Saturday, May 23, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Stephen Crane, "The Blue Hotel"

Stories during the realistic or naturalistic period that succeed and maintain somewhat of a line of tradition for the short story until the twenties of the new century are those that are concerned with the inner complex jungle of the psyche, such as the stories of James, or the impressionistic symbolic world of violence and sensations as in the stories of Crane.
The beginning of modernism with Crane and James's impressionism needs to be discussed.  Basically what impressionism does is to combine the subjectivity of romanticism with the so-called objectivity of realism.  The result is not to focus on reality being communicated by events one after the other in a temporal fashion, but rather reality as communicated by moments of time frozen into a kind of spatial reality by the focus or the impression of the perceiver.  For the impressionism, reality cannot be separated from the superimposition of attitudes, emotions, feelings, etc. of the perceiver.
Conrad in a letter to a friend Edward Garnett in 1897 on Crane's "The Open Boat":  "He certainly is the impressionist."   "He is the only impressionist and only an impressionist."
To Crane in 1897, Conrad wrote:  "Your method is fascinating.  You are a complete impressionist.  The illusions of life come out of your hand without a flaw.  it is not life--which nobody wants--it is art--art for which everyone--the abject and the great--hanker--mostly without knowing it."  H. G. Wells also identified Crane as an impressionist, comparing with  Whistler.  The clearest definition of impressionism insofar as it concerns fiction, was expressed by Henry James in his "Art of Fiction" essay.   A Work of art is not a copy of life, reminded James, but far different, "a personal, a direct impression of life."  James says the supreme virtue of a work of fiction is the "air of reality" it has, "the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life."
Modernism begins in the short story with Stephen Crane and Henry James's impressionism.  Basically what impressionism does is to combine the subjectivity of romanticism with the so-called objectivity of realism.  The result is not to focus on reality being communicated by events one after the other in a temporal fashion, but rather reality as communicated by moments of time frozen into a kind of spatial reality by the focus or the impression of the perceiver.  For the impressionism, reality cannot be separated from the superimposition of attitudes, emotions, feelings, etc. of the perceiver.  Ray B. West says modernism begins with Stephen Crane.  The combination of objective and subjective can be seen clearly in the juxtaposition of the objective point of view and the subjective point of view in "The Open Boat."  The story has been called realistic, naturalistic, symbolic, impressionistic;  this is the same that is said of Conrad and Joyce.
 One of Crane's best-known impressionistic stories is "The Blue Hotel" (1898) in which complex image patterns convey the formal and mechanical unreality of the events.  However, the real issue of unreality versus reality here centers on the character of the Swede.  The irony of the story turns on the precipitating fact that the Swede, as a result of reading dime Western fiction, enters the hotel feeling that he will be killed there.  This obsession that he has entered into a fictional world that has become real prevails until the hotel keeper Scully takes him upstairs and convinces that the town is civilized and real, not barbaric and fictional.  When the Swede returns he is transformed; instead of being a stranger to the conventions he thought existed in the hotel, he becomes familiar and at home with them, too much at home.       
Perhaps the best way to understand the Swede's situation is to see the story as being about the blurring of the lines between the fictional word and the real world.  Scully has convinced the Swede that what he thought was reality--the childlike world of the dime Western--was a game after all.  Thus, the Swede decides to "play" the game.  And indeed the card game forms the center of the story and leads to its violent climax, when the Swede, following the conventions of the Western novel, accuses Johnny of cheating, even though the game is "only for fun."  The fight that follows is a conventional device of the dime Western. 
The Swede wins because of the superiority of his new point of view; he can now self-consciously play the fictional game which Johnny and the others take seriously; while they rage with impotent anger, he only laughs.  The final irony takes place when the Swede, still within the conventions of the game, leaves the hotel and enters a bar.  When he tries to bully the gambler into drinking with him, the gambler, being a professional who does not play for fun, stabs the Swede, who falls with a "cry of supreme astonishment."  Thus the Swede's premonition at the beginning of the story is fulfilled; his initial "error" about the place is not an error at all; it is a violent and barbaric world.
Those late 19th-century writers who have had the most influence on the short story in the 20th century were the ones who not only wished to present so-called "realistic" content, but were also aware of the importance of technique, pattern, and form.  For example, Henry James argued (as Poe did before him) in his influential essay, "The Art of Fiction" (1884), that a fictional work is a "living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found...that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts." 


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