The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky

Author Stephen Crane (1871–1900)

Classification Western parody

Fiction F

First Published 1898

Locale Yellow Sky, Texas

Time of Plot c. 1900

Principal characters:

JACK POTTER, the marshal in Yellow Sky


SCRATCHY WILSON, the last surviving member of a gang of outlaws

A "DRUMMER" (salesman) from the East

The Story

"The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" concerns the efforts of a town marshal bringing his new bride to the "frontier" town of Yellow Sky Texas, at a time when the Old West is being slowly but inevitably civilized. At the climax of the story, the stereotypical and seemingly inevitable gunfight, a staple feature of Westerns, is averted, and the reader senses that all such gunplay is a thing of the past, that in fact Crane is describing the "end of an era."

Crane’s four-part story concerns man’s interaction with his environment. (Jack’s wife is not an individualized person with a name; she is important only because she represents marriage as a civilized institution.) In part 1, Crane describes the progress of the "great Pullman" train across Texas. With its luxurious appointments ("the dazzling fittings of the coach"), the train is a foreign country to the newlyweds, whom Crane portrays as self-conscious aliens: Jack’s hands "perform" in a "most conscious fashion," and his bride is "embarrassed" by her puff sleeves. The couple are so self-conscious and intimidated by their surroundings that the black porter "bullies" them, regards them with "an amused and superior grin," and generally "oppresses" them, treatment that they also receive from the black waiter, who "patronizes them." As the train nears Yellow Sky, Jack becomes "commensurately restless," primarily because he knows that he has committed an "extraordinary crime" by going "headlong over all the social hedges" and ignoring his "duty to his friends," members of an "innocent and unsuspecting community." Marshals in frontier towns apparently do not marry because they need to be free of domestic entanglements. Because Jack and his bride sense their "mutual guilt," they "slink" away from the train station and walk rapidly to his home, a "safe citadel" from which Jack can later emerge to make his peace with the community.

While Jack and his bride make their way to his house, Crane cuts to the Weary Gentleman saloon, where six men, including the Eastern "drummer," sit drinking at the bar. While the drummer tells a story, another man appears at the door to announce that Scratchy Wilson is drunk and "has turned loose with both hands." The remainder of part 2 is exposition: The "innocent" drummer, whom Crane describes as a "foreigner," is told that there will be some shooting, that Scratchy and Jack are old adversaries, and that Scratchy is "the last one of the old gang that used to hang out along the river here."

Scratchy makes his appearance in part 3, which completes the preparation for the "show down," the anticipated gunfight of part 4. Scratchy issues unanswered challenges, shoots at a dog, and then approaches the saloon, where he demands a drink. When he is ignored, he uses the saloon door for target practice and then, remembering his traditional opponent, goes to Jack’s house and howls challenges and epithets at the empty house.

In part 4, Jack and his bride encounter Scratchy near Jack’s house. Scratchy gets the "drop" on Jack, accuses him of trying to sneak up on him, and warns him about trying to draw his gun. When Jack tells him that he has no gun, Scratchy is "livid" and tells him, "Don’t take me for no kid." Jack answers that he is not lying, but Scratchy presses him for a reason, suggesting that perhaps he has been to "Sunday-school." Jack’s response is to Scratchy almost as unlikely: "I’m married." Unable to deal with "this foreign condition." Scratchy supposes that "it’s all off now" and walks away.

Themes and Meanings

Crane’s frontier setting is essential to his theme, which concerns the conflict between the East and West and the passing of an era. While Yellow Sky is located in western Texas, it is accessible by train, which acts as a "vehicle" to bring Eastern civilization to the West. In fact, Yellow Sky has already been civilized, despite the anachronistic presence of Scratchy Wilson, who seems determined to preserve the "good old days." Unfortunately, Scratchy’s clothes reveal the extent to which even he has been "Easternized": He wears a "maroon-coloured flannel shirt" made by "some Jewish women on the East Side of New York," and his red-topped boots have gilded imprints beloved by "little sledding boys on the hillsides of New England."

