A train rushes west across the Texas plains. From the window, everything appears to be “sweeping into the east,” from the “mesquite and cactus” to the small clumps of “frame houses” dotting the landscape. Traveling in one of the train’s Pullman passenger cars is Jack Potter and his new bride. Despite his weather-beaten face and hands, Potter is dressed elegantly in “new black clothes.” The bride is not particularly “pretty” or “young,” though she is dressed extravagantly in a dress of cashmere and velvet. During the train ride, she frequently looks at her puffy sleeves, which “embarrass her,” since she is a simple, domestic woman.
Crane uses the opening paragraph to establish two of the story’s key themes. The power of the speeding train makes the distance of the Texas frontier seem small, indicating the unstoppable force of eastern civilization. The emphasis on the bride’s and Jack Potter’s new clothes indicates that both have undergone a significant change, while the bride’s discomfort in her clothing reveals an underlying uneasiness with this change.
Potter and the bride are both thrilled to be riding in the train and look forward to having the “Finest meal in the world” in the dining car. Before they leave their coach to eat, Potter excitedly points out all “the dazzling fittings of the coach” to his new bride, and she drinks in the “sea-green figured velvet” and “the wood that gleamed as darkly brilliant as the surface of a pool of oil.” Their excitement about the train is compounded by their excitement about their new marriage, which took place that very morning back in San Antonio.
Linking the luxurious Pullman car to the excitement over Potter and the bride’s marriage establishes a connection between the bride and domestic furnishings. The connection helps mark the theme of women’s influence expanding into traditionally male-dominated spaces: in this case, the frontier. This foreshadows similar moments later in the story.
The black porter observes Potter and the bride in amusement, thinking them “ridiculous” in their wonder and obvious inexperience. As he serves the couple, the porter subtly makes fun of them, while other passengers glance at the couple “with stares of derisive enjoyment.” Potter and the Bride, however, are too engrossed in each other and the lavish surroundings that “reflected the glory of their marriage” to notice that they are a source of bemusement to their fellow travelers.
Potter and the bride are enjoying the beginning of married life together, and the porter’s mocking of the couple’s inexperience indicates that this is the first time either of them have been married. Crane’s observation that the Pullman car reflects the glory of the bride and Potter’s marriage is a crucial passage: it establishes that marriage not only gives Potter a spouse, but also a completely new lifestyle, over which the bride’s influence looms large.
The couple make their way to the dining car, where several black waiters wearing “glowing white suits” await them. One of the waiters steers them through every step of the meal. The waiter is merely doing his job, but his “ordinary deference” impresses Potter and the bride, who are not used to such a refined dining experience.
The multiple steps the couple must take to consume their dinner indicates just how far the refinements of eastern civilization now reach into the western frontier. Potter and the bride learn to adapt, but not every character in this story is willing to take such a step.
After the couple finish their meal, they return to their coach. Potter looks out the window and notices the Rio Grande, which apexes at the town of Yellow Sky. He becomes noticeably restless at the thought of reaching the town and feels “the shadow of a deed” weighing on him “like a leaden slab.” He is, in fact, the marshal of Yellow Sky, “a man known, liked, and feared,” and he worries that the residents may take offense at his decision to get married in San Antonino without first consulting anyone in the town.
This is the first instance in which Potter expresses uneasiness over how his new marriage will change his life. The fact that the Rio Grande reaches its apex in Yellow Sky demonstrates Crane’s use of naturalistic symbolism to illustrate Potter’s fate. Like the river, he can run away from Yellow Sky, but just as the river has to flow back to the town, fate decrees that Potter must return.
Although Potter knows that he has not broken any official rules, he is so devoted to the town that he feels like a “traitor to the feelings of Yellow Sky.” He imagines how, if he had informed the town of his marriage, the town’s brass band would play alongside a cheering crowd to welcome himself and the bride back to Yellow Sky. Instead, he resolves to slink off the train unnoticed to take the bride to his adobe home. Meanwhile, the bride notices that Potter is worried, but Potter tells her he is “only thinking of Yellow Sky.”
In the character of Potter, Crane explores the idea that change is a force beyond human control. Change can seem appealing (after all, Potter chose to marry the bride), but it can also have unintended consequences. Potter has already demonstrated that he is happy to be married, but he is unsure how the town will feel about his marriage, nor can he control how the town will feel.
The train arrives at the station in Yellow Sky and the porter announces that Potter’s home is nearby. The porter brushes off Potter’s suit and hands him his bag, and Potter clumsily gives the porter a coin. The station agent notices that Potter has arrived and welcomes the marshal excitedly. Potter responds with a “hangdog glance” and a nervous laugh. As he and the bride head to the marshal’s home, the porter chuckles behind them.
When the train arrives at Yellow Sky, Potter realizes that there is no going back: through his marriage, he has become a very different person than he was when he departed for San Antonio. He is now a gentleman, the kind whose suit and bags get brushed off. His attempt to sneak the bride home only further cements the significant role she now plays in his life.