The Red Badge of Courage

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Corpses Symbol Analysis

Corpses Symbol Icon
Henry is fascinated with corpses in his search for answers about courage, glory, and self-sacrifice. He had initially believed that a glorious death would give him everlasting fame. But in the war, he sees corpses landing in awkward positions and looking betrayed. In doing so, they show the grotesque reality of war and reveal death as meaningless. In particular, the dead soldier in the "chapel" in the forest does not seem glorious to Henry—it's just a mound of rotting meat. Its pointless death defies any effort to find meaning in death itself.

Corpses Quotes in The Red Badge of Courage

The The Red Badge of Courage quotes below all refer to the symbol of Corpses. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Courage Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Red Badge of Courage published in 2005.
Chapter 3 Quotes
The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse. ... The youth looked keenly at the ashen face. ... He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry crosses paths with a corpse--a victim of the war in which Henry himself is fighting. The corpse makes a big impression on Henry; as he stares into the corpse's dead, dull eyes, he's full of fear and anxiety.

Henry's strange interaction with the corpse reminds us that Henry is surrounded by death and danger on all sides--in the next battle, he could easily end up just like the corpse. And yet Henry seems perversely fascinated with the corpse and with the principle of fighting in battle itself. Henry wants to know the answer to "the Question"--perhaps, what it's like to die. In general, then, the passage suggests that Henry is repelled yet also fascinated by death and danger--suggesting that he's still immature, and doesn't really understand the realities of his war.

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Chapter 5 Quotes
Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this gory passage, Crane describes the dead bodies of Henry's fellow soldiers. The soldiers aren't the least bit dignified or impressive in death--rather, they look like they've fallen from a great height (suggesting that their bodies have been horribly mangled during the fighting).

Up to this point, Henry has still believed in the romanticized idea of glory and honor in battle. But now that he's confronted with the sight of grotesque human corpses, he fully grasps the horrors of war. War isn't an opportunity for glory or lasting fame; on the contrary, the soldiers who die in battle become anonymous corpses, no different from all the other death around them. Nothing could be further from the idealistic love of war with which Henry began his time in the army.

Chapter 7 Quotes
He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip. ... The dead man and the living man exchanged a long look.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth), Dead soldier
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 49-50
Explanation and Analysis:

In this frightening, almost nightmarish scene, Henry stumbles upon a soldier's corpse. To Henry's horror, the corpse is covered in ants, who walk all over the dead body with no respect for human dignity. Nature, one could say, is totally indifferent to human concerns--the universe doesn't care about the differences between the Union and the Confederate armies; life goes on either way. Note the subtle color symbolism here--the red and blue (the official colors of the Confederate and Union troops) of the soldier's body have become green and yellow, symbolizing the decay of all political and ideological values in the face of utter annihilation.

Chapter 8 Quotes
The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

As the battle goes on, Crane reiterates his shocking, industrial imagery. The fight, we're told, sounds like a huge, "grinding" machine--a machine for which, we can guess, individual lives don't count for anything. The war itself, we should recognize, is practically a character in the book--an autonomous destructive force that transcends (and sneers at) all political affiliations.

And yet Henry is eerily attracted to the spectacle of battle, in spite of all the horrors he's seen lately. War is a drug, it's often said: fighting is grim and terrifying, but also surprisingly addictive. Henry, still a young, impressionable youth, seems hypnotized by the slaughter of the war--thus, he goes back into the fray.

Chapter 11 Quotes
As he watched his envy grew ... Swift pictures of himself, apart, yet in himself, came to him—a blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with one knee forward and a broken blade high—a blue, determined figure standing before a crimson and steel assault, getting calmly killed on a high place before the eyes of all. He thought of the magnificent pathos of his dead body.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry continues to buy into the fantasy of "glorious death," a subject that Crane has already debunked with his harsh, detached descriptions of meaningless battles in an indifferent universe. Henry, in spite of his past cowardice, still aspires to be a brave soldier. Or rather, Henry aspires to be seen as a brave soldier--the recognition of his peers is so important to him that he imagines his own corpse displayed before "the eyes of all."

