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), and offers him (sacramental) libation. Crane even describes the stove as like an altar that hums “with godlike violence.” In the end, the deluded Swede runs from the safety of the temple and meets his fate in the hellish saloon.
Crane’s use of vivid colors is one of his trademarks, and literary critics have debated the meaning of the hotel’s heron-blue paint as well as the saloon’s beckoning red light. They obviously are contrasting focal points, beacons as well as advertising gimmicks. The tranquillity and purity of the blue seem out of place; that is its charm (and Scully’s conceit). The red lamp, turning the snow the color of blood, is a warning signal that the Swede ignored. The meaning of these symbols remains mysterious, in keeping with the philosophical skepticism that runs throughout all of Crane’s published writings.
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 parody of the Old West, Crane is working out a deeply skeptical, naturalistic theme: man’s inability to perceive the world clearly. The whole tragic web of misunderstanding is caused by each character’s distortion of reality. In an atmosphere that should have provided security from the wild external forces of nature, there was something internal, in the heart of man, that was, ironically, an even more lethal threat to survival than the raging storm outside. The blue color of the hotel serves as a chromatic symbol of the sad human situation.
Ideas for Group Discussions
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,...
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