Patrick Scully owns the Palace Hotel in Fort Romper, Nebraska. It is painted a very obvious hue of blue. Scully goes to the train station every morning to solicit hotel guests. On this winter day, Scully brings back three guests: a quiet Easterner, a nervous-looking Swede, and a rugged cowboy. Scully presses his guests into staying at his hotel by being extremely cheerful and kind.
The travelers and Scully arrive at the hotel, where Scully endeavors to make them as comfortable as possible. Scully’s son Johnnie is quarreling with an old farmer about a game of cards called High-Five. Meanwhile, Scully orders his daughters to prepare a meal for the new guests. The old farmer occasionally chats with the guests, but only the Easterner and the cowboy respond to him. The Swede is quiet and jumpy.
The Swede continues his odd behavior at lunch. He says he is from New York, where he worked as a tailor for ten years. Though Scully attempts to engage him in conversation, the Swede’s attention is on all of the guests. He remarks upon the West being a very dangerous area, still using awkward gestures and laughing too loudly. “They looked at him wondering and in silence” (Crane 91).
After lunch, all of the men, including Johnnie and the old farmer, retire to the front room. Johnnie and the old farmer play another game of cards, but the game concludes abruptly with the farmer becoming angry and leaving. The Swede continues to laugh. Johnnie invites the guests to play a card game, with Johnnie and the cowboy on one team, the Easterner and the Swede on the other.
As expected, the card game is also quite awkward due to the Swede’s paranoid behavior and comments. Meanwhile, the cowboy often hits the board when he has a good hand. The Swede shocks his companions when he says he believes many men have been killed in that room. The cowboy, the Easterner, and Johnnie are all astonished, and none of them claims to know what he means. The Swede takes this to indicate that they are closing ranks against him.
Scully returns to the room, and the Swede immediately tells him that the other three men intend to kill him. Shocked, Scully immediately turns to his son for an explanation, but Johnnie cannot offer one. The Swede decides to leave the hotel for his safety, and Scully becomes distressed. The cowboy and Johnnie maintain that they have done nothing wrong.
After scolding Johnnie, Scully follows the Swede to his room, where he is packing his belongings to leave. The Swede tries to pay Scully, who angrily refuses. Instead, Scully takes the Swede to his own bedroom to show him a portrait of his deceased daughter. He also tells the Swede about his son, a successful lawyer in Lincoln. The Swede is politely disinterested, only growing alarmed when Scully offers him a drink. Scully, ever accommodating, insists that the Swede drink it. Though the Swede is deeply suspicious, he cannot resist Scully’s hospitality.
Color plays a significant role in the opening description of the primary setting: “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” (Crane 89). The hotel is also anthropomorphized in this description, as it “screams” and “howls.” To the Swede, at least, it has an ominous character that suggests a pattern of murders.
Similarly, the weather is portrayed with human qualities: “The huge arms of the wind were making attempts—mighty, circular, futile—to embrace the flakes as they sped” (Crane 91). The next sentence in the description includes an example of a simile. “A gatepost like a still man with a blanched face stood aghast amid this profligate fury” (Crane 91).
The second section clearly outlines the theme of the Swede as an outsider, separate from the community formed by the other men. This becomes clear when the men pair up to play the card game. The Swede appeals to each man when he makes his claim about Western violence; the Easterner, the cowboy, and Johnnie all profess not to understand him. Of course, this further heightens the Swede’s hysteria, while also solidifying his separation from the other men.
Johnnie’s cheating is foreshadowed because the old farmer, with whom he originally plays the card game, quarrels with him. Presumably, the old farmer also believes Johnnie has cheated at the card game. This hints at Johnnie’s predilection for cheating, which indirectly results in the events that lead to the Swede’s death. However, Johnnie’s cheating is not confirmed until the conclusion of the story.
While Scully and the Swede are in the bedroom, the Easterner, the cowboy, and Johnnie talk about the Swede and his strange behavior. The Easterner believes the Swede is simply a very frightened man, but Johnnie and the cowboy do not understand why he would be. The Easterner explains that the Swede most likely thinks that simply because he is in the West, lethal violence will occur.
