The Effect of Setting in the Characters of Stephen Crane’s The Blue Hotel
The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane is in general a story of death that resulted from a man’s hubris specifically the Swede’s paranoia and suspicion of human nature. His death is brought upon the things that he himself thought about. It is contended that the Swede’s death is a consequence of his distorted imagination and expectation of the Wild West. Because of this belief and distorted reality of the West, he suffered from paranoia that affected his actions and his attitudes towards other people.
He became so defensive and cautious in everything around him which led to his downfall. Before we begin with the discussion on how the very setting of the story affects each character especially the Swede that ultimately lead to his very death and downfall, we shall summarize the story first with emphasis into the events that lead to the said downfall.
The story revolves around three strangers namely the cowboy Bill, the Easterner, and the Swede who are guests and newcomers in Nebraska. They are met in the Nebraskan Railway station by the owner of the Palace Hotel or otherwise known as the Blue Hotel because of its paint. Patrick Scully, the owner, does this habitually to entice customers to stay in his hotel. Upon arrival in the hotel they immediately witnessed a quarrel between a farmer and the owner’s son Johnnie while they were playing cards (Crane 392-419).
Among the three guests, the Swede is the most suspicious and uncomfortable of the place. When he was presented a basin of water, the other two splash themselves withy the water while the Swede merely dip his fingers into it. When the old farmer was making a few remarks to the guests, the other two were somehow responsive, but the Swede was very silent. During dinner he spoke very little and finally commented that the West is a very dangerous community. After which, he drew more comments of the perils in the place specifically the hotel. For instance, he speculated that there have been of men who died in the room in which the other guests were not able to comprehend. Furthermore, he reiterated his fear that he will not be able to leave the place alive and rushed to pack his bag upstairs. He was consoled by the owner, offered him whiskey, and strolled him all over the hotel. After which, he insists on another card game in which he accused Johnnie with cheating. This leads to fistfight in which the Swede won. After this, he packs his belongings and leaves the hotel. To celebrate victory, he goes to a salon where he was pissed because the bartender refused to drink with him. He then approaches a table where a group of prominent people sit where he stumbles upon the gambler who stabbed him to death because of annoyance. The story ended after several months later when the Easterner and the cowboy found out the sentence of the gambler’s criminal act. They commented that if only the Swede did not accuse Johnnie with cheating then he could have been alive. The Easterner commented that he saw Johnnie cheat but he didn’t do anything. He believed he was among the five men who caused the Swede his death: Bill, the Easterner, Johnnie, Patrick Scully, and the gambler (Crane 392-419).
The death of the Swede is something that is attributed to his own doings as manifested by a myriad of factors around him: psychological and mythical. Furthermore, it is also contented by this paper that while his own actions contribute to his own death, it was also complemented by the other characters in the story that deemed him strange and crazy. But this weird actions of the Swede is something that is not innate upon him, as mentioned earlier, this is attributed to many factors that has relation to the setting of the story, that is, the Wild West.
In the psychological sense, the story is said to represent “an unconscious individual / group process” that was termed “the parataxic mode” in the interpersonal relationships of people to each other. This is a term coined by the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan to mean as an experience that is situated or interpreted through elements in the past and the future. In a clinical setting, the parataxic situation is where an individual responds to another individual or group of people in the same way as he/she responds to those individual or group in the past. Furthermore, this leads to what Sullivan calls “parataxic distortion” and Freud calls “transference” wherein the present is misrepresented and misinterpreted by means of the past (Proudfit 47). These two are the factors in the interpersonal relations and human relations that psychologists deem important. These two explain why the Swede acted the way he did in the story.
In effect, this will lead to faulty perceptions such as anxiety and stereotyping which is observed in the Swede’s behaviour. It is observed that upon entering the hotel, he becomes suspicious right away which is manifested in his paranoid behaviour that includes him jumping into conclusions and his fear that he is going to be murdered in the place. This paranoia of the Swede suggest a “misperception of the present in terms of something else (Proudfit 51).” This is further attributed to the stereotype and false view of the Wild West as presented by the dime novels that is believed to be read by the Swede. The Easterner commented that the Swede thinks he is in the middle of hell because he believes that the Wild West is a place of shooting and stabbing (Proudfit 51).
This paranoia that the Swede experienced is also coupled with an “unconscious expectation of annihilation” which is further on exhibited in his murderous hatred against Scully, the cowboy, and the Easterner. When Johnnie and the Swede were engaged in a battle, the Swede feels that everyone who was watching wanted him to be killed which is another manifestation of his unconscious phobia of annihilation (Proudfit 51).
