Red Badge is a study of courage and fear, as seen in the shifting currents of Henry's thoughts and actions during the battle. Henry begins the story with youthful romanticized ideas about courage from the classical tradition: in particular, the heroic ideals found in the ancient Greek epic poem the Iliad by Homer. In the Iliad, warriors mingle with gods, die gloriously, and enjoy everlasting fame. But the tremendous violence of the Civil War unsettled these notions of courage and glory. The soldiers in Red Badge, especially Henry and Wilson, begin to doubt their naïve versions of courage when faced with battle. Instead, they discover a grittier and more complicated form of courage. And they only discover it after the fact: during Henry's most courageous moments in battle, he is hardly aware of anything except heat, noise, anger, and the mechanical repetition of firing. Even when courage is present, it's not really there. So what is courage?
Courage takes many forms in the novel, none of which are stable. Wanting to find a lasting form of courage, Henry hopes for a wound or "red badge of courage" to wear. Taking it to the extreme, Henry daydreams about a glorious death. But is courage self-destructive? Is it a performance for others, or for yourself? Does it happen when we're not thinking about it? Henry seeks answers from himself and from the soldiers around him, including corpses and the wounded. Though the story may provide no clear answers, it offers several perspectives: Jim Conklin, Wilson, and the lieutenant each offer different versions of courage to compare with Henry's. Perhaps there is courage in Jim's willingness to see things pragmatically, or in Wilson's acceptance of his limitations, or even in Henry's deep self-questioning. In the end, the reader must decide about courage—who has it, and even whether it's good or bad.