Stephen Crane

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Stephen Crane American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5871

Crane might best be regarded as an inexplicable literary phenomenon: a brief, bright comet, brilliantly distinct from every other writer of his time. Such an approach, however—metaphorically throwing up one’s hands and standing back in wonder—is not very satisfying to literary critics, who have expended vast amounts of energy attempting to fit Crane into various pigeonholes. Thus the student of Crane will soon wander into a bewildering maze of theory: The author is referred to as naturalist, realist, impressionist, and ironist. It may be useful to discuss these concepts, then, before examining Crane’s principal theme and the lasting value of his fiction.

Literary naturalism was imported to the United States from Europe, mainly by way of the French novelistÉmile Zola, and found its chief American expression, around the beginning of the twentieth century, in the novels of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. It is a literary concept based on the idea that the physical world is all that exists; it denies the supernatural. The novelist’s approach is that of the scientist: to examine phenomena, rigorously and objectively, with a view to proving a thesis about the human condition. Typically, this thesis is that people are indistinguishable from animals—that their lives are strictly governed by heredity and environment, making them essentially victims of biological and social forces which they are helpless to oppose.

Probably the most readable works of American naturalism are Norris’s McTeague (1899) and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900). Crane’s fiction has some naturalistic elements, in that it is skeptical, probably agnostic, and generally pessimistic. Yet even in Maggie, the work to which the term most readily applies, it is not clear that the characters are purely victims of their environment. At key turning points they are offered opportunities to act kindly—to change the course of Maggie s life—but fail to take them. Nor is the deep moral outrage that pervades the story typically naturalistic. Crane knows what good is and takes his stand for it, even if the realist in him sees that, in the Bowery, the good generally fails.

Realism in its most basic form refers simply to getting things right—careful observation and rendering of detail. For example, the realist Mark Twain felt that a famous American romantic novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, had made egregious errors of detail that robbed his work of conviction. In this sense Crane is certainly a realist; he was an expert reporter, and the details of his work ring true. Much of his writing, though by no means all, centers on probable and everyday occurrences. In this aspect he stands firmly in the camp of such leading realists as Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells.

Crane was more concerned than either of those writers, however—and herein lies a clue to his greater significance for most modern readers—with inner reality: not merely with what happened, but with how it felt and why it mattered. Thus, his realism is more subjective. He describes Civil War battles not as they might appear to a disembodied observer floating above them, but as they looked and sounded to a terrified soldier in the middle of them. His method is, in turn, affected. In The Red Badge of Courage, in particular, the narrative is far more disconnected and the imagery more dreamlike than in the social realism of Garland and Howells. It is these qualities that have caused some critics to refer to Crane as an impressionist. Impressionism, an extremely vague term as applied to literature, suggests an attempt to render the subjective aspects of a scene, as opposed to the verifiable events—what could be filmed by a documentary filmmaker, for example—that make it up.

The greatest fiction writers are able to view events from multiple perspectives, a quality readily apparent in Crane’s best work. He is at once the frightened correspondent in “The Open Boat,” concerned only with survival from moment to moment, and the survivor observing the foibles, pretensions, and ultimate helplessness of humankind. He is both the runaway soldier wallowing in self-justification and the dispassionate witness. It is out of this multiplicity of vision that Crane’s pervasive irony arises.

His is not to be confused with a simple irony of tone, a kind of sarcasm whose purpose is to proclaim the author’s distance from and superiority to the people and events he or she is describing. Instead, it expresses a complex, deeply imagined and unsentimental vision. If humans need their illusions to survive in an indifferent universe, in a state of war with one another and with the natural world, let them have them; nevertheless, let them back off from time to time and see those illusions for what they are. It is only in such moments of clarification that human beings, understanding their true place in the scheme of things, come together as brothers and sisters.

In Crane’s universe, everyone is indeed at war: The statement is a critical commonplace and is self-evident to any reader once alerted to it. Usually (“The Open Boat” is a notable exception) the enemy is human, and the cause of the conflict is human blindness—failure of observation and imagination, leading to an inability to see others as sentient beings capable of suffering. It is difficult to shoot down another person, face to face, but in The Red Badge of Courage the Confederate soldiers are cogs in a war machine that has been aimed at another war machine. To the Swede, in “The Blue Hotel” (1899), the other characters are murderers out of pulp adventure fiction.

