Themes and Symbols in The Red Badge of Courage

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Red Badge of Courage


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss


While Henry flees from his first battle, as he feared that he might, he finds redemption by joining his regiment again and fighting the following day quite valiantly. He then becomes a color bearer and helps the Union troops lead a charge against Confederates hiding behind a fence. While Henry is overcome with guilt at his desertion of his comrades, he finds a way to make up for his mistake by returning and fighting again.

Defining Manhood

Henry believes that the only way to prove himself a man is to join the army and to fight successfully in a battle. When he fails, he feels that he has not only failed his comrades, but he’s failed himself as a man. He feels that the only way to maintain a semblance of his manhood is to hide his secrets. After he fights with his regiment and becomes the color bearer, he thinks to himself that he will no longer quail in the face of danger. For him, Henry now believes he has finally become a man.

Duty and Honor

Henry held back from enlisting for a long time but was finally compelled by a sense of duty to join the army and help the ailing forces. He believes that his service will instill him with honor and a sense of manhood, despite his mother’s lackluster feelings about war. When Henry doesn’t live up to the duties of a soldier, he feels as if he has dishonored not only himself but his entire regiment.

Overcoming Fear

The first part of the novel deals with Henry’s preoccupation about his fear of deserting his regiment when he finally sees real fighting. He wishes that he could share that fear and be comforted by others, but no one seems to understand the gravity of his concerns, or know how to help him. Henry’s worst fear does come true, but he is able to overcome it in the next battles, which frees him from it.

Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

The Colors

Crane repeatedly makes references to the colors red, blue, gray, yellow, and black throughout the novel. The red is usually in reference to war, representing the blood being spilled in battle. The blue is used to hue the colors of the smoke, describe the line of Union uniforms, and juxtapose the bloody battles with a shining blue sky above. The gray is reflected in both the smoke and the Confederate uniforms. The yellow is the sun shining through the darkness, and the color of honorable memories for Henry. The black is in the passion of the men, the oaths of the officers, and the soot of the soldier’s faces.

The Flag

The flag is a beacon that each side looks for when they are disoriented in battle. As long as the flag is waving, the soldiers know the battle is still being fought. Often times the flag is like a soldier itself, struggling amidst the smoke and guns. For Henry who becomes the color bearer, it becomes his symbol of redemption for his cowardice the day before.

The Soldier in the Woods

After Henry deserts his regiment, he wanders into the woods. He comes into a clearing where he finds a sight that horrifies him: it is the corpse of a dead soldier, probably there for weeks. Its eyes seem to bore into Henry’s, and as he runs away, he feels sure that the corpse will yell out after him. In the corpse, he sees his worst fears.


The woods themselves seem to be a character within the novel. The woods are constantly described as speaking or humming to Henry as he walks through them. Nature is both Henry’s enemy and his friend as he uses the woods to hide, or he feels he is being betrayed by its sounds. Henry sees nature as the religion of peace, the one thing that makes sense in the midst of the chaos and bloodletting of battle.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Red Badge of Courage. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Red Badge of Courage you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.

Template: Theme


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