It is not surprising for an author’s background and surroundings to profoundly affect his writing. Having come from a Methodist lineage and living at a time when the church was still an influential facet in people’s daily lives, Stephen Crane was deeply instilled with religious dogmas. However, fear of retribution soon turned to cynicism and criticism of his idealistic parents’ God, “the wrathful Jehovah of the Old Testament” (Stallman 16), as he was confronted with the harsh realities of war as a journalistic correspondent. Making extensive use of religious metaphors and allusions in The Blue Hotel (1898), Crane thus explores the interlaced themes of the sin and virtue. Ironically, although “he disbelieved it and hated it,” Crane simply “could not free himself from” the religious background that haunted his entire life (Stallman 5). His father, a well-respected reverend in New Jersey, advocated Bible reading and preached “the right way.” Similarly, his mother, who “lived in and for religion,” was influential in Methodist church affairs as a speaker and a journalist in her crusade against the vices of her sinful times (Stallman 5).
This emotional frenzy of revival Methodism had a strong impact on young Stephen. Nonetheless, he — falling short of his parents’ expectations on moral principles and spiritual outlook — chose to reject and defy all those abstract religious notions and sought to probe instead into life’s realities. Moreover, Crane’s genius as “an observer of psychological and social reality” (Baym 1608) was refined after witnessing battle sights during the late 19th century. What he saw was a stark contrast of the peacefulness and morality preached in church and this thus led him to religious rebelliousness. As a prisoner to his surroundings, man (a soldier) is physically, emotionally, and psychologically challenged by nature’s indifference to humankind.
For instance, in the story, “what traps the Swede is his fixed idea of his environment,” but in the end, it is the environment itself — comprised of the Blue Hotel, Sculley, Johnnie, Cowboy Bill, the Easterner, and the saloon gambler — that traps him (Stallman 488). To further illustrate how religion permeated into Crane’s writing, many scenes from The Blue Hotel can be cited. Similar to the biblical Three Wise Men (Stallman 487), three individuals out of the East came traveling to Palace Hotel at Fort Romper. The issue explored is the search for identity and the desire of an outsider (the Swede) to define himself through conflict with a society. Referring then to the martyr-like Swede, who is convinced that everyone is against him, the Easterner says “.
.. he thinks he’s right in the middle of hell” (Crane 1633).
On the contrary, the Blue Hotel can be seen as a church, with its proprietor Patrick Scully who looks “curiously like an old priest” and who vows that “a guest under my roof has sacred privileges” (Crane 1634). Personification of a wrathful God is portrayed when the guests are escorted through the portals of a room that “seemed to be merely a proper temple for an enormous stove..
.humming with god-like violence” (Crane 1627). Additionally, alluding to baptism, the guests then formed part of a “series of small ceremonies” by washing themselves in the basins of water (Crane 1627). To further prove the innocence of his building, Scully points out the pictures of his little girl on the wall (Crane 1632). All in all, in contrast to the safe haven of the hotel, the reality is that “hell” turns out to be the red-lighted town saloon where the Swede is eventually murdered.
Another recurring topic in Crane’s writing is the responsibility for a man’s death. For not acting upon his knowledge of Johnnie’s sin (his lying and cheating at the card game), the Easterner is portrayed as a betrayer, with guilt eating him inside. At the beginning, no one at the hotel would discuss fear or death with the Swede. Thus, in repentance on his part, the Easterner comments, “Every sin is the result of a collaboration” (Crane 1645).
Indeed, in the end, the conspiracy of silence between the 5 men involved in the murder leads to a brutal result: The Swede “losses fear and gains death” (Solomon 257-258). A rhetorical question is left then for the reader to reflect upon, posed innocently by the Cowboy, “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?” (Crane 1645). In conclusion, it can be seen that — through the exploration of responsibility, guilt, betrayal, and repentance — Stephen Crane develops the theme that man is alone in a hostile society and nature. The virtuous religious dogmas cannot always explain and help make sense of the cruel realities that each of us faces. Thus, it is only through trusting “the God of one’s inner thoughts” (Stallman 16) that one can hope to cope with and survive in this brutal world.