The Red Badge of Courage


Stephen Crane

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The Red Badge of Courage: Irony 3 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Henry's Wound:

In an instance of situational irony, Henry’s first battle wound comes not from a Confederate soldier but a comrade in his own army. When Henry flees the front lines during his first battle, he eventually finds himself in the midst of a convoy of retreating wounded soldiers. At one point, he sees a column of soldiers, whom he describes as a "procession of chosen beings" heading toward the front lines; the sight makes him feel guilty and ashamed of having fled himself. Not long after, he sees the same column retreating through the woods. Unable to comprehend the possibility of a large-scale defeat for the Union army, Henry seizes a retreating soldier and stammers out his confusion, asking, “Why—why—”

The other soldier, likely terrified and traumatized himself, responds by attacking Henry:

He adroitly and fiercely swung his rifle. It crushed upon the youth’s head. The man ran on.

As a young man with a highly idealized conception of war, Henry expected and even hoped to sustain wounds while demonstrating his bravery on the battlefield. It’s ironic that his first physical injury comes from a chaotic altercation with a fellow Union soldier in the middle of a retreat. This moment is also deeply ironic given Henry’s reverence for wounds: just a few chapters before, he expressed envy for wounded soldiers displaying a “red badge of courage” and worried that because he had no wounds, he would be forever marked by the “sore badge of his dishonor.” Now, Henry has the “red badge” he hoped for, but the wound doesn’t represent any courageous deed; instead, it testifies to the random brutality of war. This is an example of situational irony because the turn of events is unexpected and completely counter to Henry’s naive misconceptions of war. 

Henry doesn’t have time to reflect on the irony of this situation in the moment, but this episode eventually helps to complicate his ideas about the meaning of war. By the end of the novel, Henry will no longer associate wounds with manhood and bravery. It’s this realization, rather than any daring deeds on the battlefield, that marks his coming-of-age.

Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—Henry and the Corporal:

After fleeing battle and witnessing his friend Jim’s death, Henry finally returns to his regiment sporting a head wound he sustained in an altercation with a fellow Union army soldier. Because Henry doesn’t want his comrades to realize that he fled or find out about the humiliating circumstances of his wound, he pretends that he was hit by a Confederate bullet. The response of the regiment’s corporal, who treats the wound, is an example of dramatic irony. Looking at Henry’s head, he says,

Yeh’ve been grazed by a ball. It’s raised a queer lump jest as if some feller had lammed yeh on th’ head with a club.

The corporal isn’t at all suspicious of Henry, and makes this remark offhandedly. But by remarking that it looks like someone “lammed”—in other words, hit—Henry with a club, he’s describing exactly what happened, since the Union soldier hit Henry with his rifle. This moment constitutes dramatic irony because it capitalizes on the difference between the corporal’s understanding of the situation and the knowledge about what really happened that Henry and the reader possess. 

In the midst of a largely grim novel, this moment of irony provides some much-needed comic relief: everyone in the regiment pretends to be an expert on war, but no one really knows how to distinguish between courage and cowardice. Also, the care with which the corporal attends Henry functions as a rebuke of Henry’s comparatively ungracious attitude. Until now, he’s been more focused on comparing himself to his fellow soldiers than worrying about their safety, and he’ll only learn to truly prioritize his comrades at the end of the novel.

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Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Henry's Justifications:

The morning after Henry’s first battle, which he flees in terror, the regiment reassembles and prepares to march again. While Henry failed to meet his own expectations for courage the previous day, he now feels like a veteran compared to the other soldiers. In a moment of irony, Henry compares himself favorably to the other soldiers he saw fleeing: 

As he recalled their terror-struck faces he felt a scorn for them. They had surely been more fleet and more wild than was absolutely necessary. They were weak mortals. As for himself, he had fled with discretion and dignity.

It’s deeply ironic that Henry would criticize these other men as “wild” and “weak,” because he did exactly what they did. Unable to accept the fact that he’s not as brave and courageous as he thought he would be, Henry resorts to criticizing soldiers in order to distance himself from them. His harsh remarks demonstrate the gap between his own view of the situation and the reader’s understanding that Henry is no different from any other fleeing soldier.

Crane uses this instance of irony to show Henry’s deep immaturity, which persists even after his first experience of battle. Even after seeing firsthand the brutality of battle, Henry refuses to give up his idealized conception of classical warfare, in which heroes distinguish themselves through brave deeds. Rather than accepting the grim reality of life as a soldier in the Union army, Henry obsessively compares himself to other soldiers in order to discern whether or not he is truly courageous. This small moment points to a broader irony: Henry’s ideas of what constitutes bravery and manhood are exactly what mark him as a juvenile boy. Only when he stops fixating on his own potential for heroism and starts to hope for peace can he truly become a man.

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