“The Blue Hotel” is set in Nebraska at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when the state represented the edges of the lawless American West. It was dangerous to travel west during this period, and as such the story's main characters, each of whom is traveling alone, often hide their true feelings in order to project a sense of strength upon the strangers they meet. This false bravado, however only leads to a greater sense of mistrust and unease among the hotel proprietor Scully and his guests, leading to conflict and eventually physical violence. The protagonists’ need to disguise their fear demonstrates Crane’s view that masking vulnerability only creates tension and violence, while openly discussing feelings of fear or uneasiness can build trust and camaraderie.
Throughout the story, Crane establishes that his characters often show one emotion in order to hide another. For example, when the passengers on the train pass through the West, they express “shame, pity, horror, in a laugh” at the sight of Scully’s vibrant blue hotel against the stark Nebraska landscape, disguising their discomfort with the desolate environment through laughter and thereby avoiding being vulnerable with one another. The Swede, of course, is the character with the strongest tendency to disguise his emotions in the story. For example, at dinner with Scully and the other guests, the Swede says, “with a laugh and a wink,” 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.” This moment at once evidences the Swede’s fear of the West and his desire to disguise that fear behind laughter, projecting a false confidence that makes others confused and uncomfortable.
Likewise, when the Swede, the cowboy, the Easterner, and Johnnie are playing cards, the Swede laughingly asserts that someone has been murdered in the room where they sit. Johnnie, his unease already growing alongside the Swede’s strange behavior, takes this comment as a threat. He begins speaking to the Swede aggressively, asking, “What in the hell are you talking about?” The Swede’s attempt to mask his fear with laughter backfires by making the others so uncomfortable that things escalate into a brawl. Clearly, the Swede’s tendency to hide his true emotions makes others mistrust him, a dynamic that easily spills into violence.
Beyond simply condemning the mistrust that false bravado breeds, Crane demonstrates the benefits of being open about fear. While the Swede hides his feelings and alienates himself, the remainder of the characters are more honest with one another, allowing them to bond. The cowboy and the Easterner, for example, are quick to express their uncertainty about the Swede to each other, as well as to their hosts. They speculate on the reasons for his strange behavior, and then bond over the revelation that his behavior stems largely from fear. By coming to this conclusion together, the men reassure each other that the Swede isn’t as dangerous as they believe. They are able to comfort each other, and also to build trust through mutual understanding of the strange circumstances they find themselves in.
Similarly, Johnnie makes his discomfort about the Swede clear to the other characters. He tells his father to throw the man out into the snow and states many times that he finds the Swede’s abrasive behavior disturbing. Sharing this fear makes the other characters sympathetic to Johnnie, while the Swede’s brazen attempts to hide his fear does the opposite. Because of this, when Johnnie is accused of cheating at cards, the men immediately assume it is the Swede who is in the wrong and come to Johnnie’s defense. By sharing his vulnerability and being more transparent with the other hotel guests, Johnnie has created a support network for himself—despite the fact that he actually is the one in the wrong. The Swede, on the other hand, remains alienated and alone because of his lack of openness about his feelings.
The bond that has formed between the cowboy, the Easterner, Scully and Johnnie is clearest when the Swede finally leaves the hotel, and the men are able to express their thoughts without worrying about how they will be perceived. The cowboy and Scully talk about what they would do to the Swede if they had the opportunity, and rather than seeming threatening to each other, the men seem to understand each other’s feelings. While earlier outbursts might have been interpreted similarly to the Swede’s strange behavior, the men have obviously shared enough of their vulnerabilities to feel comfortable being honest about their thoughts on aggression.
Crane draws a clear line between a refusal to express vulnerability and eventual violence. The Swede’s false bravado and inability to be honest about his fear with his companions leads the other characters to distrust him and, ultimately, to his violent death in the saloon, while the cowboy, the Easterner, Scully, and Johnnie—who are more open with each other about their fear of the Swede—build trust and eventually defend each other when suspicion escalates to physical violence.
Vulnerability and Violence ThemeTracker
Vulnerability and Violence 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.
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.
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.”
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.
"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?”