Rarely do Crane’s characters connect in any significant way; all too often they lash out blindly to save whatever is precious to them, whether self-image, social status, or life itself. Crane’s vision, then, is essentially tragic. His stories do not necessarily make comforting reading. They are passionately honest, however, revealing an integrity found only in the finest fiction. They have much to say to a world that remains at war.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

First published: 1896 (privately printed, 1893)

Type of work: Novella

Cast out by her family and abandoned by her lover, a young woman comes to a sad end.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets presents more difficulties to modern readers than other major work by Crane. The heavy dialect and outmoded slang can be distracting, but a more central problem lies in the characterization, or lack of it, of the protagonist. The harrowing pictures of life in a New York slum, however, still ring true.

The fundamental law of life in the Bowery is revealed in the opening scene and depicted as absolute throughout the story. Maggie’s brother Jimmie Johnson appears as a small boy fighting a group of boys from Devil’s Row “for the honor of Rum Alley.” As he is about to be overwhelmed, an older boy, Pete, happens along and pitches in on his side. With the enemy routed, Jimmie goes home to a family also at war; here the mother is victorious, the father driven out to drown his sorrows in a neighboring saloon. So it goes throughout: The powerful prey on the powerless and are preyed upon themselves in turn. Power may stem from physical prowess, from socioeconomic position, or from sexual desirability. Whatever its source, however, power is universally exploited for pleasure or vindication.

Because the characters lack any vestige of self-knowledge or empathy, inevitably their behavior is revealed as at best futile, at worst destructive. Jimmie fights for the “honor” of Rum Alley, but Rum Alley has no honor. The mother ultimately banishes Maggie in the name of conventional respectability, but she herself is a ranting and raving alcoholic. The streets and tenements that make up the urban jungle are strewn with victims. Maggie, from the first scene in which she appears, is only one of many.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets consists of nineteen brief sections; in the first four, Maggie and Jimmie are children. In these sections, Crane is highly successful in evoking the milieu. It is in the fifth—with Maggie grown and engaged in near-slave labor as a seamstress—that he begins to run into trouble. She has become “a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.” As additional characterization, Crane reveals that “when a child, playing and fighting with gamins in the street, dirt disgusted her.” That statement essentially marks the limit of his conception of Maggie. For the story to rise above pathos, its heroine would have to reveal some divine spark, or, in practical terms, considerable spunk in her attempts to make a new life for herself. The potential for triumph or tragedy is present in the situation; unfortunately, however, the protagonist, in her timid passivity, remains nothing more than a victim of circumstances.

Her good looks and vulnerability make her a natural target for Pete, Jimmie’s rescuer in the opening scene, who has become a bartender and a swaggering man about town. He begins squiring her about—more because she is a decorative prop to his ego than out of any real feeling—and Maggie, naturally enough, falls in love with him. Thus, ominously, the power is all on Pete’s side. Interspersed with scenes of the courtship are scenes with Jimmie, now a truck driver and minor-league swaggerer himself, and Maggie’s mother, widowed but unchanged in her alcoholic, sanctimonious violence.

At the end of section 9, the midpoint of the story, the mother throws Maggie out. With nowhere to go except with Pete, Maggie now (it is indicated discreetly) loses her virginity—she is “ruined.” The sexual double standard comes into darkly ironic focus: Jimmie, who has been “ruining” girls for years, proclaims that “Maggie’s gone teh d’ devil.” The mother responds with a curse biblical in intensity but with imagery straight from the Bowery: “May she eat nothin but stones and deh dirt in deh street. May she sleep in deh gutter an’ never see deh sun shine again.”

