“The Blue Hotel” tells the story of an ill-fated night at a hotel in Romper, Nebraska, which ends in the death of one of the hotel’s guests. Author Stephen Crane narrates a clear but complex set of events that precede the Swede’s murder. Early in the story, upon his arrival at the Palace Hotel, the Swede predicts that he will die that night; this fear produces a distinctly irritable, antagonistic sense of paranoia that ruffles those around him and plays a large part in spurring his being stabbed later that evening at a saloon. Though this appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, Crane is ambivalent about whether the Swede's death is truly fated—that is, whether his actions, and those of the men he encounters throughout the evening, were inevitable, or if they all could have made better choices that would have spared the Swede’s life. Crane gives evidence for both interpretations of the story and ultimately leaves readers without an answer, suggesting that it’s beyond a person’s capacity to understand whether outcomes are fated or freely chosen.
Throughout most of the story, Crane steers readers towards a deterministic interpretation of its events (that is, one in which the outcome is destined to happen). He does this primarily by depicting the men’s actions as shaped not by free will, but rather by their surroundings and instincts. Many of the character names, for instance, suggest that the men are more products of their backgrounds than they are individuals making conscious choices. The Easterner, the Swede, the farmer, the gambler, and the cowboy are all referred to by their place of origin or their social role, suggesting that each is defined by his environment and can only act in in accordance with the way that environment has shaped him.
Crane further suggests that the men are acting on instinct by frequently characterizing them in animalistic terms. After the Swede begins drinking, for example, his expression becomes a “wolfish glare.” This glare accompanies his descent into violence; his tone becomes threatening and menacing and eventually leads to physical conflict with the hotel proprietor’s son, Johnnie. In this moment, it seems the Swede can control his aggression no more than could a wolf. Later in the story, when men at the town saloon don’t want to drink with the Swede to celebrate his victory in the fight at the Palace Hotel, the Swede’s ire and pride lead him to “ruffle out his chest like a rooster.” The Swede then “explode[s]” and “snarl[s],” escalating the confrontation with the gambler, who then kills him. By depicting humans as beholden to their animal instincts in key moments that lead to violence, Crane undercuts the sense that they’re completely responsible for their choices.
If the story had ended with the Swede’s death, then it might seem a straightforward tale of the unavoidable nature of destiny. However, Crane appends a final scene in which the Easterner suggests that the Swede’s death was never fated, but rather the result of a series of poor choices—leaving all of the men at the hotel morally responsible for the Swede’s murder and the gambler’s imprisonment. When the cowboy idly speculates that, had the Swede not accused Johnnie of cheating at cards, he would still be alive, the Easterner takes this possibility—and its moral implications—seriously.
Although he, too, had seen Johnnie cheat, the Easterner didn’t say anything in the moment. He later admits, “I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone.” The Easterner believes that, since the fight indirectly led to the Swede’s death, and because the Easterner could have prevented the fight by corroborating the Swede’s accusation that Johnnie was cheating (thereby making the fight unnecessary), the Easterner bears some moral responsibility for what happened.
Furthermore, since all of the men seemed to be spoiling for a fight throughout the evening, the Easterner believes that they all bear responsibility for the death. The gambler—the man who actually killed the Swede—took all the legal blame, but the Easterner does not think this is fair. “Every sin is the result of a collaboration,” he says, noting that the gambler was merely “the apex of a human movement”—the final collaborator in a death that could have been prevented had all of these men made different choices.
The Swede dies looking upon a sign above the saloon's till that reads, “This registers the amount of your purchase.” Though the Swede has professed a belief in the inescapability of his death that night, and as such implicitly rejected responsibility for his actions, the sign could be interpreted as in keeping with the Easterner’s commentary on free will and moral responsibility—that is, an acknowledgement that people’s actions determine their fate, since the price they pay is a direct result of their choices. The story ends without taking a position on whether the Easterner is right, however. Instead, the cowboy asks the Easterner indignantly, “Well, I didn’t do anything, did I?” This question provides no answers about the validity of fate versus free will, but it does suggest a human aversion to assuming moral responsibility.
Fate, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility ThemeTracker
Fate, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility Quotes in The Blue Hotel
The Palace hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush. It stood alone on the prairie, and when the snow was falling the town two hundred yards away was not visible. But when the traveler alighted at the railway station he was obliged to pass the Palace Hotel before he could come upon the company of low clapboard houses which composed Fort Romper, and it was not to be thought that any traveler could pass the Palace Hotel without looking at it. […] It is true that on clear days, when the great transcontinental expresses, long lines of swaying Pullmans, swept through Fort Romper, passengers were overcome at the sight, and the cult that knows the brown-reds and the subdivisions of the dark greens of the East expressed shame, pity, horror, in a laugh.
Scully practically made them prisoners. He was so nimble and merry and kindly that each probably felt it would be the height of brutality to try to escape.
Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that some of these Western communities were very dangerous; and after his statement he straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed again, loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to the others. They looked at him wondering and in silence.
As the men trooped heavily back into the front room, the two little windows presented views of a turmoiling sea of snow. The huge arms of the wind were making attempts—mighty, circular, futile—to embrace the flakes as they sped. A gatepost like a still man with a blanched face stood aghast amid this profligate fury. In a hearty voice Scully announced the presence of a blizzard.
The Swede backed rapidly toward a corner of the room. His hands
were out protectingly in front of his chest, but he was making an obvious struggle to control his fright. “Gentlemen,” he quavered, “I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house. I suppose I am going to be killed before I can leave this house!” In his eyes was the dying-swan look. Through the windows could be seen the snow turning blue in the shadow of dusk. The wind tore at the house, and some loose thing beat regularly against the clapboards like a spirit tapping.
The Swede laughed wildly. He grabbed the bottle, put it to his mouth; and as his lip curled absurdly around the opening and his throat worked, he kept his glance, burning with hatred, upon the old man's face.
“Well, what do you think makes him act that way?” asked the cowboy.
“Why, he's frightened.” The Easterner knocked his pipe against a rim of the stove. “He’s clear frightened out of his boots.”
“What at?” cried Johnnie and the cowboy together. The Easterner reflected over his answer.
“What at?” cried the others again.
“Oh, I don’t know, but it seems to me this man has been reading dime novels, and he thinks he’s right out in the middle of it—the shootin’ and stabbin’ and all.”
“But,” said the cowboy, deeply scandalized, “this ain’t Wyoming, ner none of them places. This is Nebrasker.”
Of course the board had been overturned, and now the whole company of cards was scattered over the floor, where the boot of the men trampled the fat and painted kings and queens as they gazed with their silly eyes at the war that was waging above them.
No snow was falling, but great whirls and clouds of flakes, swept up from the ground by the frantic winds, were streaming southward with the speed of bullets. The covered land was blue with the sheen of an unearthly satin, and there was no other hue save where, at the low, black railway station—which seemed incredibly distant—one light gleamed like a tiny jewel.
There was a great tumult, and then was seen a long blade in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon. The Swede fell with a cry of supreme astonishment.
"Fun or not," said the Easterner, "Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you—you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn't even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. […] that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory: “Well, I didn't do anythin’, did I?”