Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Many have identified in Red Badge a discrepancy between Henry’s thoughts and those of the author. Crane often uses exaggerated language to describe Henry’s visions of glory and valor, so much so that he even seems to be mocking his main character. His descriptions of Henry often force the reader to question the legitimacy of Henry’s perceptions about himself. We realize that what Henry thinks about himself may not be what the narrator – or we – knows to be very accurate.
It’s clear that Crane has a bone to pick with traditional notions of courage, manhood, and warfare; Crane’s realistic descriptions of battle, fear, and horrific death lessen our deeply held beliefs about the glories and honor of fighting for one’s country or belief system. Both Henry’s desire for glory and his embarrassing unwillingness to do what is required for its attainment reveal Crane’s sophisticated sense that gray is the color of most men’s souls – that there is no such thing as true courage, or even right and wrong.