Ernest, an artist, is beaten and disfigured (losing an eye and his front teeth) when he participates in a communist demonstration aboard the ocean liner Bremen. As the story opens, his friends and family gather in his kitchen to hear Preminger, a communist deck officer aboard the Bremen (and a witness to the incident), explain what happened. Ernest’s brother, Charley, a college football player, decides to take revenge on Lueger, the German steward who beat Ernest. Ernest, however, despite his injuries, remains committed to the communist ideal and objects on the grounds that taking revenge on Lueger will serve no purpose.
Ernest is overruled by Charley and by his wife, Sally, and they tell him to leave the room while they plot against Lueger. They decide to lure him to the waiting Charley by using Sally as bait. She is to let him pick her up and to pretend to bring him home with her, and Charley is to ambush him in the street.
When the Bremen returns to New York City, Sally is briefed over and over on the plan. Lueger takes Sally to see a film and then is concerned only with reaching her apartment (she has told him she lives alone), but she stalls him with the offer of drinks to keep the original plan on schedule. She begins to have second thoughts about delivering Lueger and almost backs out completely because, even though she hates him, he is “a human being and thoughtless and unsuspecting and because her heart was softer than she had thought.” Lueger chooses this moment, however, to hurt her, and she is strengthened in her resolve to carry out the plot. Lueger is taken completely by surprise, and Charley is extremely savage in his treatment of Lueger, almost killing him with his bare hands.
The last scene is tinged with irony, as Preminger, who identified Lueger as Ernest’s assailant in the story’s opening scene and later pointed out the steward to Charley, must make another identification, this time to the staff at the hospital where Lueger is taken and to the detective who is investigating the incident. In a masterpiece of dramatic irony, Preminger offers a pat explanation for Lueger’s fate: “You must be very careful in a strange city.”
Style and Technique
The most interesting aspect of Shaw’s style in “Sailor Off the Bremen” is his construction of the story. The reader’s attention must be concentrated on the violent confrontation between Charley and Lueger, between the United States and Germany, so rather than depicting the action that leads up to Ernest’s beating, which would have robbed the story’s climax of much of its novelty as the most active portion of the story, Shaw introduces it through Preminger in the kitchen-table discussion in the opening scene. The demonstration and the violence that follow it are reduced to expository elements that cannot rob the climax of the reader’s full and undivided attention, and Shaw manages to place importance where he felt it most belonged, in the retribution against the Nazi Lueger.
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