Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that in a good story, terrain and atmosphere should express and symbolize the characters and action. Crane follows Stevenson’s injunction, as the images of the blizzard and the “screaming blue” hotel foreshadow the subsequent fistfight and stabbing. In fact, just as the blue-legged heron “declares his position” against its background, so the Swede (called a wild loony by Johnnie) has a fixed position that is antagonistic to the environment.
The blizzard symbolizes nature’s harshness, the blinding rage of a hostile environment that can snuff out visibility, reducing the landscape to “a gray swampish hush.” Crane writes that “the conceit of man was explained by the storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it.” The blue color of the hotel is a testimony to the owner’s conceit. Scully imagines himself to be an exemplary host and entrepreneur. Rather than viewing the Blue Hotel as a tranquil haven, the Swede believes it to be a frontier outpost fraught with danger. In the end, his irrational fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, a person’s conceit can be an agent of death as well as an engine of life.
In some ways the three travelers parody the biblical Wise Men. Scully, who “looks curiously like a priest,” tells them that guests have “sacred privileges.” He provides them with (baptismal) water, shows the Swede icons (pictures of his children),...
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The Blue Hotel (Magill Book Reviews)
In a small Nebraska town named Fort Romper, events unfold against a howling blizzard one winter evening in the late 1880’s. Three characters--a Swede, an Easterner, and a cowboy--are guests at the hotel run by Scully, who is noted for his hospitality.
From outward appearances it seems that the men are secure. They are gathered around a hot potbellied stove, and they are constantly reassured by their host that all is well. Then, a discordant note is struck. The Swede suddenly becomes alarmed and wildly asserts that he will be murdered in the hotel that night.
The Swede’s peculiar behavior is a puzzle to everyone except the Easterner. He understands that the poor foreigner’s view of the West has been distorted by dime novels. The Swede refuses to believe that he is in a respectable hotel, and Scully’s attempt to calm his nerves with a drink of whiskey results in his getting drunk and becoming even more belligerent.
Subsequently, a fierce fist fight breaks out between the Swede and Scully’s teenaged son, Johnny, who is thrashed by the older man. The Swede’s earlier assertion that he will be killed that night proves prophetic.
Full of bravado and confidence after whipping Scully’s son, the Swede goes to a saloon and picks a fight with another man, who kills him suddenly with a knife in the ribs.
The whole story is told in a detached style that is full of scrupulous, symbolic details. Underneath the...
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"The Blue Hotel" has generated a seemingly endless amount of literary criticism. Almost thirty-five pages, exclusive of bibliography, in Michael W. Schaefer's A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Stephen Crane (1996) are devoted to editorial summarization of the dozens of critical studies alone, covering a plethora of philosophical, psychological, theological, and ordinary literary aspects of the story. Critics have argued over such matters as the nature of the strangers, the Swede's character and significance, the cause of the events leading to the Swede's death, Crane's imagery and symbolism, his structuring of the story (particularly the last section, with its philosophy about how many people were really involved in the Swede's death), his aesthetics, and his own psychology that led him to write the story the way he did.
It is not enough to lump this story with ordinary, well-written Westerns of his day or our own. Crane seems to have had a personal agenda in mind, based on his own experiences. Among the autobiographical elements that are directly or indirectly reflected in his stories, included: breaking with the moral code and lifestyle of his conservative parents and family (his father was a Methodist minister) to take as his consort a woman who operated a bawdy house; his journalistic endeavors as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War and other battle actions; his involvement with the slums, taverns, and vaudeville theaters...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
On a superficial level, this story is about communication, or failure in communication, which here opens up a cluster of more specific issues. Among them: (a) a stranger's misinterpretation of the "insiders'" language and customs, with harmful results; (b) the basic human problem of weaknesses in personality, character, and ability to cope under extremely trying conditions when the odds of success are also unfavorable; (c) Crane's peculiar diction.
1. What elements or events in his own experience, actual or at second hand, might have led the Swede to believe he was going to be killed in Fort Romper, when he had chosen to go there himself?
