"The Youth" is obviously the main character of the book, and as such appears in every scene. The novel chronicles the complete growth of this young man, who somehow changes from a tempestuous and immature adolescent to a war-weary adult, over the course of just a few days.
Henry begins the book as an idealistic and completely self-absorbed teenager who wants nothing more than a chance to show off and be thought of as a brave and daring male. He longs to wear a uniform and carry a gun – to have females "ooh" and "ah" over him. Unfortunately, for Henry this manhood comes at a steep price. The process he undergoes forces him to acknowledge his own cowardice and selfishness. It also makes him take a long, painful look at his own reserves of bravery and loyalty. Through the course of the novel (and the course of several battles), Henry discovers that he can transcend his own fears; he can be brave even in the face of his own very possible death. As the text says, "There was the delirium that encounters despair and death, and is heedless and blind to the odds. It is a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness" (19.10). Henry learns that all men face and feel the same emotions, and that the world does not care one iota what happens to Henry Fleming. This last revelation is both horrifying and freeing in equal measure.
It is obvious that the obtainment of and displaying of courage are the primary themes of the novel. They are simultaneously Henry’s largest goals and fears. At first, Henry has some very romantic notions about courage and war. He assumes that he will come home a hero, or not come home at all. His death at this point is a mere abstraction to him. He has no concept of what is actually involved in fighting. He has never even seen a dead body.
Once he gets a bit of experience with war and death, Henry’s views of courage change. Suddenly, it appears that courage is something that other men have, but a thing that he clearly does not possess. Courage, and the lack of it, is now his main obstacle and obsession. When he gives in to his fear and runs from the battlefield, he is hideously ashamed, but he also quickly rationalizes that this is something any thinking human (or animal) would do under those same circumstances.
As time goes on, Henry becomes more daring, and by the end of the novel, he has become a more mature and seasoned man who has faced the very worst. As Henry marches victoriously from battle, his notions of courage are now more complex and realistic. He knows that all men have equal stores of courage and cowardice, and an equal choice about when and how to use them.
Henry’s chief enemy in his quest for courage is that essential ingredient of human nature: the desire for self-preservation. Henry wants to continue living more than he wants anything else. The more we think about it, the more this seems entirely appropriate. And of course, the more Henry thinks about it, the more he’s convinced he’s an Einstein stuck in a field full of Beevises and Buttheads. He proves this to himself via…a squirrel. Take a look:
He threw a pinecone at a jovial squirrel, and he ran with chattering fear. […] The youth felt triumphant at this exhibition. There was the law, he said. Nature had given him a sign. The squirrel, immediately upon recognizing danger, had taken to his legs without ado. He did not stand stolidly baring his furry belly to the missile, and die with an upward glance at the sympathetic heavens. On the contrary, he had fled as fast as his legs could carry him. […] Nature […] re-enforced his argument (7.14).
Of course, this logic only preserves his self-esteem for about…two to three minutes before he comes upon a corpse and concludes that the world is indifferent to his or anyone else’s survival. (More on that line of reasoning in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory"). Henry then further refines his line of reasoning regarding survival when he runs from "the Tattered Soldier"; it’s clear that he’s interested in himself, NOT others. It’s almost as if the dead corpse – and the experience of watching Jim Conklin die – made him take this particularly hard line. When he finally does make it to battle, Henry is still operating on this principle of self-preservation. People are shooting at him, so he shoots back. It’s not about bravery; it’s about not dying.
The real self-sacrificial behavior doesn’t come about until Henry takes up the Union flag. As you have probably observed, flags are not only poor weapons for self-defense, but they’re also big flashing signs that say "Shoot me! Over here!" Survival instinct cannot possibly explain Henry’s decision to take up the flag. So what does? Well…
Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power. He kept near, as if it could be a saver of lives, and an imploring cry went from his mind (19.32).
This is that "part of something bigger" sensation which we discuss in "Why Should I Care?" Henry begins to lose his sense of individual self, which sort of cuts SELF-preservation out of the picture. Because he becomes absorbed in this bigger cause – as represented by the flag – Henry doesn’t fight to save Henry anymore. He’s only concerned with the big idea. He IS insignificant, as he concluded earlier when developing his idea of a vast and indifferent universe. But the cause – the flag – is NOT.
Throughout the novel, Henry struggles not only with his notions of what it means to be courageous, but also what it means to be a "man." Early in the novel, his concepts of manliness are as romanticized as his feelings about bravery. He thinks that his current culture has tamed men of their natural urge to fight immortal battles, and that there are no longer any men of the stature of the Greeks. He sees his fellow men as being weak and pale and overly domesticated – not even capable of doing significant deeds. He imagines that once he is wearing a military uniform and has come back from a great battle that women (and other men) will look at him with new eyes. He will then be a true man, and receive the honor and praise that is rightfully his.
These adolescent (and highly romantic) ideas about manliness get put to the test fairly early on. Henry quickly finds out that being in the military involves boredom, repetition, and extreme fear and death. He also discovers that Jim Conklin is more of a realistic model of what a man should be. Jim is self-assured and is able to own up to his own faults and weaknesses. Wilson, who begins the novel as "the Loud Soldier," later exposes his own vulnerability when he asks Henry to deliver the packet of letters to his family. Henry slowly revises his opinion of what a real man looks and acts like, and he comes to the conclusion that a big part of manhood is owning up to one’s own mistakes and flaws.