He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless. Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail. He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again be obliged to experiment as he had in early youth. He must accumulate information of himself, and meanwhile he resolved to remain close upon his guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him.
This passage from Chapter I illustrates Henry’s initial fear about whether he has the courage to face battle, and establishes that his predicament is less a matter of war than of knowing himself and judging his worth. Until this moment, Henry has been a youth of comfortable assumptions. He believes, for instance, that war exists for the purpose of creating heroes, and that men, when transformed into soldiers, are guaranteed a kind of honor that grants them prestige in society and history. The purpose of The Red Badge of Courage is not to trace such a transformation from common man to brave soldier. On the contrary, it is to chart Henry’s psychological growth as he “accumulates information of himself” and “experiments” with different types of behaviors—some courageous, some cowardly. The Red Badge of Courage challenges the protagonist’s (as well as the reader’s) most bedrock assumptions: the courage that Henry finally musters crucially depends on his having rewritten “his laws of life” and come to a new understanding of the world and his relatively modest place in it.
That Henry plans to “remain on his close guard lest those qualities of which he knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him” testifies to his naïve and immature outlook. At this point in the novel, Henry has very little internal sense of right and wrong; instead, his morality is strictly a function of what other people see and how they judge him. This insecurity leads Henry to be excessively vain, hypersensitive, and, at times, almost unbearably selfish. However, just as he has graduated beyond the beliefs and behaviors of his “early youth,” he will grow beyond these lowly, adolescent, self-centered qualities.