Crane’s novels reflect his basic beliefs about humanity. The chronic misery of the poor aroused his sympathy, as did the plight of common soldiers in wars. Having rejected traditional theological explanations as a boy, Crane never found a philosophy that adequately explained the hardships inherent in the human condition.
Because Crane’s theme in The Red Badge of Courage is the fear and isolation common to all war, he deliberately avoids all specific references to the Civil War itself. The battle is presumed to be Chancellorsville, but neither its name nor the names of commanding generals are mentioned. Few characters have names or identities, and even Henry is usually referred to simply as “the youth.” Crane is not concerned with the causes of the war, the implications of slavery, the tactics of the armies, or even the outcome of his battle. For the purposes of the story, it makes no difference that this is the American Civil War, or that in the real battle of Chancellorsville thirty thousand men were killed.
The novel vividly depicts the ravaging emotions that lead Henry to abandon his idealism, reevaluate his conception of bravery, recognize nature as a malevolent force, and repudiate the existence of God. The violence that he experiences holds no redemptive qualities. What he has learned in war-the indifference of death, the folly of valor and patriotism, and the illusion of God-becomes distorted and tangled in his memory by the novel’s end, so that even the reality is lost and everything becomes a lie. There is no glory in war, not even for the heroes. There is only death for the victims and confusion for the survivors.