Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Blue Hotel” deals with man’s vanities and illusions, which are absurd but, ironically, necessary for survival. Stephen Crane’s naturalistic tale presents a view of the world as beyond comprehension and indifferent to the inconsequential matters of mankind. According to the author, people are like lice clinging to “a whirling, fire-smitten, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.”
Although “The Blue Hotel” is steeped in irony, Crane explores the conundrum between fate and moral choice. The story is elusive on whether human beings share moral responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The Swede’s fate is tragic and of his own making, yet who is to say whether it was the whiskey, given to him by the well-intentioned Scully, which turned him into a reckless fool? On one thing Crane is clear: Life is fragile.
Whether the Swede is trapped by his fixed idea about the environment or whether it is the environment that traps him, his death comes as quickly and easily as the slicing of a melon. The motto on the cash register implies that he deserves his fate, but, ironically, the message comes too late to save him, as his eyes are already glazed over by the shadow of death.
Perhaps literary critic J. C. Levenson best summarized the story’s enigmatic quality when he wrote: “Given the facts as presented, the story constructs a universe that defies every quest for certain meaning.” However, this much can be said: Crane’s philosophy has an existential element. Had this been merely a naturalist allegory, the author would have concluded with the Swede’s death and not included the conversation between the easterner and the cowboy. Despite the chaos and moral uncertainty, Crane rejects passivity. He embraces the conceit that humankind has ethical obligations.