These men are interrupted when Scully and the Swede rejoin them. The Swede goes for a drink, and while he is gone, Scully confesses to the other men that the Swede thought he was being poisoned with the drink in the bedroom. Johnnie wishes that his father would remove the Swede from the hotel, but Scully insists upon being hospitable to all of his guests.
As the day progresses, the Swede grows more aggressive, which bothers Johnnie and shocks the cowboy. The Easterner, however, remains noticeably quiet and unperturbed. The Swede “domineered the whole feast... [h]e seemed to have grown suddenly taller; he gazed, brutally disdainful, into every face” (Crane 99). The Swede asserts himself boldly, even smacking Scully across the shoulder. Since Scully’s shoulder is fragile from a previous ailment, Johnnie hopes his father will attack the Swede over the outrage. Nonetheless, Scully upholds his vow to be kind and generous to his guests.
The Swede suggests another game of cards. This time, the Swede curses and hits the board often during the game. Then, he accuses Johnnie of cheating. Within seconds, the room erupts in action, with the board overturned and the men yelling and shoving at one another. Through the din, only the Easterner attempts to persuade the others to calm down and try to discuss the situation reasonably. Finally, Johnnie suggests that he himself fight the Swede. Fed up with the Swede’s attitude, Scully agrees.
The men brave the wintry weather to stage the fight outside immediately. The Swede believes that everyone will turn against him, but Scully assures him it will be a fair fight, only against Johnnie. As soon as the fight commences, the cowboy suddenly becomes vocal in his defense of Johnnie, encouraging him to beat the Swede to death. However, Johnnie is felled by a blow from the Swede, who attempts to continue attacking him. He is stopped and must wait for the fight to resume when Johnnie rises to his feet. For the second time, Johnnie is beaten to the ground by the Swede, and he admits defeat.
The Swede immediately heads back to the hotel. The cowboy helps Johnnie inside, where the Easterner begins to warm himself by the stove. Scully sits with them as they listen to the movements of the Swede from above. Scully’s wife and daughters enter, lamenting Johnnie’s condition, and they admonish Scully for allowing the fight to happen.
As Scully and the Swede are upstairs, the men openly discuss the Swede’s misconception of the West. This brief conversation is the most explicit reference to the mythic West, which is a primary theme in this story as well as in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” The Easterner, whose experiences correlate most closely with the Swede’s, aptly perceives that the Swede is frightened because of his idea of how violent the West is. Johnny and the cowboy, however, are less perceptive of this fear. When the Easterner explains that the Swede has most likely read dime novels about the West that falsely promote its image as a place filled with violence and danger, this dialogue provides useful exposition to the reader. He confirms that the West is in fact not a dangerous place (nor are places farther west than Nebraska). Ironically, though the Easterner is correct, the Swede will end up dying due to violence, and not the violence that the Swede instigated in this section.
The description of the fight between Johnnie and the Swede is fairly impressionistic: “Occasionally a face, as if illuminated by a flash of light, would shine out, ghastly and marked with pink spots. A moment later, the men might have been known as shadows, if it were not for the involuntary utterance of oaths that came from them in whispers” (Crane 104). This is a notable feature in some of Crane’s works.
After the Swede wins the fight, Crane returns to the theme of the man’s isolation and separation from the other men. When the men first believe that Johnnie has won the fight, they “burst into a cheer that was like a chorus of triumphant soldiery” (Crane 105). However, in triumph, there “was a splendor of isolation in [the Swede’s] situation ... that mysterious and lonely figure, waiting” (Crane 105). This touches upon the importance of community in this and other short stories by Crane. Communities can either provide support to or ostracize individuals based on community mores or pre-existing relationships.
