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Throughout the novel, many examples of religious symbolism can be seen. One prominent symbol is Jim Conklin. Aside from the fact that both Jim Conklin and Jesus Christ share the same initials, Conklin also bears other resemblances to Christ for other reasons. Jim, when dying, is described as “waiting with patience for something he had come to meet” (79). Much like the death that Jesus Christ died, Conklin accepts his death, and he believes that by dying he is meeting his destiny. After Conklin’s death, Crane describes the sun as being “pasted in the sky like a wafer”, and as wafers are symbolic of the flesh of Christ in many Christian rituals, it can be seen that this the “red sun” in the sky symbolizes Conklin’s passage from this world to the next (80).
The ‘red badge’ of courage, in Henry’s eyes is “a wound” that makes a soldier “peculiarly happy”; a wound that is evidence of a soldier having taken part in battle (74). This means that Henry thinks of this red badge as a wound that proves one’s courage in battle, as he believes courage to come from one’s taking part in a battle and fighting for his/her country.
After the battle from which Henry has run away, he sees the wounded as being “peculiarly happy” (74). Henry is youthful and to a certain extent, naïve. This is shown by the reason behind which he enters the war effort in the first place; he “longed to see it all” as “his mind had drawn him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds” (7). He wants to be a part of the war because he sees glory in being a part of it, and although he runs away at the first sign of danger due to a survival instinct, he hopes to gain glory as a soldier in the war. Therefore, he feels inadequate when he realizes that everyone else has a ‘red badge of courage’, evidence of being a part of what considers a heroic undertaking, but he does not.
These characters are given these names to emphasize their key characteristics, and that in the end they are all the same person; a soldier. By referring to them by their descriptive names, the author emphasizes a key element of their character, and by keeping the name ambiguous and vague, he is emphasizing their lack of individualism. The ‘loud soldier’ is named so because of his appropriately loud and boastful nature. Although later on we learn that his name is Wilson and that he undergoes many changes throughout the novel, at first all we know is that he has a “boyish face wreathed in a gleeful smile”, and from the fact that he “evidently complimented himself upon the modesty of this statement”, we can deduce that he is also boastful (24,25). The tall soldier, or Jim Conklin, is named so because he is considered to be the most courageous and ‘looked up to’ character in the novel. Many parallels are drawn between him and Jesus Christ, and the fact that people ‘look up’ him makes it fitting that he is called the tall soldier. Henry is called the youth because the book essentially chronicles his maturation from youth to manhood. In the beginning of the novel, he is naïve and has “large pictures, extravagant in color” painted in his head about the glory of war (7). Over the course of the novel he learns that this is not true, but because he believes this firmly at first, Henry is called the youth.
Henry sees the tall soldier (Jim Conklin) as a mentor, an elder who can teach him how to be a great soldier. This is shown by the fact that “the tall soldier, for one, gave him some assurance” (17). In fact, throughout Conklin’s presence in the novel, he acts as a teacher towards Henry, teaching him how to shoot and leading him into battle among other things. But perhaps the most important lesson he teaches Henry is the one about courage while he is dying. Jim’s refusal to accept medical help and his request to “leave me be” are evidence that he has the courage to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country (79). This lesson is invaluable to Henry, and changes him immensely. The tattered man is, to Henry, just an image of what a man should not be; this is shown by the fact that “he was so enraged by the tattered man” that he left the man out to die (84). The tattered man is the embodiment of everything Henry believes a man shouldn’t be; talkative and unmanly. The kind man teaches Henry another important lesson; that kindness should not be reserved solely for those with whom one has a connection. In the midst of the war, everyone is one of two things, part of the Union or the Confederacy. There is no in the middle, and there is no distinction among the people of each group; everyone is pretty much the same (see #4). This means that kindness can and should be universal, and should not be reserved for just the ‘same kind of person’ or someone with whom you share a connection. This is the lesson the kind man teaches Henry. When it “suddenly occurred to the youth that he had not once seen [the kind man’s] face”, he realizes what kindness truly is, and he realizes that this kindness is an important part of being courageous as well; he learns that one who is courageous must also lend a helping hand to those in need (102). Through all three of these key characters, Henry learns how to be courageous, and he learns the true meaning of courage, being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for those in need or for a just cause. This important idea helps to develop his character immensely, and leads to the changes that occur in his character throughout the book.
Although they do have marked differences, both Wilson and Henry make the drastic transition from boyhood to manhood over the course of the novel. In the beginning, both are young, naïve, and childish, with a “boyish face wreathed in a gleeful smile” (24). However, as the novel progresses, both mature in a profound way. Henry takes “note of a remarkable change in his comrade since those days of camp life” later on in the story, when they are undergoing their maturation (114). In the end, their symbolic holding of the Union flag indicates their connection through their joint maturation throughout the novel.
Crane sees a marked difference between the leaders of the battle and the common soldiers. Much as an employee will generally care more for a business than a manager will (as a manager is simply supervising), the soldiers are depicted as being more passionate about the war than their officers. Crane goes as far as to describe an officer’s “furious anger” and comparing it to that of a “spoiled child” (42). By using a phrase like this, he suggests that the officers’ higher position causes them to be fuller of themselves, and to be more spoiled than the soldiers. Contrastingly, the common soldiers are described, positively, as being “wild with one desire”, meaning that they have a thirst to win the war to achieve glory (43). Also, while one of the commander’s is described unflatteringly as “galloping around, bawling”, the soldiers are described as “galloping about like wild horses” (42, 41). This difference in description shows the difference Crane sees between the leaders of the battle and the common soldiers.
By using animals as symbols, Crane conveys Henry’s feelings extremely explicitly and concisely. Different animals throughout the novel evoke different emotions. For example, he compares “the red eyes across the river” of the enemy to “a row of dragons” (20). This comparison to dragons symbolizes Henry’s fear towards the oncoming enemy, as he sees himself as a ‘knight’ who is slaying a dragon for the first time. He also reflects that his comrades “must not all be killed like pigs” during the first battle; this reference to pigs symbolizes the fact that Henry views his regiment as ‘animals’ about to be slaughtered, much like pigs are slaughtered (33). Furthermore, Crane describes the soldiers as “a body of men who galloped like wild horses” (41). This shows how the soldiers were free and majestic, like horses; this flattering depiction of the soldiers shows Crane’s favor towards the common soldiers as opposed to the officers.
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