2. What are your best reasons for believing or not believing that Johnnie Scully was cheating at cards?
3. Why do you think Pat Scully showed the disturbed Swede a picture of his deceased daughter?
4. Despite what Crane wrote about the town gambler's good standing in Fort Romper, what seems left out of Crane's argument? Did Crane seem convincing?
5. In your opinion, did Crane have a hidden agenda when he wrote this story? What unassimilated elements in the story as it stands leave you dissatisfied? Explain.
6. Discuss and interpret Crane's use of colors and other symbolic features of the story.
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The primary social concern in Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel," set in a very small Nebraska prairie town called Fort Romper (probably Omaha), is the plight of the stranger in the midst of a seemingly threatening group of "insiders" whose ways and attitude toward the stranger are difficult to understand, even though there is no language problem. The story shows how easily such a stranger's failure to understand "the lay of the land" may lead to personal exasperation and then to some act of violence— by, or upon the person of, the stranger. Under such conditions of social tension, something as seemingly innocent as a card game played for fun may turn ugly and cause a life-threatening situation.
Another social concern is the easy morality of small towns on the Western frontier in the late nineteenth century. There was, first, the proneness to physical violence among men in public places such as bars and hotels, and as a corollary the carrying, and ready use, of deadly weapons (here, a knife figures significantly in the plot). This is hardly surprising, given the difficulty of maintaining law and order, and the added difficulty of protecting oneself under changing social conditions and the gradual settlement of the American West (Nebraska gained statehood in 1867). A second feature of the easy morality of a Western frontier town, Fort Romper for example, is illustrated by the attitude of the residents toward a familiar figure: the gambler, described in the...
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Crane's story seems to grow out of the "dime novel" tradition of cheap, readily available pulp thrillers, many of them set in the wild West, the huge crossroads of the nineteenth-century-American imagination, where desperadoes, settlers, strangers, Indians, Mexicans, and only a few law and order types met, and anything could happen. The hugely popular paperbacks such as Seth Jones by Edward S. Ellis (1860) and Deadmod Dick by Edward L. Wheeler (1877) helped shape readers' tastes, not necessarily for the worse. They even provided a genre-pattern for serious writers like Crane to use far more intelligently than the hack writers and literary drudges were using it, just as those commercial popularizers were influenced by James Fenimore Cooper's elegant Leatherstocking Tales (see separate entries) and other frontier sagas, written in the early part of the century.
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Although many of Crane's stories, even Maggie (1893, revised 1896; see separate entry), have been linked by the critics with "The Blue Hotel," on the basis of some aspects of plot, symbol, and narrative perspective, only "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" seems to have the most in its favor for drawing a comparison. Both stories are interpreted to signify "the passing of the old West," i.e., the taming of that ever-receding raw and dangerous frontier area, at that time being settled by ever larger numbers of people, thereby being made an ever more attractive region to live in. Both include an individual who is not sufficiently aware of those cultural changes taking place (the Swede in "The Blue Hotel" and Scratchy Wilson, the town badman, in "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky"). The two stories also complement one another, according to some commentators: The impending fight does not come off, in "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," but it does come off, in "The Blue Hotel." Thus "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" is a comic treatment of a subject treated tragically in "The Blue Hotel."
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"The Blue Hotel" was adapted as an American Short Story Theater teleplay, a product of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in 1974. It was directed by Jan Kadar and the original Crane story was adapted for television by Harry Mark Petrakis. David Warner played the Swede, Rex Everhart was Scully, and James Keach was Johnnie.
While generally faithful to the original storyline, the teleplay did not project Crane's subtle mood of repressed violence and intensifying danger. Lacking Crane's subtlety in blending action with philosophical discourse, the teleplay seemed disjointed and flat. In addition, Warner's attempted enactment of the provocative and unstable Swede seemed to lack conviction and produced an effect far short of the way Crane's protagonist comes across to the reader.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Benfey, Christopher E. G. The Double Life of Stephen Crane. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.
Cady, Edwin H. Stephen Crane. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Gullason, Thomas A., ed. Stephen Crane’s Literary Family: A Garland of Writings. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002.
Hayes, Kevin J. Stephen Crane. Tavistock, Northumberland, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2004.
Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding “The Red Badge of Courage”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane: Journalism and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Weatherford, Richard M., ed. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973....
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