At the end of the story Crane writes of Scratchy, "In the presence of this foreign condition he was a simple child of the earlier plains," thereby indicating that Scratchy is a "holdover," a man with ties to the Old West, but also that he is a "simple child." In the story Crane depicts Scratchy not as a mature adult, but as a child-man, an adult who refuses to "grow up." His boots are related to children, and he "plays" with the town, which is described as a "toy for him." When Jack tells him that he has no gun, Scratchy is concerned that he not be taken "for no kid," and Jack himself seems to understand the importance of being treated as an adult for he assures Scratchy, "I ain’t takin’ you for no kid." In fact, the confrontation between Jack and Scratchy resembles the "show downs" between young boys who cannot back down, but who have to assert their own lack of fear while simultaneously not provoking their opponent. In taking a bride, Jack has broken with the traditions of the Old West and also become a civilized man, one who has truly "put away childish things."

Just as marriage is a foreign condition to Scratchy, the last vestiges of the Old West are "foreign" to the drummer, who has apparently ignored the possibility that men like Scratchy might still exist. The drummer is "innocent" of the implications of Scratchy’s drinking, and his questions reveal not only his fear, but also his astonishment that someone might be killed in this "civilized" town. The townspeople strike the appropriate balance, however, for they accept Scratchy’s behavior as a remnant of the past, a worn-out ritual prompted by alcohol. Jack, who "goes out and fights Scratchy when he gets on one of these tears," is a part of this High Noon drama. By the end of the story, however, Jack has assumed a different role in a new ritual.

Style and Technique

Although Jack believes that he is guilty of a crime and has been a traitor to the community, he takes himself, as do many Crane protagonists, much too seriously. His perceptions of himself and his situation are not shared by the other characters or by Crane’s readers. The saloon conversation indicates that Jack is useful in containing Scratchy, but it does not reflect Jack’s centrality" in the community. (In fact, Jack’s decision to marry must have followed his subconscious awareness that it was "safe" to marry.)

The gap between perception and reality is apparent on the train: "To the minds of the pair, their surroundings reflected the glory of their marriage." The passengers and the black porter are not impressed, however, for they see the bride’s "under-class countenance," her "shy and clumsy coquetry," and the groom’s self-consciousness and lack of sophistication. To Jack, his house is his "citadel" and his marriage is his new "estate." The mock-heroic style is epitomized in the bride’s reaction to the meeting with Scratchy: "She was a slave to hideous rites, gazing at the apparitional snake." Crane elevates the meeting of Jack and his bride with Scratchy to myth: The "apparitional snake," the satanic force which introduces evil into the new Edenic estate, is the drunken Scratchy Wilson; Jack and his bride are the innocent Adam and Eve; the "rite" is the fall from grace. Surely, nothing could be further from reality.

In Crane’s fiction, insignificant man perceives himself as the center of the universe, but the universe seems indifferent to his posturings and pretensions. Scratchy, who had thought of his "ancient antagonist" ("ancient" is also mock-heroic), goes to Jack’s house. There he chants "Apache scalp music" and howls challenges, but Crane writes that the house "regarded him as might a great stone god." Man’s presumption is such that he believes he can disturb the "immobility of a house."

Part of the incongruity between man’s illusions and reality is reflected in the death imagery which pervades the story. Crane describes Jack "as one announcing death" and compares his mouth to a "grave for his tongue; as Scratchy walks the streets, the stillness forms the "arch of a tomb over him." Through the use of such figurative language, Crane builds his story to its anticlimactic scene. As Scratchy walks away, dragging his feet and making "funnel-shaped tracks," the new era arrives: "Yellow Sky," "the hour of daylight," as Crane defines it, replaces the twilight of the Old West.

Thomas L. Erskine

Author Biography


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Author: Stephen Crane
Introduction to Stephen Crane

The Life Of Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, November 1, 1871, the youngest of fourteen children. His father, a Methodist pastor, died in 1880, and the family, after moving about several times, finally settled in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1882. In 1888 young Crane gained experience in reporting local events for his brother's news bureau and then later in the year went to Claverack College. After two years at Claverack, Crane went in 1890 to Lafayette College and in the spring of 1891 to Syracuse University, staying only one semester at each school, where his propensity for baseball seems to have outweighed his prowess as a student. It was while he was at Syracuse, however, that he composed the first draft of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a lengthier version of which he published under a nom de plume (and at his own expense) in 1893. In the summer of 1891 Crane made the closer acquaintance of the noted American writer Hamlin Garland (they had met before), from whom he received great encouragement (especially for the completed story later to be called The Red Badge of Courage). Then for over two years, the aspiring author plodded along doing journalistic work, trying all the time to place his manuscript of The Red Badge. Finally, in 1894, it appeared serially in the Philadelphia Press; the next year - in October - it was published in book form (appearing about two months later in a London edition). It was the book's generally enthusiastic reception by English readers which established Crane's reputation. Also appearing in 1895 was a volume of his verse, The Black Riders, to be followed by George's Mother and a new edition of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in 1896.

