The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)

“The Blue Hotel” is a short story by Stephen Crane, published serially in Collier’s Weekly (1898) and then in the collection The Monster and Other Stories (1899). The story was inspired by Crane’s travels to the American Southwest in 1895.

Encyclopedia Britannica

I recently took a close look at “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield. By coincidence I came across “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane, which is a similar case study in some respects:

  • Both stories almost feels like they’re going to turn into ghost stories
  • Because both of them make use of the Inn Of No Return trope
  • Both stories have been criticised — Crane’s for being didactic and Mansfield’s for feeling contrived.

“The Blue Hotel” is interesting from a storytelling point of view:

  • Should Crane have left off the final part? Would readers have been able to piece everything together had he left the ‘Three months later’ epilogue out?
  • What is Crane saying about the nature of fate? Another American short story great, Annie Proulx, is known for her fatalistic worldview. Crane seems the direct inverse — if the characters in this story had chosen to act just a little differently, in a kind of butterfly effect, the horrible events that pan out could have been averted. Perhaps. We all have our part to play in avoiding evil, and should act accordingly. Proulx offers no such life advice.
  • The fight scenes in “The Blue Hotel” read to me as excessively long. In the 1880s, before cinema, a blow-by-blow description of fights might have thrilled its audience. But now, reading detailed accounts of a fight feels to me, at least, like skimming over technical stage notes.
  • Crane chose not to name most of these characters — rather, he deliberately keeps them as archetypes. Even when a character is named e.g. “Johnnie”, he has the generic name of a white American boy. When writers choose not to name their characters, it’s sometimes because they don’t think a certain group is important enough to warrant naming. There are important political implications here. But sometimes it’s not because the writer is oblivious to the politics of no-name characters. As Donika DeShawn Ross explains:

“The Blue Hotel” provides us with an imperfect but useful schema for how not to read white manhood. The Swede repeatedly misreads the men at Scully’s hotel because he cannot see past his own assumptions about the West and the type of men who inhabit its forlorn spaces. He is fluent in myth rather than lived experience, and his expectations persist despite mounds of contradictory evidence.

Crane initially encourages readers to enact the same kind of misreading by refusing to name his characters beyond ethnicity, work, and region, which keeps the tone of the story at the register of a joke until the moment the Swede is murdered.

Reading Against Genre: Contemporary Westerns and the Problem of White Manhood by Donika DeShawn Ross (2013)

  • This Western story was written in the late 1800s, in the heyday of the Western plot. People of this era would have been very familiar with the symbolism. Westerns were all about world building. This all changed after the second world war, and almost every Western made since then has technically been ‘anti-Western‘, meaning it’s no longer about the glory of world building, but highlights the miseries of life as a pioneer, and of displaced peoples. What is this story, though? “The Blue Hotel” is Western genre only about as much as Hud is a Western — not at all. These are domestic stories which happen to include a cowboy. The action takes place mostly indoors. The stove, mentioned again and again, reminds us that these guys are sitting indoors in a cosy environment, safe from the threatening elements outdoors. That’s not very cowboy at all, really. “The Blue Hotel” is therefore its own kind of anti-Western, but not because it highlights the miseries of cowboy life — because it nevertheless punishes (with death) a character who subscribes uncritically to the myth of the dangerous West.
  • “The Blue Hotel” is the story of a character who has been negatively, melodramatically influenced by the media he reads — dime novel Westerns, to the point where he can’t see the reality of the situation. This gives “The Blue Hotel” a metafictive quality.

Here is the full story of “The Blue Hotel“, annotated with my own notes.

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