The cowboy wishes he could fight the Swede, but Scully concedes that the Swede won the fight against Johnnie fairly. As he leaves, the Swede wishes to pay Scully for his services. Again, Scully declines his offer. In a last parting shot, the Swede mimes the cowboy’s shouts of “kill him” from the fight. However, the remaining men are morose and unresponsive. Only when the Swede is in fact gone do Scully and the cowboy commiserate over what they would have done to the Swede, given the chance.
The Swede takes his belongings to another bar in town. Only five other men are there: the bartender and four men sitting at the same table. The Swede orders a drink, and when the bartender remarks upon the bad weather, the Swede answers that it suits him. He is eager to brag about his recent victory. Though this piques everyone’s interest, they decline his offer for a drink.
The four men at the table include two local businessmen, the district attorney, and a gambler. Though the last of these has an undesirable profession, he is described as being respected within the town, especially because he has a wholesome family. Furthermore, the gambler is a conscientious and morally upright man who earned his status and reputation.
Eager to celebrate his triumph, the Swede repeats his invitation, and the men at the table pretend to be in conversation. When he reiterates his question yet another time, the bartender tries to hush him. The Swede snaps at the bartender and remains determined to share a drink with the men. He approaches them, physically laying his hand upon the gambler’s shoulder.
First, the gambler politely declines the Swede’s invitation. He cites the fact that he does not know the Swede. Unfortunately, the Swede remains insistent and does not heed the gambler’s warning to remove his hand. Instead, the Swede grabs the gambler by the throat and tries to force him to his feet. In seconds, the gambler slits the Swede’s throat and kills him. The businessmen and the district attorney quickly leave, while the gambler calmly wipes his knife and informs the bartender to tell the police they can find him at home. After the gambler leaves, the bartender walks the streets, calling for help and companionship.
Months later, the Easterner and the cowboy cross paths once again. They are aware of the Swede’s death and the gambler’s punishment of three years in prison. The two men muse over the situation, the cowboy believing that the bartender should have been able to prevent the murder. The cowboy also thinks that the Swede was just being unreasonable, and had he not accused Johnnie of cheating, he would still be alive.
The Easterner disagrees and expresses pity for the gambler. He reveals to the cowboy that Johnnie was in fact cheating. The Easterner laments the fact that he did not support the Swede in his accusation. He also points out that the cowboy wanted a fight. Ultimately, the Easterner believes that all of the men involved are guilty of the Swede’s death. Despite this fervent speech, the cowboy maintains his innocence.
The climax of the story seems at first to be the big fight between Johnnie and the Swede. Yet, the story continues, and the true climax occurs when the Swede is killed in the bar. This is followed by a coda in which the Easterner and the cowboy discuss the situation months later. Their discussion also provides expository information regarding the fate of the gambler who kills the Swede, as well as the circumstances surrounding his death.
At one point, Crane slips briefly into the first person narrative: “We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth” (Crane 108). This is the only time in which Crane does so in “The Blue Hotel.” Otherwise, the story is told entirely from the third person.
The Swede was belligerent almost from the beginning. It does not help that he is practically a foreigner who cannot easily conform to the traditions of the people he meets. He is burly and picks fights. It is no surprise that when he grabs the gambler’s throat, having previously boasted of his victory in a fight, the gambler defends himself. Keeping his hand on the gambler’s shoulder was bad enough. Poetic justice is satisfied when the Swede, so inappropriate in this community, dies through his own mistakes.
After the Swede is killed, his body is described as having “its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt atop of the cash-machine: ‘This registers the amount of your purchase’” (Crane 112). In other words, the Swede has “bought” his death. His expectations of Western violence became a self-fulfilling prophecy. His anticipation of witnessing and experiencing Western violence has backfired.
A final stroke of irony occurs in the coda. The reader learns from the Easterner’s conversation with the cowboy that Johnnie was in fact cheating; the Swede’s accusation was thus correct. The Easterner takes a community perspective and acknowledges his complicity in the Swede’s death, as though it is the whole cultural and social environment that is to blame. Yet, in the face of the Easterner’s reasoning, the cowboy insists that he is not to blame. From this alternative point of view, people make their own choices and risks and then meet their own consequences.