Stephen Crane’s short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” is considered by many to be a masterpiece. One writer even called it “the greatest story ever written.” One of the reasons the story is so good is that Crane uses humor to make some serious points about people in general and the Old West in particular.
In the first part of the story, Crane portrays Jack Potter and his new wife as humorous characters. Not only are they awkward with each other, but they are also completely out of place in the fancy railroad car that is taking them to the Yellow Sky. Crane makes us see them through the eyes of the condescending porter and the other passengers, who keep giving the couple “stares or derisive enjoyment”. Jack’s fear about how the people of Yellow Sky will react to his marriage is also amusing because we would expect a town marshal to be brave, not afraid of the people he is paid to protect.
Part II presents another comical situation- a lone drunk is able to scare a whole town just because Jack Potter is away. This situation is especially funny because of an ironic contrast that the reader already knows about. The man the townspeople are depending on to protect them is the same man we have just learned is afraid to tell them he is married. Part II also includes the comical character of the unsuspecting traveling salesman, whose increasingly agitated questions about Scratchy Wilson set the state for the confrontation the reader knows will occur. Crane is in effect setting us up for the “punch line” of his story. First we hear about the raging, fearsome drunk who is terrorizing the town- and then we see him.
In Part III we get a close look at this Scratchy Wilson, whom we are supposedly prepared for. At first glance, he does behave like a typical Wild West villain. However, we soon learn details about him that make him seem ridiculous. For one thing, he wears a shirt made by women in New York City and boots favored by little boys in New England, hardly the outfit we would expect an authentic Western villain to wear. In fact, these details are the reader’s first hint of what will develop as Crane’s major theme: that the West is no longer a terribly wild place. The lengths Scratchy goes to in order to frighten a dog also show him to be a bit ludicrous as a bad guy. Scratchy may roar and bellow “terrible invitations” to fight, but Crane lets us know exactly how terrifying he really is: “The calm adobe preserved their demeanor at the passing of this small thing in the middle of the street.”
In Part IV, Crane finally brings his two major characters together for a showdown that is comical because it disappoints our expectations. Facing Scratchy down without a gun, Potter proves to be just as brace as we have been led to believe, but as a villain, Scratchy turns out to be pretty easily subdued. Presented with the news of Potter’s marriage, he loses all his menace and sadly walks away. Ironically, he is defeated not by brute force or sheer courage but instead by “a foreign condition” that he does not understand. His world is suddenly turned upside down by Potter’s news. Ferocious, gun-toting drunks and the courageous town marshals who fight them are not supposed to have wives. Once the bride comes to Yellow Sky, the rules of the game are so different that Scratchy no longer knows how to play.
According to one critic, Donald B. Gibson, the point of Crane’s story is that by the late 1800’s, the Wild West was dead, even though some people living there did not realize it. While Jack Potter has taken a big step toward adjusting to the changed world he lives in, Scratchy is simply befuddled by it.
Gibson’s interpretation makes sense and it gets at the heart of the humor in Crane’s story. However, one cannot help but suspect that Crane is doing more than simply mocking the conventions of the Western. That would make his story a funny parody, but certainly not a masterpiece. Crane is also showing us what happens to a society in transition, a culture whose values are in a state of flux. A “simple child of the earlier plains”, Scratchy Wilson is an anachronism, a man who finds himself out of place historically. Luckily, he has the good grade and good sense to realize his predicament and walk away from what he cannot understand. But who knows- perhaps some day he’ll find himself a bride and bring her back to Yellow Sky.