This parataxic mode of interpersonal relationships as discussed above explains the Swede’s weird actions that lead to his tragic end. In other words, because of this phenomenon that people would usually associate their knowledge of the past in interpreting the events in the present and in the future would lead into a kind of distortion of reality that will lead them to act in a different way than expected. These actions are deemed as a self-defense in their part because this distortion of reality that they experience results in an anxiety and fear of something that might happen. In the story, the unconscious fear of the Swede of death because of his belief that his life is in danger in the Wild West lead to his weird actions that ultimately lead to his death or his downfall. Furthermore, this belief is a consequence of his belief in the dime novels that attribute melodrama and crudeness to the Wild West (Church 101).
In the mythical sense, the Swede is portrayed as an outsider of the Wild West that his expectations and his paranoia of what is going to happen to him are justified. Cross also reiterated the fact that his paranoia and anxiety are all because of the series of events that befallen him such as the way his companion guests turn on him and cheer for his adversary in the fight Johnnie. All the other characters according to Cross, the Easterner, the cowboy, the gambler, the salon owner, and the Scullys enact the “ugly side of the Western myth of the frontier (19).” In other words, tehse characters contributed to his death by realizing and becoming the very characters and inhabitants that the Swede imagines in his conception of the Wild West.
The Swede’s bizarre characteristics and weird actions are justified because he is under influence of the generic conventions of the popular West (Cross 19). As a matter of fact, apart from the other characters which contribute and complement his false belief of the Wild West, he is also portrayed by Crane as someone that limits his perception of the world through his sense of sight. As a matter of fact, he relied heavily on the things that he observed around him and he immediately dismissed everyone around him as dangerous as a consequence of his generic conventions of the place as earlier mentioned. Cate reiterates the style and structure that Crane uses in this story, that is, the use of ocular references. However, these ocular references underscore the idea that Stephen Crane’s characters in the story perceive falsely because it is emphasize that seeing truly is not necessarily a consequence in acting responsibly as manifested in the character of the Swede. It is believed that the early perception and impression of the Swede on his companions are already flawed which became worst as the story progresses. For instance, he perceived old Scully as a murderer which leads to thought that everyone in the room wanted to kill him. (Cate 151). This limited and flawed perception of the Swede on the other characters is influenced by his false and distorted perception of the Wild West because of his heavy reliance on his ocular senses in determining the meanings of things and actions around him. As a matter of fact, when old Scully toured him into his hotel to assure him that there is no danger, all he sees is nothing lese but the shadow is in the hotel (Crane 392-419).
Furthermore, this flawed perception lead to a distorted conception of reality that deludes the Swede in suspecting a community, that is, the Wild West, of inflicting danger and death upon him. Church in his article The Determined Stranger affirm the Easterner’s observation of the Swede’s paranoia and anxiety—his reading of dime novels. Church justifies this weird attitude of the Swede towards the other characters as he described the Swede as an “outspoken, brutal dime-novel hero” (Church 100). As established in the earlier paragraphs, the Swede’s bizarre characteristics is a sign of his hyper-alert on his reading of dime novels that caused him to see every sign in the community as a representation of violence. Because of his he creates an identity that is similar to that of what he perceives to be appropriate in the setting, that is, an arrogant dime novel hero. However, instead of fulfilling a hero’s end he is portrayed as an immature stranger that fails to integrate himself inn a community that he thought he knew well but didn’t. What he think is appropriate to do in such setting is to reveal to others that his suspicions are correct. This is precisely the reason why he got what eh expected. This is because the others who wished to assimilate or silence him failed in the process. They don’t have a choice but to reveal their hidden characters, that is, the killing and cheating because of the unsurpassable conviction of the Swede on what they should really are (Church 101).
As a conclusion, the Swede brought about his death and his downfall by too much belief in the idea propagated by his dime novels about the setting of the Wild West. While this is not truly attributed as his weakness because this is merely a consequence of several psychological and mythical factors, still his own actions brought about hi demise. Because of his paranoia and anxiety, he has become so defensive that made they other characters misunderstood him in the process. This misunderstanding is rooted in the Swede’s bizarre characters because of his suspicion of human character.
Crane, Stephen. The Blue Hotel. In Corinne Demas (ed). Great American Short
Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway. USA: Spark Educational Publishing,
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