After a dramatic scene in a saloon, in which a fight between Jimmie and Pete over Maggie’s honor escalates into a riot, the beginning of the end for Maggie comes quickly. By now, with no one else to turn to, her “air of spaniel-like dependence had been magnified and showed its direct effect in the peculiar off-handedness and ease of Pete’s ways toward her.” In a dance hall they meet Nell, “a woman of brilliance and audacity” whom Pete had known previously, and whom he wants more than she wants him. As a result of this shift in the balance of power, Maggie is very soon abandoned. Her mother refuses to take her back in, effectively condemning her to a life of prostitution.

To this point Crane’s techniques have been realistic. Now, in section 17, Maggie’s remaining life is foreshortened into a few pages, as she is shown first well-dressed in a brilliantly lit theater district, then walking down darker, grimier streets, being rejected finally by boys and drunks, coming at last to the river, into which she will deliver up her life. How much time has passed cannot be determined exactly, but it is presumably several years. The power of this section depends on the extent to which the reader has come to identify with Maggie in the earlier, more fully developed ones; many will find it more puzzling than anything else.

After a scene depicting the downfall of Pete, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets ends with the announcement to her family of her death. In the last line of the story, her mother, utterly unconscious of what she has done to her daughter in her vindictive failure of love, screams “Oh, yes, I’ll fergive her! I’ll fergive her!” It is one of the most harrowingly ironic endings in all of fiction and anticipates the greatness of the work to come.

The Red Badge of Courage

First published: 1895

Type of work: Novel

In the course of a series of Civil War skirmishes, a young Union soldier is initiated into manhood.

The Red Badge of Courage is hard to classify, as is Crane’s work in general. It is a war story in the sense that the major external action consists of clashes between opposing armies, but certainly it is unconventional in what it omits. No geographical place names are given, except for a single casual mention of the Rappahannock River, so that the action—all the more surreal for this reason—cannot be located on a map. Similarly, no dates are given; it is impossible to tell what strategic significance, if any, the series of inconclusive actions might have had.

In fiction that is intended to justify one side in a war, much is generally made of the justice of the cause; moreover, the soldiers on “our side” are portrayed as brave and noble, the enemy as evil. In The Red Badge of Courage, on the other hand, the cause is never described, and, though the enemy remains mostly faceless, it becomes clear at last that the only difference between Union and Confederate soldiers is the color of their uniforms. The novel is distinctly modern in this sense, much in the spirit of the fiction engendered by the Vietnam War. In its vivid depiction of the futile suffering brought about by war, it is an antiwar novel.

It is also, and perhaps primarily, a coming-of-age story. According to traditional readings, Henry Fleming, the young protagonist, moves in a series of stages from boyhood, marked by his cowardly flight from his first battle, to manhood, marked by his leading a charge and capturing a rebel flag. In the fiction of Crane, however, as ironic a writer as ever lived, nothing is ever quite that simple. The question of just what it is that Henry learns (and in turn, just what it is that war teaches any of those condemned to fight in it) remains open, to be answered by each reader by closely following the details of the story.

The Red Badge of Courage moves back and forth between traditional realism, partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Crane’s ironical one, and the surreal, disjointed imagery of nightmare. Thus, in the opening paragraph, from the camp of Henry’s untested regiment one can see “the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills”—a picture of a war monster. Next the story turns to a matter-of-fact description of camp life, including small domestic arrangements, quarrels, and the inevitable buzz of rumor. By these varied techniques, Crane accurately expresses the flavor of Henry’s existence—mostly ordinary, a life dominated by trivial events and emotions but always haunted by the specter of the fearful unknown.

At length, the regiment begins its march to action. Before any fighting actually occurs, Henry begins to feel his helplessness to alter the onrushing course of events. His regiment “inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box.” It is this kind of statement that has caused some critics to describe The Red Badge of Courage as naturalistic and Henry as simply a victim of historical forces. Yet it is important to remember that these are Henry’s perceptions, not Crane’s, and that Henry is often self-deluded. A moment later, he reflects that he “had not enlisted of his free will,” when in fact he had. He made that choice and, like the characters in “The Blue Hotel,” will have others to make as well.

