Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The story “The Rough Crossing” by F. Scott Fitzgerald opens with a descriptive introduction of the American piers in the night, which are compared to midway points or crossing places. The world of the ship is described as a separate world, within which “one is no longer so sure of anything.”
Aboard the ship are Mr. and Mrs. Adrian Smith. Adrian is thirty-one and a somewhat famous playwright; his wife, Eva, is twenty-six. As they lean on the rail of the deck, Adrian pronounces themselves, their children, and the children’s nurse escapees from all the people who want to take his wife away from him—because they know he does not deserve her. His words please Eva, and she comments that she prefers this ship to the bigger ones they traveled on during their honeymoon seven years ago.
The couple notice a girl who seems familiar to Adrian. She is barely eighteen years old and is dark-haired and beautiful. Sensing her husband’s attention wandering, Eva asks him to reassure her about the good time they will have during their one-year stay in Paris. She mentions the pearls he bought for her birthday and claims she will never be mean to him again. As he replies, she notices he is already taken by the adventure of the voyage.
As the stewards announce imminent departure, a young man arrives to board the ship at the last minute. The ship departs, and the omniscient narrator informs readers that a hurricane approaches and that this liner will be caught in the storm two days from now.
Two days later, Adrian and Eva visit the ship’s smoking room for the first time, even though they did not originally plan to do so. The bar is full, and people are engaged in numerous activities. There is a sense of nervous energy peculiar to being in the middle of an ocean with not enough to do.
Adrian notices the young girl he saw before and is again taken by her beauty. He and Eva have discovered that she must be Miss Elizabeth D’Amido, and Adrian has also since heard her called Betsy in passing. She is in a group of young people, among whom is the young man who almost missed the ride. His name is Butterworth.
One of the young men approaches the couple, professing admiration for Adrian and his work and asking if they would like to join the group and participate in the deck-tennis tournament. Adrian agrees but insists the young people join their table, even though it is smaller. The young people arrive, and soon Miss D’Amido finds a way to sit next to Adrian. She states boldly yet respectfully that she has been in love with him since she first saw him at the performance of one of his plays. This makes Adrian feel special. Eva, on the other hand, is not enjoying herself—she fails to see why one needs to meet new people all the time.
After a half-hour, she leaves to check on children and, coming into her cabin, finds a steward sitting on her bed. She reacts angrily, believing him to be suffering from seasickness. As the steward is being removed, Eva starts to feel unwell herself, blaming it on the sick man. Adrian comes in later and tells her he will be playing doubles with Miss D’Amido, which hurts Eva, who feels Adrian should have asked her to play. He claims the thought never occurred to him, even though his expression shows guilt. He soon leaves Eva on her own.
The next morning the sea...
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seems calmer, and Eva feels well enough to come out and observe the match, alongside many other prostrate passengers. Miss D’Amido is elegant and plays well while being filmed by other passengers. Butterworth informs Eva that the steward she saw in her cabin is being operated on for appendicitis and that due to the storm coming, the ship’s party will be held that evening.
Adrian and Betsy win the match and Adrian goes off to celebrate, somewhat apologetically leaving Eva alone on the boat deck but sending her a cocktail. She spends the time imagining what lies ahead for them—a villa in Brittany and the children learning to speak French. She suddenly feels aimless and pointless on this ship.
That afternoon Eva is in the bar with Butterworth, who claims she is his idea of a Greek goddess, but Eva is preoccupied with Adrian and where he might be. He and Betsy have gone to the forward deck to feel the spray of the ocean.
At that moment, Adrian and the young girl are exchanging intimacies: first he takes her arms and then kisses her forehead. She convinces him to kiss her by playing upon his sympathy. She cries as he then urges her to go to her cabin. Back in the bar, Adrian makes Eva leave. She is resentful of the time he spends with “the younger set,” and they have a discussion in which he behaves evasively while the ship heaves. Adrian is impatient to leave the cabin for the party. Eva is slow from drinking and seasickness, and after a nervous exchange, he leaves her. He goes to Betsy’s cabin, professing he is “sick for her,” and they kiss. For him there is something in her youth that he feels he has lost.
Adrian meets Eva going to the bar, noticing she looks lovely. They learn the storm is picking up and that several people have been badly hurt by the ship’s lurching movements. The gala dinner is an awkward affair, as the tables and people slide all over, and the ship roars. After missing Adrian for most of the night, once he appears again, Eva is half-drunk and refuses to leave with him. She is convinced Adrian has left again to pursue Betsy and drinks more, dejected and alone. In this state she goes out to the deck, feeling the need to make some sort of propitiating gesture to make things right, so she takes off her pearl necklace, kisses it, and flings it into the ocean.
The next morning, the ship is caught in the eye of the storm. As Eva wakes, her head hurts terribly, and after calling the ship’s doctor, she and Adrian learn she became terribly drunk the night before and caused a scandal by wandering around the boat and insulting a stewardess. The doctor forbids her to drink and informs them that the sick steward died during the night. Eva tells Adrian she has thrown her pearls overboard, and he says he was in his cabin alone during the night, as Betsy collapsed during the party. The couple is told of more victims of the gale, both aboard their ship and on other vessels, which helps bring their troubles into perspective.
In the afternoon, the dead steward receives a burial at sea. Eva weeps for him, and something in her breaks. She has Butterworth bring drinks to the cabin and invites several of the young men to join them. Adrian observes her with dismay, wondering if this is her revenge on him for pursuing Betsy. Finally he orders Butterworth, the last one remaining, to leave the cabin, and Butterworth accuses him of bullying Eva. Eva states that she wants a divorce and is determined to send a wire to Paris immediately so as to have a lawyer ready. Adrian lets her go.
After a while, Adrian goes out to find her, fearing that something might have happened. The ship swings wildly, and Adrian is thrown against a lifeboat on the deck. He sees a giant white wave rise above the ship and, in that very moment, notices Eva standing nearby. As the wave crashes over them, he manages to grab hold of her, and he loses consciousness.
Two days later, the action moves to the train to Paris. Eva and Adrian are showing the landscape to the children, and their daughter professes she misses the ship. For Adrian, the events at sea already seem distant, but Eva can still feel the ship’s rocking. Betsy D’Amido comes along the corridor and greets them, telling them of the two waves that crashed over the wireless room on the ship. Adrian does not let on that they were there and answers briefly and drily. He tells Eva that what happened was a nightmare, not reality, and promises to buy her new pearls. The story finishes with Adrian sitting close to Eva, saying that the couple on the ship were some other Smiths, of whom there are many in the world.