The passage strongly suggests that Henry's desire for military glory is still just an immature daydream, a manifestation of his own insecurity about his manhood. Henry thinks he wants to die, but he also wants to savor the pleasure of being remembered as a brave soldier--much like Tom Sawyer, he wants the ghoulish pleasure of attending his own funeral and listening to his peers praise him for his heroism.

Chapter 23 Quotes
The youth's friend went over the obstruction in a tumbling heap and sprang at the flag as a panther at prey. He pulled at it and, wrenching it free, swung up its red brilliancy with a mad cry of exultation even as the color bearer, gasping, lurched over in a final throe and, stiffening convulsively, turned his dead face to the ground.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth), Wilson (the loud young soldier, the youth's friend)
Related Symbols: Corpses, Wounds, Flags
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry and his "friend," Wilson, compete to capture their opponents' flag, a symbol of the Confederate cause itself. Although Henry wants to claim the Confederate soldiers' flag as a prize, Wilson gets there first. Wilson, noticing that the enemy flag-bearer is mortally wounded, wrenches the flag free.

Crane contrasts Wilson's savage exultation with the pain and misery of the dying flag-bearer. War is a zero-sum game: for every victory that one soldier savors, another soldier is murdered. Wilson, overcome with enthusiasm for his fellow soldiers and his cause, doesn't stop to notice the dying soldier. He seems to have no respect for the soldier's humanity--after all, the soldier is his enemy, a faceless being he's been taught to hate. In encouraging soldiers to pursue glory and heroism, Crane suggests, war forces soldiers to surrender their natural sympathy for other human beings.

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Corpses Symbol Timeline in The Red Badge of Courage

The timeline below shows where the symbol Corpses appears in The Red Badge of Courage. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
The War Machine Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
The fast-moving mass of soldiers divides to pass a corpse in a worn-out blue uniform. Henry stares at its eyes, looking for any kind of... (full context)
Chapter 5
Courage Theme Icon
The War Machine Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...him back into line. Henry sees several soldiers get shot, their faces looking betrayed, their bodies dropping into awkward poses as if they'd fallen from the sky. (full context)
Chapter 7
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...that resembles a chapel. In this "chapel," Henry is horrified to discover a Union soldier's corpse. Ants are running over its discolored face and swarming up to its dull eyes, and... (full context)
Chapter 9
Courage Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
Henry is spellbound by Jim's corpse. He stares into Jim's paste-like face and, when Jim's jacket falls away, sees Jim's awful... (full context)
Chapter 10
Courage Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
Henry leaves, abandoning the tattered man to wander in the field. Now Henry envies the corpses of dead soldiers. He wishes he were dead because he'll never be able to hide... (full context)
Chapter 11
Courage Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...all to see. Henry feels a thrill at contemplating the "magnificent pathos" of his own corpse. (full context)
Chapter 14
The War Machine Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...Looking around in the grayish light of dawn, Henry mistakes the other sleeping soldiers for corpses. A second later he realizes they're alive, but he feels his vision may come true... (full context)
Chapter 19
The War Machine Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...the regiment's formation. Soldiers collapse awkwardly when shot and the charge leaves a trail of bodies on the ground. (full context)
Courage Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...He and Wilson each lunge for the flag and they tug it away from the corpse's firm grasp. (full context)
Chapter 20
Courage Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...fire dwindles away. The smoke clears and the field is empty, except for some twisted corpses. Victorious, the blue soldiers cheer hoarsely, proud for having proved that "they were men." (full context)
Chapter 22
Courage Theme Icon
The War Machine Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
...of "mule drivers" and "mud diggers." Henry thinks his final revenge will be his own dead body lying on the battlefield. Wilson and the lieutenant are nearby, but the regiment is growing... (full context)