His first crisis occurs when his regiment has to withstand an infantry charge. At first he “suddenly lost concern for himself, and. . . . He became not a man but a member. . . . He felt the subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.” This is reminiscent of the brotherhood in “The Open Boat,” but it is ironically undercut by its arising from war (Henry’s state is described as “battle sleep”) and by its being so very short-lived. Soon, when a few men run, Henry runs too.

He runs blindly, without conscious volition, and his adventures while away from his regiment, chapters 6 through 12 of the twenty-four in the book, make up the dramatic heart of the novel. He pictures himself initially as being pursued by dragons and shells with “rows of cruel teeth that grinned at him.” Soon, as he calms down, he begins to justify his flight: Because his regiment was about to be swallowed, running was an intelligent act. Yet when he overhears some officers saying that the regiment held, he feels more than ever isolated: He grows angry at his comrades for standing firm and actually thinks of them as his enemy.

Throughout the novel, in typical adolescent fashion, Henry undergoes wild mood swings that color the ways he sees the external world. Distanced for a time from the fighting, he enters a forest and comes to “a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. . . . There was a religious half light.” Then, in a type of violent juxtaposition that Crane uses frequently, Henry sees that he is “being looked at by a dead man,” a decaying corpse Crane describes in graphic detail. Henry disintegrates: “His mind flew in all directions,” matching the chaos of the day’s events. It is when he comes to a road filled with wounded men that he most acutely feels his shame, hence the need for a wound of his own, a “red badge of courage.”

He falls in with a “tattered man” who befriends him and with a “spectral soldier,” a dying man he recognizes with horror as Jim Conklin, formerly known as the “tall soldier” of his own company. Henry and the tattered man accompany Jim on his death walk as he searches, seemingly, for the right place to die. At his death occurs the most famous and controversial image of the novel: “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.” One prominent critic has interpreted this sun to be a metaphor for a communion wafer, and an elaborately worked-out system of religious references as giving the book its underlying structure. Others, probably with better reason, discount the religious element and see the source of the image as the red seals that were commonly pasted on envelopes.

Henry, in his shame, now abandons the badly wounded tattered man. As he frantically questions a soldier in a routed mass of Union infantry, the man hits him on the head with his rifle, thus bestowing on him a profoundly ironic red badge. As the day ends Henry staggers on into the dark, only to be rescued by a mysterious “cheery man” whose face he never sees. This cheery man, with almost magical prowess and rare good will, restores him to his regiment.

It is typical for heroes of epic myth to make a trip to the underworld, a trip which explores their own deepest fears and from which they are reborn to a higher self. Henry has now completed such a journey; when he wakes the next morning, “it seemed to him that he had been asleep for a thousand years, and he felt sure that he opened his eyes upon an unexpected world.” The difficulty with this sort of mythic reading, however, is that in many ways Henry seems unchanged and continues to behave badly.

Wilson, a comrade formerly known as the “loud soldier,” has been genuinely humbled; there have been models of brotherhood in the tattered man and the cheery soldier, and of heroism in the dignity of Jim Conklin’s death. Yet Henry never tells the truth about his wound, and he is not above wanting to humiliate Wilson for having revealed his fears. At the end, he is tormented not by having abandoned the tattered man but by his fears of being found out. It is as though whatever meaning the mythic story might have had for Crane was overwhelmed by his clear-eyed realism.

Henry does become heroic, or at least stalwartly successful, in conventional military terms, and he turns at the end to “images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace.” On the face of it, there is a happy ending. Henry has basked euphorically in nature before, however, only to be brought up short by a rotting corpse. The war is by no means over; there is little peace to be had, and there is no convincing evidence that Henry will experience unbroken inner peace. So the meaning of the ending remains decidedly ambiguous. Exactly what lessons has Henry Fleming learned—that appearance matters more than reality, or that peace of mind is best attained by internalizing the values of society? If so, The Red Badge of Courage is a darker book than has generally been recognized.

“The Open Boat”

First published: 1898 (collected in The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure, 1898)

Type of work: Short story

Four men shipwrecked in a ten-foot dinghy struggle to survive.

