The Red Badge of Courage

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The Living and the Dead Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Courage Theme Icon
The War Machine Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Red Badge of Courage, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon

Henry is fascinated by the spectacle of death. He looks into the eyes of corpses for answers to his questions about death, but they fail to communicate anything but strangeness, emptiness, and horror. When Henry and Wilson each get a flag to carry for the regiment, a position of honor, each time they must wrestle it from the hands of a dying man. Without providing any definitive answers, Red Badge explores a host of questions regarding death in general and death in war in particular: Do our beliefs endure beyond the grave? Is fighting and dying worth it? Can death be glorious? Can we ultimately know anything about what happens after death?

The Living and the Dead ThemeTracker

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The Living and the Dead Quotes in The Red Badge of Courage

Below you will find the important quotes in The Red Badge of Courage related to the theme of The Living and the Dead.
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.

Chapter 24 Quotes
He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, Henry comes to terms with his own insignificance in the world. At first, Henry craved recognition from his fellow soldiers--he derived his self-worth from his peers' respect and admiration. But gradually, Henry has come to think of heroism in a much different sense. It is futile, he realizes, to pursue glory in battle--no single soldier can ever be more than a "drop in the bucket" of the war effort--there's no room for an Achilles or a Hector in the Civil War. Instead, Henry believes that he can attain heroism by accepting his own place and developing a quiet strength within himself.

Paradoxically, in denying his own importance, Henry rises to true maturity: he becomes a man. Critics have often debated whether or not Crane intended the passage to be ironic or not--Henry's acceptance of his own smallness could certainly be interpreted as cynical or resigned, but here it's also portrayed rather optimistically, as he thinks of his future. Perhaps Crane's real point is that, good or bad, accepting one's personal limits is a "coping mechanism" to which all soldiers must resort sooner or later.