ideas about manhood correlate with his views on courage. He initially feels manhood involves gaining the heroic praise of others. He understands later that manhood means carrying out your duties, something his mom tells him as he departs for the war.
Conklin and Wilson, who matures from the Loud Soldier into Wilson as the novel progresses, portray a more accurate representation of manhood, a quiet self confidence in one's abilities.
Disagree? Or did you discover another theme I left out? Let me know in the comments.