“The Open Boat” is considered by some critics to be Stephen Crane’s masterpiece. Summarizing the rudimentary plot—the struggle of four shipwrecked men to survive in a rough sea in a ten-foot dinghy—suggests little of the story’s abiding interest. At its center lies not the question of who will survive, ultimately revealed as a matter of chance anyway, but rather the progressively revealed nature of human life and the place of humanity in the universe. The theme is not presented as an abstract philosophical statement; it emerges, rather, from a brilliantly compelling rendition of life in an open boat, vividly portrayed and psychologically exact.

The events immediately preceding those of “The Open Boat” are recounted in “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” published January 7, 1897—five days after the Commodore sank—in the New York Press. The short story can be appreciated without reading the journalistic narrative, though knowing the context is useful as background. It is instructive, nevertheless, to compare the openings. “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” begins, after the dateline, “It was the afternoon of New Year’s. The Commodore lay at her dock in Jacksonville”—functional journalistic prose, whose sole purpose is the objective presentation of facts. The opening of “The Open Boat,” on the other hand—“None of them knew the color of the sky” is one of the most famous sentences in modern literature. Arrestingly, with the utmost concision, it reveals the essentials of life in a ten-foot dinghy: One’s world is reduced, one’s attention is focused solely on survival from moment to moment. What the men know about, in frighteningly intimate detail, is the waves that threaten to swamp the boat.

The four men in the dinghy are the captain of the Commodore; the oiler, who worked in the engine room; the ship’s cook; and the correspondent, Stephen Crane himself. They have come together by accident, strangers whose names—except for the oiler’s, given incidentally in dialogue—are not even mentioned. This deliberate omission comes to suggest, by the end, that the men are Everyman, that everyone, in a symbolic separated sense, lives in an open boat without knowing it.

They are separated from the sea by “six inches of gunwale.” The correspondent rows and wonders “why he was there”—in that boat, in that particular place and time—but the wonderment is also about his life and about human life in general. Many of the details in the story have a similar double significance, coming as they do from two different angles: The correspondent is sitting in the boat six inches from the waves, and is at the same time reflecting on the events afterward as he writes the story.

The surface structure of “The Open Boat” is that of the journey itself; an almost random movement as the boat, sometimes controlled by the struggling oarsmen, sometimes by wind and waves, works its way up and down the Florida coast. Land and safety are within sight but are unattainable because of the pounding surf. A more significant movement lies in the rapidly altering perspectives of the men as they experience hope and fear, confidence and despair, anger, puzzlement, and love for one another in the brotherhood of the boat—a lifetime’s range of emotions. Ultimately, however, the controlling factor is irony: In the contract between what humanity is and what it thinks it is, layer after comforting layer of illusion is stripped away.

The source of the ironic revelations that, by the end, make the men think “that they could then be interpreters” is a radically altered perspective. From the open boat, everything looks different. A seagull, ordinarily harmless and indeed afraid of people, tries to land on the captain’s head; if he tries to shoo it away he might swamp the dinghy. The men see people on the shore but cannot make their need understood; the people on the beach, the purported lords of the earth, are not merely ineffectual but ludicrous.

Night falls, and the correspondent, the only man awake in the boat, learns something about real power from a shark: “It cut the water like a gigantic and keen projectile.” In the end, as the boat founders in the surf, it is the oiler, the strongest swimmer of the four, who drowns. Human strength and resourcefulness are no match for the power of a universe that has revealed itself to the correspondent as “flatly indifferent.”

Yet the philosophy that emerges from “The Open Boat” is not unmitigatedly dark. For all the hardship, fear, and disillusionment, the correspondent recognizes “even at the time” that his boat ride is “the best experience of his life.” The wellspring of this paradox is love, “the subtle brotherhood of men.” Brotherhood is no hedge against mortality, but it does make life in the open boat, life without illusions, worth living. “The Open Boat” is a timeless and moving tale of struggle, not merely for physical survival but also for understanding and acceptance of humanity’s fate.

“The Blue Hotel”

First published: 1898 (collected in Great Short Works of Stephen Crane, 1968)

Type of work: Short story

A quarrel over a card game in a storm-bound Nebraska hotel leads to tragedy.

