Monday, February 26, 2018

The Monster and Other Stories by Stephen Crane

Small-town tales of pioneering realism
The Monster and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction by American author Stephen Crane, was first published in 1899. The book includes two novellas, “The Monster” and “The Blue Hotel,” and one short story, “His New Mittens.”

In “The Monster,” a black servant rescues his employer’s son from a flaming building, but suffers horrible burns in the process. The story takes place in the fictional town of Whilomville, New York, a literary precursor to later imaginary regionalist microcosms like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawhpa County. To the citizens of Whilomville, the disfigured man is a monster, a hideous and frightening problem that they would prefer to dispose of and forget. Crane was a pioneering author of American realism, and this work was no doubt groundbreaking for its time. In “The Monster,” Crane instills small-town happenings with the gravity of high drama while retaining a genuine, unromanticized tone throughout. He approaches the narrative from multiple perspectives, emphasizing the ensemble cast of community over any one protagonist. In the story’s conclusion, Crane doesn’t take the easy way out, refusing to wrap up everything neatly with a cute little bow. While Crane’s unvarnished, sometimes blunt depiction of the details of small-town life is admirable for its authenticity, he is frequently too humorous in his delivery, often portraying his characters as dumb country bumpkins. The prose often bears a tongue-in-cheek flavor that is inappropriate for the life-and-death subject matter being discussed. One can’t help wondering how another realist like Frank Norris, Charles W. Chesnutt, or Theodore Dreiser might have handled the story with more sensitivity and pathos.

In “The Blue Hotel,” three unacquainted travelers get off a train in the bleak, snow-swept Nebraska town of Fort Romper, where they are immediately accosted by an innkeeper who directs them to the titular establishment. For a small-town lodging house, the accommodations seem adequately comfortable and friendly until one of the newly arrived guests, a Swede, begins to display signs of insanity and starts picking fights with the other guests and the hotel staff. At first “The Blue Hotel” reads like a picturesque Bret Harte western, but Crane subverts the genre by depriving the story of any vestige of heroism and pointing out the senseless stupidity of violence in the name of masculine pride. A surprising ending also works to the story’s advantage, making it a memorable read.

“His New Mittens,” also set in Whilomville, is about a young boy who, having received a freshly made pair of winter hand warmers, is ordered by his mother to keep them dry at all costs. This injunction makes him the object of ridicule and teasing from the neighborhood boys and eventually leads him to rebel against his mother. Crane vividly recreates universal childhood experiences and insightfully captures juvenile thought processes and behaviors in an authentically realistic manner. Though “His New Mittens” is the shortest of the three stories, and the most intimate in scope, it proves to be the best entry in the book.

Early realist writers were often chastised for deliberately depicting the uglier or unseemly sides of life. Though Crane is certainly guilty on that score with his often intentionally unsavory stories, his innovative and challenging fiction helped propel American literature into modernity. The stories included here may not be as strong as his as his seminal novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, but they do provide ample evidence of Crane’s prodigious talent and his indispensable influence on subsequent fiction.

Stories in this collection
The Monster 
The Blue Hotel 
His New Mittens

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