Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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.