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.
In an early chapter of The Red Badge of Courage, Crane uses a simile to compare the campsites created by the Union army to plants and flowers:
Tents sprang up like strange plants. Camp fires, like red, peculiar blossoms, dotted the night.
At first, this simile might seem like a positive comparison, suggesting that beauty can be found even in the midst of war. But the words “strange” and “peculiar” hint that things are not as they should be. And as soon as Henry walks a short distance from the camp, he finds that it looks frightening and describes the fires as “weird and satanic.” As Henry’s perspective on the campsite changes, the simile comes to show how the brutal, man-made infrastructure of war has supplanted the natural environment of life and growth, reinforcing the critique of the war machine that underpins the entire novel.
This simile also contributes to the development of the theme of nature. Like the camp site, the landscape as a whole is extremely beautiful; at first, it seems like a tranquil refuge from the horrors of war. But as the battle proceeds and the beauty of the land remains unchanged, Henry realizes that nature is indifferent to human affairs. Accordingly, invocations of the beauty of nature, including this one, take on a more sinister tone.
Toward the end of the novel, Henry and Wilson overhear a general and another officer making plans to rebut an oncoming Confederate charge. The general asks the officer what troops he can spare, and the officer casually mentions their regiment. Insultingly referring to the soldiers as “mule-drivers,” the officer volunteers to deploy them on a dangerous action that will probably result in many deaths. Henry uses a simile to compare the regiment, in the officer’s conception, to a “broom.”
The officer spoke of the regiment as if he referred to a broom. Some part of the woods needed sweeping, perhaps, and he merely indicated a broom in a tone properly indifferent to its fate.
This is a simile because Crane uses connecting phrases—in this case, “as if”—to compare two different things, the regiment and the broom. This figurative language highlights the officer’s callousness towards the lives of the enlisted soldiers: The officer seems to think nothing of making a decision that will send many of them to their deaths.
This is a stark moment of disillusionment for Henry, as he comes to truly understand the meaning of war and his role within it. Just like the contrast between the dialect spoken by the soldiers and the standard English used by the officers, this simile demonstrates the extent to which higher-ups in the army consider soldiers like Henry dispensable tools rather than human beings. One of the primary thematic concerns in The Red Badge of Courage is the increased mechanization of war, and this simile develops that theme by showing how the war machine dehumanizes individual soldiers.