From 1896 until his death in 1900 Crane kept a residence in England, though in 1896 he went as a correspondent for New York papers on a filibustering expedition to Cuba, on which, it is generally believed, he contracted the illness that was eventually to end his life. From his actual experience, however, he produced the fine story The Open Boat (published in 1898 in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure). After Cuba, he traveled to Greece to report the Greco-Turkish war, and while there married Cora Taylor. In 1899 appeared another volume of poems, War Is Kind, as well as Active Service: A Novel and The Monster and Other Stories. In constant ill health all this while, Crane eventually traveled to the health spa at Badenweiler, Germany, where he met his death on June 5, 1900.

A number of his works were published after his death, and in 1925 - 7 appeared the monumental The Work of Stephen Crane, in twelve volumes edited by Wilson Follett. Since that time critical and scholarly interest in Crane has increased, until today he has achieved the status of a minor classic.


Works Other Than The Red Badge Of Courage

Crane wrote a number of war stories, of which The Red Badge is the supreme example, but he also achieved notable successes with his naturalistic stories of life in New York City (Bowery Tales), his Western stories, and his tales based on his experiences as a war reporter.


Bowery Tales

Crane's outstanding accomplishment in this vein is Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It concerns the life of a young girl brought up in a "Hell's kitchen" in New York by alcoholic parents (the father dies early in the story; the mother becomes a notorious drunkard and jailbird). Poverty, ignorance, and a loveless family life in squalid surroundings absolutely condition Maggie to be the victim of the first man who offers a chance of release. He is Pete, a friend of her brother Jimmy, and she mistakes his blandishments (he is actually a gross, callous, and fatuous individual - the product of a similar upbringing) for love and loyalty. He "ruins" Maggie and deserts her for a more attractive woman. Her mother and brother (as well as the neighbors) in their ignorance assume an air of puritanical self-righteousness and spurn Maggie's attempt to return home. Her only alternative (as Crane presents it) is to become a streetwalker.

After some time, Maggie dies, and her remorseful family hold a wake during which they vacillate between emotion-filled recollections of a better time and Bowery mission cliches. The tale ends with the mother ironically acceding to the pleas of a mourning hypocrite to "forgive" her daughter.


Tales Of Adventure

Some critics regard The Open Boat as Crane's finest achievement. Based on an actual incident, the story involves four shipwrecked men in a lifeboat: the cook, the oiler, the correspondent (Crane), and the captain (who is injured). Such action as there is - mainly a simple record of their gradual approach to land, continually opposed and thwarted by the raging waves and by darkness - is simply a background for a prolonged ironic reflection on nature's indifference (it may even be hostility) to man. The ironic narrator also comments bitterly on the failure of romantic attitudinizing about war and danger by comfortably situated aesthetes to represent adequately the harsh reality of suffering or even the basic nobility of unaccommodated man. Even the outcome of the action is an ambiguous matter. Three of the men reach land safely, but the oiler has drowned and faces only the "sinister hospitality of the grave."


Stories Of The American West

The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky is easily the best of the Western stories. It opens with Jack Potter, the marshal of Yellow Sky, returning from San Antonio with his new bride. Not only does he display the traditional gaucheness of the newly married man, but he suffers a vague unrest at the thought of the reception they will receive in Yellow Sky; in some undefined way he has violated the frontier code. As the train pulls into town, the windows of the Weary Gentleman saloon are being boarded up, against the possible rampage of the town drunk and sometime badman Scratchy Wilson. The denizens of the saloon look to Jack Potter as their only salvation from Wilson. As Potter and his bride round a corner, they come face to face with Scratchy, who is nonplussed to discover that Potter is married and without a gun, and that a showdown is thus rendered impossible. Beneath the accidental fact of Potter's lack of a gun is the subtle realization by the two men that a border has been crossed - a way of life passed into history. The scene is one of Crane's most superb treatments of character involvement.