In “The Blue Hotel,” a group of strangers comes together in a small isolated hotel, a refuge from the storm outside. Isolating characters in this way is a common plot device in both mainstream and mystery fiction—and Crane’s story is a suspense thriller, whatever its larger meanings. People in such a situation, unconstrained by the laws and traditions of a larger society, become a society in themselves; under the additional pressure imposed by unfamiliar and unpredictable events, they reveal their truest and deepest values. In this story, as in “The Open Boat,” the implications are universal.

“The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue . . . screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush.” What is the significance—beyond the spelled-out realistic one that it makes the hotel visible to travelers—of the unusual color? Bright primary colors, as in The Red Badge of Courage and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” appealed to Crane. Here the color occurs again later, when the characters go outside to fight: “The covered land was blue with the sheen of an unearthly satin.” The suggestion is fundamental to an understanding of the story: The blue hotel is no refuge from the storm, because the characters carry the storm—uncontrolled violence and hatred—within them.

The three guests who come to the hotel owned by Pat Scully, and run by him with the help of his son Johnnie, are “a tall bronzed cowboy,” “a silent little man from the East,” and a “shaky and quick-eyed Swede”—characters from widely spaced places who, as in “The Open Boat,” are never given names. That the hotel is anything but a safe harbor, a place of peace and love, is revealed at once; the small room “seemed to be merely a proper temple for an enormous stove, which, in the center, was humming with godlike violence.” Johnnie Scully is playing cards and quarreling with an old farmer. Pat Scully loudly “destroys the game of cards,” sending his son up with the baggage. The guests then hear his “officious clamor at his daughters.”

The potential for violence, then, is already present. It is the Swede, who sits silently “making furtive elements of each man in the room,” who provides the catalyst. The others play cards and again quarrel. The Swede, who is badly frightened by his own preconceptions of the Wild West, at length speculates—to everyone’s astonishment—that “there have been a good many men killed in this room.” No one is able to reassure him, and at length, in his growing hysteria, he bursts out with “I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house!” In his literal insanity—he has fabricated a world which connects with reality hardly at all—he carries within him the seeds of his own death.

Scully finally does manage to placate him, whereupon the Swede turns into an arrogant bully. He views all human relationships in terms of power; interpreting Scully’s overtures as signs of weakness, he concludes that the power is on his side now, and, as the characters do in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, he abuses it. He joins the card game, accuses Johnnie of cheating, and the two go out into the storm to fight. The scene that follows is full of animal images: Scully turns on the Swede “panther-fashion”; the combatants watch each other “in a calm that had the elements of leonine cruelty in it”; they collide “like bullocks.” Meanwhile, the cowboy, whose animal nature has surfaced as well, urges Johnnie: “Kill him.”

The Swede wins, however, and walks into town, goes into a bar, and arrogantly attempts to browbeat a group of men into drinking with him. In a brief melee, and more or less in self-defense, one of them, a quiet, respectable gambler, stabs him: “[A] human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon.” The dead Swede lies with his eye on a sign on the cash register: “This registers the amount of your purchase.” By his failures of “virtue, wisdom, power,” he has bought his death.

If the story ended here, as it logically might, it would be naturalistic, portraying humans revealed as animals, helpless in the grip of their bestial emotions. Crane added a kind of coda, however, a scene later between the cowboy and the easterner. The easterner reveals that Johnnie really was cheating at cards; he himself was too cowardly to reveal what he knew and forestall the fight, while Scully permitted it and the cowboy fueled it with his rage. All of them, in a sense, collaborated in the murder; all could have made different choices that would have prevented it. Naturalism, with the characters in the grip of forces too great for them to oppose, cannot rise above pathos; “The Blue Hotel,” on the other hand, is tragic. The characters have the chance to live up to their highest human potential. Because they fail, a man needlessly dies.

“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”

First published: 1898 (collected in Great Short Works of Stephen Crane, 1968)

Type of work: Short story

A showdown in a Western town concludes with a comic twist.

“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.

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Stephen Crane Short Fiction Analysis