The mood of The Red Badge of Courage is bleak and chaotic, impressing upon the reader the brutal reality of war and the moral and psychological confusion that soldiers endure. As low-ranking soldiers, Henry and his comrades are told nothing about the logic of troop movements or the progress of the overall war; they simply follow orders to march, set up camp, and fight, and they never know when an attack might put their lives at risk. Because Crane keeps the narrative rooted in Henry’s perspective and never divulges any information the protagonist doesn’t know, the reader remains just as confused as the novel’s characters, relying on dubious rumors spread by soldiers to interpret the implications of a particular skirmish. This narrative method creates battle scenes that are grimly evocative yet also vague. At the start of a charge towards the end of the novel, Crane writes:
He was unaware of the machinery of orders that started the charge, although from the corners of his eyes he saw an officer [...] come galloping, waving his hat [...] 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.
The impressionistic details in this paragraph, like the galloping officer and the “convulsive” movement of the regiment, immerse the reader in Henry’s mind. Just as Henry is “unaware of the machinery of orders” at work, the reader doesn’t quite understand what’s happening until the end of the paragraph, when the regiment finally lurches into movement. Passages like this throughout the book create a mood of confusion and delayed understanding that mirrors Henry’s experience as a soldier.
This-plot level confusion reflects a more important moral confusion about the nature of war and the meaning of courage. While Henry has a vague understanding, formed from the “Homeric” tales of his youth, that it’s important to be brave in battle, he doesn’t have any political reasons for enlisting. In fact, no one talks about the overall purpose of the war; the men are only concerned with experiencing the “excitement” of battle and proving themselves more courageous (or at least less cowardly) than their comrades.
But the actual battles Henry experiences immediately dispel his naive notions of distinguishing himself as a hero. Soldiers die at random, often felled by bullets they can’t see through the smoke, sometimes in the middle of an utterly prosaic conversation. Far from proving himself, Henry flees from his first battle. When he does eventually fight, he quickly learns that survival depends on luck. And as an insignificant pawn in a massive army, he can’t accomplish much even in his most courageous moments. With no possibility of achieving personal glory and no other compelling reason for joining the army, enlistment starts to feel like a farcical mistake to both Henry and the reader.
By the end of the novel, success as a soldier means nothing to Henry, and the waste of human lives in war is revealed as obscenely pointless, intensifying a mood that was grim from the start. In the final chapter, Henry starts to dream “with a lover’s thirst” of peace instead of military victory, imagining a landscape of “tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks” untroubled by war. He’s still in the army, and will probably risk his life in further battles. But he’s finally seen a path towards a truly meaningful life, a development that creates a slightly more optimistic mood.