“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” half the length of “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” lacks the narrative density and philosophical depth of either. Instead it debunks some pervasive myths of the American West, with wonderfully comic effect. In the generally grim catalog of Crane’s work, this story offers a refreshing change of pace.
In the most primitive kind of Western story, the characters lack identifiable human characteristics. They are robotlike, standing for largely meaningless abstractions of good or evil; everything leads up to, and the interest of the story lies in, the climactic showdown. Marshal Jack Potter of Yellow Sky, Texas, on the other hand, is all too human. As he rides home on the train from San Antonio, his new bride beside him, he is thinking not of confrontations with bad guys but, anxiously and distractedly, of what the town will think of him in his new married state. This is a rite of passage in more than the ordinary sense. It marks Jack’s transition from Old West lawman, the stereotypical hero of the American frontier, to solid married citizen of the New West, the self-conscious hero of domestic comedy. To mark the occasion, he has left his gun at home.
Meanwhile, back in Yellow Sky, the Old West seems alive and well in the person of Scratchy Wilson. In a scene out of any number of dime Westerns (the kind of story that fatally terrified the Swede in “The Blue Hotel”), a young man appears at the door of a saloon and announces that Scratchy is drunk and on the rampage. Nobody is tempted to become a dead hero; doors and windows are bolted and barred, and everyone awaits the return of the marshal, whose job is to fight Scratchy. It seems that he has fought him before (a detail which, to the experienced reader of Westerns, might seem odd—in the classic showdown, someone invariably dies).
In the next section, Scratchy himself appears, a criminal with some details comically askew: His flannel shirt is “made principally by some Jewish women on the East Side of New York. . . . And his boots had red tops with gilded imprints, of the kind beloved in winter by little sledding boys on the hillsides of New England.” On the streets of the deserted village there is no one to fight. He chases a dog to and fro with bullets, nails a scrap of paper to the saloon door as a target—and misses it by half an inch.
As Jack Potter and his new bride walk “sheepishly and with speed” toward their house, then, everything is set for the climax. Scratchy points his revolver at the unarmed marshal and sets out to play with him like a cat with a mouse; the only possible outcomes, seemingly, are tragedy or implausible heroism. Scratchy is enraged to discover that the marshal has no gun—what fun is that? When he asks why, Jack replies that it is because he is married. The stunned Scratchy is “like a creature allowed a glimpse of another world”—as indeed he has been—and it is a new world with no place for him in it. In the showdown between old and new, Scratchy is armed with his six-guns, Jack with his wife. Jack wins handily: Scratchy turns and walks away, leaving “funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand.” Time and the prairie wind will soon efface them, and the Old West will be no more.
“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” concerns the efforts of a town marshal bringing his new bride to the “frontier” town of Yellow Sky, Texas, at a time when the Old West is being slowly but inevitably civilized. At the climax of the story, the stereotypical and seemingly inevitable gunfight, a staple feature of Westerns, is averted, and the reader senses that all such gunplay is a thing of the past, that in fact Stephen Crane is describing the “end of an era.”
Crane’s four-part story concerns human beings’ interaction with their environment. (Jack’s wife is not an individualized person with a name; she is important only because she represents marriage as a civilized institution.) In part 1, Crane...
(The entire section is 1,178 words.)