Crane often uses metaphor to compare Henry’s thoughts to images or pictures, expressing the complex but confused nature of his inner life.
This metaphor is first evident when Crane describes Henry’s misconception of war as exciting and heroic, a belief formed from his limited understanding of history and classic literature like the poems of Homer. Here, Crane sums up Henry’s hazy knowledge of the past as “thought-images of heavy crowns and high castles." Henry’s ideas about what he might accomplish are “large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.” Just like his grasp on the past, Henry’s hopes for the future are hazy and imagistic, more like a picture than the explicit thoughts that Crane summarizes elsewhere in the book.
Of course, the horrible reality of the Civil War quickly puts paid to Henry’s naive beliefs about war and his own capacity for heroism. But the metaphor of “thought-images” persists. In one of the final battle scenes, as Henry runs past piled-up corpses and crazed soldiers, Crane writes that "His mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there." In this moment, Crane compares Henry’s mid-battle process of observation to taking a picture.
This metaphor functions as a nod to the limits of the novel’s blunt tone. Even as Crane describes most of Henry’s thoughts in a straightforward manner, he acknowledges that consciousness and the inner workings of the human mind are far more complex than his narration.
Although Crane never mentions cameras, this metaphor may also reflect an interest in photography, which wouldn’t be coincidental. The American Civil War was the first major conflict to be extensively photographed, allowing civilians to see the action—and the devastation—of battle with their own eyes. This new art form was arguably better than writing at capturing objective reality, a key concern of the Naturalist movement that Crane championed. So perhaps that’s why Crane invokes a “thought-image” when explaining Henry’s conception of history, rather than trying to describe those thoughts in detail.
Yet there are also sharp limits to what documentary photos can achieve. When Henry takes a “mechanical but firm impression” during battle, his mind is working like a camera, capturing the lurid details of war. But those images alone cannot help him explain “why he himself was there,” or make meaning of his experience. Only through a long process of interior thought, which Crane captures through prose, can Henry begin to recover from his experiences at war. In this sense, the metaphor expresses the power of writing over newer forms of art, such as photography, to understand and articulate human experience.
The “red badge of courage,” a metaphor that gives the novel its title, refers to the bleeding wounds that soldiers sustain during battle. Crane uses this metaphor to describe Henry’s feelings when, having fled the scene of his first battle, he ends up walking alongside a convoy of wounded Union soldiers:
At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.
Describing the soldiers’ wounds in the surprising language of the “red badge,” Crane uses figurative language to produce an arresting image of the horror of war. The metaphor also shows how Henry’s idealistic imagination of war resists the grim reality he experiences on the battlefield. Henry is obsessed with courage, and his highest priority as a soldier is proving his own bravery through his actions in battle. When he makes this observation, he has just disappointed himself by fleeing the battlefield, so the red badge represents his dashed expectations of himself. Henry is envious of the wounded soldiers, and fears that because he escaped battle unscathed, he will wear the “sore badge of his dishonor” for the rest of his life.
But as the novel goes on and Henry experiences more fighting, his ideas about the meaning of courage change significantly. As an insignificant soldier operating within a vast, highly mechanized army, Henry sees that there is little possibility to display personal courage in battle. Moreover, wounds and death occur at random: with the advent of machine guns during the Civil War, soldiers could be shot from afar while loading a gun or making small talk with a friend. From this lens, wounds have nothing to do with a soldier’s personal courage or lack thereof. Rather, they testify to the banal cruelty of war and the wanton loss of life it entails.
By the end of the novel, when Henry is a comparatively experienced soldier, his earlier correlation between wounds and courage appears juvenile. Henry can only achieve manhood when he stops valorizing wounds and prioritizes survival over victory in war.
When describing the way Henry’s regiment marches across the landscape and moves in battle, Crane uses an extended metaphor to describe a group composed of hundreds of men as a single being. As the Confederate army approaches, Crane writes that “the sore joints of the regiment creaked as it painfully floundered into position to repulse.” Elsewhere, Crane remarks that the regiment “snorted and blew,” evoking a horse rather than a group of men. During one of the novel’s last battles, Crane describes a charge by writing:
The line fell slowly forward like a toppling wall, and, with a convulsive gasp that was intended for a cheer, the regiment began its journey.
This language applies not just to Henry’s particular regiment but the entire Union and Confederate armies. Describing one engagement, Crane writes that the two armies “exchanged blows in the manner of a pair of boxers.”
While this figurative language adds up to an extended metaphor over the course of the novel, it’s important to note that there are other literary devices at play here. When Crane says that the army moved “like a toppling wall,” he’s employing a simile. Likewise, there are repeated instances of auditory imagery—the “creak[ing] joints,” the “convulsive gasp,” and the “snort[ing] and blow[ing]” regiment—that create a tangible portrait of a monolithic army.
While Crane stays rooted in Henry’s perspective throughout The Red Badge of Courage, this extended metaphor allows the reader to briefly glimpse the scope of the battle. At the same time, while the image of the monolithic regiment stumbling from place to place is evocative and impressionistic, it doesn’t tell the reader much about the overall logistics of the battle. Crane is committed to keeping the reader almost as confused and ignorant as Henry, and this metaphor allows him to describe battle scenes without compromising that mood.
In addition, this ongoing metaphor emphasizes the profound insignificance of each individual soldier, one of the most shocking realizations Henry experiences as a soldier. Henry initially believes that he can win respect and even fame by exhibiting courage in battle. But he soon learns that, in this vast and mechanized war, individual bravery means little and survival depends on random luck. The metaphor of the monolithic army, in which individual men are subsumed into one large being, creates a tangible image of that horrible reality.