What are the social and cultural differences in/between the characters in "The Open Boat"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Based upon an actual experience of Stephen Crane's when he was a newspaper correspondent sent to Cuba to cover the insurrection against Spain, "The Open Boat" puts together four very different shipwrecked men who must try to make their way to shore in a dinghy.  In fact, these men represent a microcosm of society:

The correspondent

Educated and a reporter, the correspondent, who represents the intellectual of society, is the voice of the story as the observer of the situation who seeks a higher meaning in the men's struggle for survival.  At first, he "watched the waves and wondered why he was there."  Then, he begins to believe that there is a "brotherhood of man" involved in his experience, something which validates the men's struggle for safety. However, as the men realize that no one is coming to save them, the reporter's larger thoughts are reduced to despair and single thoughts of his own death. 

The captain

Initially the most dejected of the four men because he has lost his ship and his position of authority, the captain as a disciplined man rises above his personal feelings and performs as he has been trained.  He is a leader and feels that he must direct the men in the dinghy if they are to survive.  While his education is in more practical matters than that of the correspondent, the captain nevertheless has been schooled and is a member of a higher order of society, who considers others' welfare ahead of his own.  He assumes, also, a fatherly demeanor, "soothing his children" by saying "we'll get ashore all right." For, he knows that keeping up the morale of the men is essential.

The oiler

Representing the average working man, the oiler obeys the captain--"The busy oiler nodded his assent," and reinforces the captain's orders by echoing them.  He is the quiet hero, a capable seaman, who never acquiesces to the prattle of the other men about the cruelty of nature or the possibilities of rescue oppotunities.  Practical, he projects an image of strength and character in the working person who holds society together.

The cook 

Described as fat, somewhat sloppy and physically unfit to row, the cook still helps out as he bails water out of the boat.  As a more passive member of the crew, the cook, who looks down most of the time, has a rather naive and myopic perspective as he feels more certain of rescue than the others.  He represents the member of society who follows others and does not discern all in life.  He is dependent upon the others as they row and direct action.


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