Stephen Crane (1871-1900) “The Open Boat”
"NONE of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.“ • A “naturalist” writer approaches subjects objectively, almost scientifically, staying detached as much as possible. “Realist” writers strive to portray their subjects as realistically as possible.
“The Open Boat” is a short story pitting man against nature. • The author based the story on his own experience as a castaway. • Crane’s real-life experience of being stranded in a dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean. • On December 31, 1896, Crane sailed out of Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Cuba. • His ship sank in the morning of January 2, and Crane and three crew members spent thirty hours in a dinghy before coming ashore near Daytona Beach.
Plot summary • It is just before dawn, and not far off the coast of Florida, between the open sea and the surf, are four men in a dinghy. • The ship on which they were sailing sank overnight, and they are the only survivors • The ocean is so rough. • Each man, despite not having slept for two days, works tirelessly to keep the boat afloat. • The correspondent and the oiler share the work of rowing. • The cook huddles on the floor of the dinghy, bailing water.
Plot summary • These men take their direction from the captain, who was injured during the shipwreck and sits grimly in the bow. • As day breaks the men begin to make progress toward the shore. • Gulls fly overhead and perch on the water. • One lands on the captain’s head. • The men see this as a sinister, insulting gesture. • The captain cannot swat the bird off because the sudden movement would likely topple the boat.
Plot summary • They go on rowing until the captain sees a lighthouse in the distance. • The cook expresses reservation that the nearby lifesaving station has been abandoned for more than a year. • The crew takes pleasure in the brotherhood that they have formed and in attending to the business of the sea. • The correspondent even finds four dry cigars in a pocket, which he shares with the others.
Plot summary • The men’s optimism evaporates when, approaching land yet unable to master the turbulent surf, they realize that help isn’t coming. • They again make for the open sea, exhausted and bitter. • Another sign of hope comes when the captain sees a man on shore. • Each crew member looks for signs of hope in the man’s gestures. • They think the man sees them. Then they think they see two men, then a crowd and perhaps a boat being rolled down to the shore. They stubbornly think that help is on the way.
Plot summary • During the night, the men forget about being saved and attend to the business of the boat. • The correspondent and oiler, exhausted from rowing, plan to alternate throughout the night. • Rowing alongside a monstrous shark, the correspondent thinks of a poem he learned in childhood about a soldier dying in a distant land, never to return home.
Plot summary • When morning comes, the captain suggests that they try to run the surf while they still have enough energy. • They take the boat shoreward until it capsizes, and then they all make a break for it in the icy water. • The oiler leads the group, while the cook and correspondent swim more slowly. • With the help of a life preserver, the correspondent makes good progress, until he is caught in a current that forces him to back to the boat. • Before he can reach the dinghy, a wave hurls him to shallower water, where he is saved by a man who has appeared on shore.
Plot summary • On land, the correspondent drifts in and out of consciousness, but as he regains his senses, he sees a large number of people on the shore with rescue gear. • He learns that the captain and cook have been saved but the oiler has died. • The correspondent functions as the eyes and voice of the story.
Themes • Nature’s Indifference to Man. • Nature is ultimately indifferent to the plight of man, possessing no consciousness that we can understand. • The sea snarls, hisses, and bucks like a bronco • Activity of the gulls, clouds, and tides illustrates that nature does not behave any differently in light of the men’s struggle to survive. • Nature can be harmful or helpful. • Narrator saved by the same wave that killed the oiler. • Nature does not act out of any motivation that can be understood in human terms.
Themes • Man’s Insignificance in the Universe. • Feeling of loneliness that comes from man’s understanding that he is alone in the universe and insignificant in its workings. • Man wants to have a role in the universe, that his existence should mean something. Why am I here? What is my purpose? • This leads man to despair. • The correspondent’s recollection of the poem about the soldier who lies dying in Algiers reflects his feelings of alienation.
Themes • Brotherhood of men against cruel, unrelenting nature. • Assembling of the men in the dinghy creates a microcosm of mankind. • Their brotherhood is the best defense a • Fellowship created to oppose nature, against the chaos of nature. • The narrator observes that the men’s cooperation is “personal and heartfelt”.
Themes • Arbitrariness of nature. • Nature is arbitrary in how it chooses its victims • The oiler’s death and lack of explanation surrounding it reinforce the randomness of nature’s whims and symbolize the indifference of nature toward man. • He was less deserving to die because he has worked the hardest under the most physical strain.
Themes • Existential view of humanity. A man said to the universe: “Sir I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.” • Human situation in which the individual is insignificant in the universe. • The universe is indifferent to man’s courage, valor, and brotherhood.
Themes • There is no response to the men’s appeals to fate and God to answer for the misfortune that has befallen them. • “The whole affair is absurd”. • No meaning in the natural order of things. • The universe will do as it wishes with no regard to what effect it may carry for the universe’s inhabitants.
Themes • What can Man do when faced with a Universe that has no sympathy for him? • How can we survive alone against nature? • As the characters in the story come to realize, our only hope is in our sympathy and concern for other human beings.