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“The Blue Hotel” is an 1898 short story by American author Stephen Crane, a pioneer of Naturalism and Expressionism in the American literary canon. Originally published in two parts in the magazine Collier’s Weekly, “The Blue Hotel” was subsequently released in Crane’s 1899 collection The Monster and Other Stories. In telling the story of a murder that unfolds in a remote Nebraska town, it explores themes of Isolation and Its Impact on the Human Psyche, The Meaninglessness of the Universe, and Social Responsibility and Culpability.
This guide refers to Great Short Works of Stephen Crane published by HarperCollins in 2009, accessed in an electronic edition.
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“The Blue Hotel” opens in Fort Romper, Nebraska, with a description of the titular hotel, a hotel the “shade [of blue] that is on the legs of a kind of heron” (363). Pat Scully, the proprietor of the hotel, goes to the train station daily to recruit guests. On this day, Scully charms three men into staying at the hotel: an Easterner, a cowboy, and a Swede. They return to the hotel, where they find Scully’s son, Johnnie, playing a card game called High-Five with an old farmer. The men initially interact cautiously, the cowboy and the Easterner speaking little and the Swede staying silent. The Swede slowly begins to speak to Scully a little and eventually comments on the danger of Western towns, which confuses the rest of the group.
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While a blizzard rages outside, the three guests and Scully watch Johnnie play another game of High-Five with the farmer, which quarrels often interrupt. After one such fight, the farmer loses patience and leaves. A new game forms in which the cowboy partners with Johnnie, and the Swede, who agrees to play only reluctantly, partners with the Easterner. The Swede continues to act strangely, as though he is nervous, discomfiting the other players. The cowboy is smug when he wins, which delights Johnnie and irritates the Swede and the Easterner. Suddenly, the Swede says to Johnnie, “I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room” (366).
When an offended Johnnie denies that anyone has been killed in the room, and the cowboy and Easterner say they don’t understand what the Swede is talking about, the Swede decides they are ganging up against him. The Swede becomes more and more upset, insisting that he doesn’t want to fight and that he knows he is going to be killed. Scully is drawn in by the noise and, though he tells the Swede he is imagining things, also becomes angry with Johnnie for apparently causing the Swede’s distress. Scully threatens to whip Johnnie for his behavior, upsetting Johnnie deeply.
Scully is frustrated with Johnnie. He finds the Swede upstairs, preparing his suitcase. The Swede is alarmed when he hears Scully coming. Scully says he can’t understand why the Swede thinks he’s going to be killed. The Swede says he’s sure that’s what was happening. Scully abruptly changes the topic to the electric streetcars that will be in Romper the following spring (the implication being that the town is more civilized than the Swede supposes). By this point, the Swede has finished packing his suitcase and asks Scully how much he owes him. This angers Scully, who says he isn’t owed anything. The Swede tries to hand him 75 cents, but Scully refuses to take it. Scully changes the topic, insisting the Swede come see some photographs in Scully’s room. Scully also produces a bottle of whisky. The Swede initially thinks that Scully is attempting to poison him but ultimately drinks.
Meanwhile, Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner sit in the front room, discussing the Swede’s odd behavior. The cowboy opines that the Swede is likely a Dutch man. The Easterner says that he thinks the Swede has gotten his ideas from reading too many dime novels. Scully and the Swede return, riotously drunk. The Swede is no longer scared but rather so confident that he has become rude. Scully gives in to his every demand with excessive deference because he is worried about the reputation of his hotel.
Encouraged by Scully, the Swede gets more and more boisterous. The cowboy and the Easterner are quiet and astonished; Johnnie is disgusted that his father is putting up with such ill-treatment. The Swede insists on another game of High-Five. This time, it’s the Swede who plays aggressively. After a while, the Swede accuses Johnnie of cheating. Scully, the cowboy, and the Easterner have to hold back Johnnie and the Swede to keep them from fighting. Though the Easterner insists there is no point fighting over a game of cards, neither the Swede nor Johnnie will relent, and the argument escalates. Initially, Scully tries to get them to stop but then says he’s tired of dealing with the Swede and urges the others to allow the men to fight.
The group heads out into the blizzard for the fight. The Swede claims that the rest of the group will gang up against him, but Scully promises that he’ll only fight Johnnie. The two fight, the cowboy chanting, “Kill him!” to Johnnie. For a while, the two seem matched, but then the Swede gains the upper hand and knocks Johnnie to the grass. Johnnie gets up but is quickly knocked down again, this time for good. The Swede swiftly returns to the hotel. Johnnie is injured but more concerned with whether he injured the Swede. The cowboy lies and says that he did. The men carry Johnnie inside, where his mother and sisters care for him, deriding Scully for letting the fight take place.
The cowboy states he would like to fight the “Dutchman” himself, but Scully says it wouldn’t be right. The Swede enters the room and once again asks what he owes Scully, who again refuses payment. The Swede exits the hotel, heading out into the storm. Scully and the cowboy discuss how hard it was not to hit the Swede.
The Swede struggles through the storm, which, in its brutality, makes the village seem deserted, until he finds a saloon. Inside, the self-satisfied Swede tries to lure the bartender into drinking with him. The bartender refuses. The Swede loudly brags that he hurt his face fighting Johnnie Scully. Four men in the bar—two local businessmen, the district attorney, and a reputable gambler—overhear this and become interested. The Swede invites them to drink with him, saying he wants to celebrate, but the men refuse. The Swede insists despite the bartender’s warnings. He grabs the gambler by the shoulder, and the gambler politely asks him to let go. The Swede becomes belligerent, grabbing the gambler by the throat. The gambler produces a knife and stabs the Swede, killing him. The gambler is calm, telling the bartender that he’ll be at home, waiting for the authorities: “The corpse of the Swede, alone in the saloon, had its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt atop of the cash-machine: ‘This registers the amount of your purchase’” (390).
Months later, the Easterner arrives at the cowboy’s ranch. He relays that the gambler was sentenced to three years in prison for killing the Swede, and both comment that it is a light sentence. The cowboy says the bartender should have hit the Swede over the head before he could get murdered. Both men say they pity the gambler. They discuss the Swede’s bizarre behavior, and the Easterner suddenly reveals that Johnnie was cheating in the game. He blames himself for not speaking up, and the cowboy and Scully for wanting the fight to take place. He says that all five of them—the Easterner, the cowboy, Johnnie, Scully, and the gambler—collaborated in the murder, yet only the gambler is being punished. The cowboy questions how he bears any responsibility for the event.
By Stephen Crane