Many great literary novels have the protagonist, the main character of the novel, being portrayed as the “hero”. There are many different deeds and actions that can characterize a person as a hero such as saving someone from a burning house at the risk of one’s own life. The main distinguishing characteristic of a true hero is self-sacrifice, whether it be scarifice of your own personal desires or ideals or sacrifice of physical well being to help others. There are a few novels in which the main character of the work does not exemplify the deeds and thought of a true hero. Two such works include Stephen Cranes’ The Red Badge of Courage and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Both The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms have war as the background of the story. War is the perfect setting in which one can be tested to see if he or she is a hero. This idea is the major framework of The Red Badge of Courage, in which Henry Fleming aspires to be a man, a “hero” in the eyes of the masses by enlisting in the army. Henry’s goal of returning a man from war has already marred his image of being a potential hero because his thoughts are about himself and not about the welfare of others. Also, the fact that he wants to impress people and appear heroic is a selfish aspiration. Heroes act not to impress others but to help them. Usually the actions of a hero are impulsive and not premeditated because the hero does what he/she believes is right and what their heart tells them is right and not what others judge is right.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry is preoccupied about whether or not he’s going to run when it comes time to fight. After the second skirmish, the readers find out that he does indeed run from battle but that’s not what makes him a non-hero. It’s the fact that he tries to rationalize and justify his running. He says that his running is “… not a fault, a shameful thing; it was an act obedient to a law.” He also uses nature to justify his running such as when he throws something at a squirrel and it runs away. He’s also egotistical when he says that his running away was done with “dignity” as compared to the others who ran like cowards. To make matters worse, after Henry is rejoined with his regiment, he lies about getting separated from the regiment and with the aid of a fradulent head wound, his story is not questioned by others. But Henry’s mind is always full of thoughts of how to save himself embarrassment that he even stoops to thinking about blackmailing his friend Wilson with the packet of letters that were given to him. “He now rejoiced in the possession of a small weapon with which he could prostrate his comrade at the first signs of a cross-examination.”
Another instance in which Henry acts unheroically is in the desertion of the tattered soldier. Henry could be juxtaposed to the tattered soldier to show how a hero should act. Unlike Henry who is always thinking about his self image, the tattered soldier, although he is shot and hurt himself, asks about Henry’s well being. But when the tattered man asks Henry, “Where yeh hit?”, Henry gets nervous that he might be labeled as a coward for not having a wound that justifies that he did fight and so he gives the tattered man the slip. When the tattered soldier meets Henry again at the place where both witness Jim Conklin’s strange death, he asks about Henry’s hurt again only to be chided with “Oh, don’t bother me.” Then Henry deserts him again and leaves him to wander helplessly in the fields.
Henry Fleming could still be labeled a hero if he changes at the end and learns from his experiences. But at the end of the novel, he’s still as self-absorbed and egotistical as he was before. When the battle is over and they’re marching home, Henry is informed that one of their fellow soldiers, Jimmie Rogers is dead, Henry doesn’t really give it much thought but goes right on thinking about how “…his public deeds were paraded in great and shining prominence” and how the performances “… had been witnessed by his fellows…”. His recollections are interrrupted for a moment by the memory of the tattered man but “…he mustered the force to put the sin at a distance.” He uses his art of rationalization again and is able to excuse himself by saying that he’s to utilize that sin in preventing him from making another mistake in the future. His last thought is “He was a man.”
A similar analogy of the protagonist not being the hero of the story is illustrated in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In this work, Frederic Henry, a lieutenant in the Italian army, thinks in a similar way to Henry Fleming. Frederic also has a strong tendency to rationalize every action, especially when he feels guilty. Also, he seldom blames himself for anything but blames fate or the world instead. In the beginning of the story, all Henry mainly does is drink a lot and have many love affairs. This is not characteristic of a hero, for a hero is supposed to be more righteous. In his relationship with Catherine Barkley, he treats it as a “game of sex” with all the moves being calculated. He doesn’t want to fall in love with her but just wants an affair with her. In the sixth chapter of the novel, Frederic is willing to play along with Catherine and says that he loves her just so that he get what he wants.
Another instance of selfish thought is shown when Frederic and Catherine does finally have a serious relationship. Catherine is unselfish for she is willing to be “part of him” and make him her religion but he just thinks that he will be trapped by her love. She is willing to do everything for his sake, to make his life simpler. For example, when Frederic receives his papers for a convalescent leave, she is willing to go with him but he just thinks that things might be difficult to manage if she comes along. To ease his troubles she replies, “If necessary I’ll simply leave.”
Catherine Barkley is more characteristic of a hero than Frederic Henry is. He is motivated by his own desires and fears, whereas she is strong and breaks through any barriers that block their happiness even when she sees herself dead in the rain. Even when they are happy together in Switzerland, Frederic still can not entirely forget about the war. He feels guilty about deserting the army and says to Catherine, “I feel like a criminal.” Even when Catherine is dying, Frederic cannot escape the war and he goes to the cafe and reads the paper of the man sitting next to him. Also, when Catherine is pregnant, Frederic seems to be bothered by it and feels that he is “trapped biologically”. In the hospital, when Catherine is experiencing labor pains and wants him to give her gas so that she won’t feel so much pain, he doesn’t want to turn the dial that would administer the gas. He remarks that he is “… afraid of the numbers above two.” This could apply to their relationship in that he doesn’t want a child for that would bring him difficulties and “trap” him.
At the end of the novel, Catherine dies due to the difficulties of labor, but she dies heroically. She accepts death as the end to things and says, “I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick.” Frederic Henry reaction is bitterness towards death. He blames the unidentified forces of the universe and strikes out against them to disguise his own guilt, just like Henry Fleming from The Red Badge of Courage. Thus, Frederic is not a hero for he doesn’t make any self-sacrifices but is concerned only with self-preservation and is bothered by any limitations put on him.
The protagonists in the two novels, The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms are not heroes for their deeds and actions are motivated by selfishness. In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry’s deeds and thoughts are concerned with how to make him appear a hero in the eyes of others. Similarly, in A Farewell to Arms, Frederic’s thoughts are on self-preservation and the freedom to do what he wants because he doesn’t like to feel trapped.