The back and forth movement of Crane’s plot, the pendulumlike swings toward and away from battle, with experience at one pole and reflection, especially rationalization, at the other, parallel the back and forth movement of Henry’s impressionistic perceptions about reality and about himself. Finds a balance in the novel between a metaphoric view of war as chaos and confusion, and a view of a world at peace. Praises Crane’s use of third-person limited point of view. Identifies Crane’s abstraction of the Civil War from its historical context as a distinctive contribution to American literature. His misperceptions derive literally from the obscuring smoke of battle but figuratively, or psychologically, from his insatiable need to see himself and his world as meaningful even as experience teaches him quite the opposite lesson, that the world is flatly indifferent to man. War and peace function more as archetypes than as realities in the novel. Moreover, the prospect of actually being shot at, and possibly dying, unnerves him.
When he does focus on one soldier, he often abstracts him into an impressionistic image.
Thus, Jim Conklin becomes the tall soldier; Wilson, the loud soldier"; and Fleming the youth." There are countless nameless men, including the lieutenant," the colonel," and the tattered soldier," each part of the Union armys anatomy rather than separate beings with separate personalities.
Nevertheless, what the youth knew about the conflict between the Blue and the Gray had thrilled him, and he resolved to be a part of it. But when it was time for him to leave, she bade him farewell with this advice: If so be a time comes when yeh have to be kilt or do a mean thing, why, Henry, don't think of anything 'cept what's right, because there's many a woman has to bear up 'ginst sech things these times, and the Lord 'll take keer of us all."What is right, of course, is to stand and fight, come what may.
But once in the Union camp, he worries that in the face of enemy fire he might run and, in so doing, disgrace himself.
Leaving his widowed mother alone on their New York State farm, Henry Fleming, his head filled with visions of the heroic deeds of epic literature and popular myth, joins the Union Army only to enter the decidedly unheroic world of the military camp: the boredom of daily drills and the anonymity of military life.
The “youth,” as Crane prefers to call him, persists in his delusions as well as in his fear that he will not measure up to his grandiose and utterly unrealistic vision of himself as a hero.
On the second day, Henry fights like a “wildcat,” earning the admiration of his fellows and the praise of his lieutenant. Credits Crane with countering a tradition of dashing heroes in war fiction by using parody and with giving the war novel a new form that afterward became the model.
The “quiet manhood” that Henry gains in the final chapter is another of his delusions, one which the reader may mistakenly come to share if he fails to note Crane’s subtle irony. Identifies Crane’s genius not in creating literary naturalism, but rather in his psychological portrayal of Henry Fleming. Traces the novel’s evolution; concludes that the original draft served as an outline to be expanded into the 1895 version. Maintains that Crane selects his war stories for their value as fiction, creating rather than reliving war experiences.
This thought gnaws at him all through his months of training, during which the tedium of drilling and listless waiting dulls his appetite for war.
After rumors spread that his regiment will soon engage the Confederates, he asks two men he befriends, a tall man named Jim Conklin and a loud man named Wilson, how they think the regiment will do.