The characters in “The Blue Hotel” are all strangers to each other when they arrive on the train, and three of them—the cowboy, the Easterner, and the Swede—are new to the small town of Romper, Nebraska altogether. Repeatedly described as tense and suspicious of their companions, the characters rely primarily on surface appearances to size each other up. By offering little to no backstory for his protagonists, Crane creates an environment of fear and unease, as characters—and the reader—are unsure of who to trust. Such ignorance and shallow judgments, the story ultimately suggests, pave the way for deception.
The cowboy, the Easterner, and the Swede are immediately judgmental and suspicious of one another upon arriving at the Palace Hotel. After washing up, they sit tensely “in the silence of experienced men who tread carefully amid new people,” and respond to the local farmer’s attempts at small talk with only “short but adequate sentences.” For his part, the paranoid Swede does not respond at all, and is instead “making furtive estimates of each man in the room.”
The fact that none of the three guests is properly named increases the air of mystery surrounding them and reflects that they are defined in each other’s eyes by their outward appearance. That none of the men make much of an effort to share their backstories further suggests their mutual lack of trust and allows for ignorant speculation, and, ultimately, deception.
Indeed, the hotel guests make frequent presumptions and talk behind each other's backs. For example, after the Swede leaves the room, Johnnie says, “‘That’s the doddangedest Swede I ever see,” to which the cowboy “scornfully” replies, “He ein’t no Swede.” Crane writes, “‘Well, what is he then?’ cried Johnnie. ‘What is he then?’” This moment makes clear that the men need to latch onto something familiar in order to understand this man—that they require some sort of backstory from which they can then extrapolate the Swede’s character. Of course, as the cowboy quickly asserts, the Swede is actually Dutch. In their efforts to peg the character of their new acquaintance, the other men have ironically misidentified the only identifier they have. This points to the futility of basing judgment entirely on surface-level perceptions.
The disconnect between shallow appearance and genuine character is particularly evident with the gambler, whom the townsfolk respect despite the fact that he is a violent conman. Crane writes that the gambler “was, in fact, a man so delicate in manner, when among people of fair class, and so judicious in his choice of victims, that in the strictly masculine part of the town’s life he had come to be explicitly trusted and admired. People called him a thoroughbred.” Crane’s tone here is ironic, and it conveys the author’s judgment of the people of Romper for trusting such a character based solely on his genteel outward mannerisms while ignoring his violent actions. By demonstrating the flawed logic by which the disreputable and ultimately murderous gambler is accepted by the town, Crane further underscores the danger of ignorant judgment.
By the end of the story, it’s clear that such ignorance leads to both misinformation and potentially wrongful alienation of characters. When the Swede eventually accuses Johnnie of cheating at cards, for instance, the other characters are quick to jump to the latter’s defense; rather than consider the evidence at hand, they simply assume the Swede is in the wrong based on their prior judgments of his paranoid behavior.
The Easterner reveals at the end of the story, however, that it was in fact Johnnie, and not the Swede, who was being deceitful; Johnnie really was cheating at cards. While the Swede has been perceived as a villain and Johnnie as relatively innocent for most of the story, Crane makes clear in the end the folly in relying on appearances and blurs the line between trust and deceit. By misleading the reader into trusting certain deceptive characters, Crane demonstrates how easily ignorant judgment can lead to alienation and violence.
In the tale’s final moments, even as the Easterner asserts that Johnnie had deceived them all, and that all men are to blame for the Swede’s death, the cowboy refuses to believe any of it; instead, he insists on Johnnie’s innocence, the Swede’s shameful behavior, and that his hands are clean of any wrongdoing. Not only are people quick to make shallow assumptions about those around then, the story thus suggests, but they are also loath to abandon their prejudices even when presented with clear evidence to the contrary.
Judgment and Deception ThemeTracker
Judgment and Deception 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.
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.
He was, in fact, a man so delicate in manner, when among people of fair class, and so judicious in his choice of victims, that in the strictly masculine part of the town's life he had come to be explicitly trusted and admired. People called him a thoroughbred. […] Besides, it was popular that this gambler had a real wife and two real children in a neat cottage in a suburb, where he led an exemplary home life; and when any one even suggested a discrepancy in his character, the crowd immediately vociferated descriptions of this virtuous family circle.
"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?”