At the beginning of “The Rough Crossing,” celebrity playwright Adrian Smith, his young wife Eva, and their children board a luxury cruise ship for a six-day voyage from New York to Europe. Exploring the ups and downs of the Smiths’ marriage, the short story is set in the late 1920s mostly at sea, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean in a storm that violently rocks the ship.
Fitzgerald foreshadows the turbulent weather and journey early in the story:
On a northern parallel of latitude a hurricane was forming and moving south by southeast preceded by a strong west wind. On its course it was destined to swamp the Peter I. Eudin of Amsterdam, with a crew of sixty-six, to break a boom on the largest boat in the world, and to bring grief and want to the wives of several hundred seamen.
In the calm days before the storm, however, Fitzgerald emphasizes the ship’s opulent setting. Although smaller than the Majestic or the Aquitania (ships on which the Smiths travelled for their honeymoon), the “slick” Peter I. Eudin has larger passenger staterooms and plenty of amenities. The affluent, “formal” passengers enjoy “little shops,” a smoking-room, a game room with bridge and solitaire that “matched” any club or casino on land, saloons, a bar, a formal dining room, a deck large enough to hold a tennis tournament, and more.
As the storm builds, though, the setting becomes less comfortable and hospitable. As the ship rocks on the growing waves, people become seasick. Their movements become unbalanced and a bit comical, as if they were drunk. For example, an officer on the ship “slanted obliquely as he paced the bridge.” Adrian and his paramour Betsy D’Amido cling together in an awkward embrace, stealing kisses while “swaying to and fro with the motion of the ship.”
The weather worsens, creating a more ominous mood:
The day passed darkly, with fewer people around and a wet sky falling.
Images of no sun, abandoned decks, and torrential rain like “sky falling” create a more forbidding atmosphere on what should to be a joyful pleasure cruise. Natural elements work actively against characters, such as when Adrian opens a “door with difficulty against the driving wind.”
Most haunting is the ship itself. Through personification, Fitzgerald portrays it as a malevolent force. Descriptions like “the ship gave a sudden gigantic heave” and “a stout gentleman had been hurled backward and suffered a badly cut head” make the ship seem like it is purposely trying to hurt the passengers. Items need to be tied down to prevent them from flying into people.
This wild setting pits the decadent revelers against the hurling ship. Instead of acquiescing to it, the people determinedly and perhaps inappropriately continue their hedonistic pleasures to create an absurd, rowdy scene:
The gala dinner, overhung sardonically with lanterns and streamers, was interrupted by great communal slides across the room, precipitate retirements and spilled wine, while the ship roared and complained that under the panoply of a palace it was a ship after all. Upstairs afterward a dozen couples tried to dance, shuffling and galloping here and there in a crazy fandango, thrust around fantastically by a will alien to their own. In view of the condition of tortured hundreds below, there grew to be something indecent about it like a revel in a house of mourning, and presently there was an egress of the ever-dwindling survivors towards the bar.
Fitzgerald continues this wild personification of the ship and sea with descriptions like:
The ship pounded through valleys, fleeing from black mountains of water that roared towards it.
In their “crazily tipping cabin,” Adrian and Eva try to wait out the hurricane. Still, the ship seems to be bent on injuring them:
The trunk had broken loose from its lashings and was being thrown back and forth between a wardrobe and Eva’s bed.
Passengers break their arms trying to take a bath and even an “elderly lady had been thrown down a staircase and was not expected to live.” When an officer finally does die—supposedly of an appendicitis but the careening ship probably hastened his death—his dismal funeral held on board:
But the boat was sound: it had outlasted one of its cargo—Steward James Carton was being buried at sea.
When Eva tries to reach the wireless room in order to send a message to her lawyer for a divorce from Adrian, the weather and ocean wickedly collaborate against the couple. As Adrian chases her, he is confronted with “black spray and rain.” When he calls to her, his “voice was soundless in the black storm”:
The wind blew him like a sail up against a lifeboat. Then there was another shuddering crash, and high over his head, over the very boat, he saw a gigantic, glittering white wave, and in the split second that it balanced there he became conscious of Eva, standing beside a ventilator twenty feet away. Pushing out from the stanchion, he lunged desperately toward her, just as the wave broke with a smashing roar.
This frightening, tumultuous scene illustrates the setting at it most harrowing point. Ironically, the storm’s climax reunites Adrian and Eva as he saves Eva and himself from being washed overboard.
The short story ends with an abrupt change to a contrasting setting—the pastoral, calm scene of the Smiths riding a train “tranquilly.” The ship adventure seems like a bad dream. The characters joke that passengers were so affected by the rough crossing that their appearances have changed. Betsy D’Amido quips, “I’m vainly hoping my fiancé will recognize me at the Gare du Nord.”