Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Four men are adrift in an open boat, their ship having gone down about dawn. Now, in the clear light of day, the men begin to perceive the full gravity of their situation. The captain is lying injured in the bow of the boat, and the January sea is tossing the men about, rising menacingly over the gunwales. The oiler and the correspondent are rowing, trying to reach Mosquito Light Inlet, where, the cook has said, there is a lifesaving station.
As the day passes, the men grow silent. The captain encourages them. “We’ll get ashore all right,” he says. As they row, seabirds hover above them, floating in groups next to them, one even coming close enough to be waved off. The men swear at it, deeming the bird an ill omen.
In time, the captain and the cook spy the lighthouse, a pinpoint at the throat of the horizon, and the crew rig a sail from the captain’s overcoat. Soon, the lighthouse appears larger, but the wind quickly dies, and the correspondent and the oiler are obliged to row harder. The land begins to loom, and the men can see the shore and hear the roar of the surf. Expecting now to be seen and rescued, the men are at first puzzled, then angered that no one is on the beach. They do not know that there is no lifesaving station here, and as the afternoon wears on, the men row steadily toward shore until their bodies ache.
Suddenly, they spot a man on the beach. In their excitement, they yell and wave a towel at him and the man waves back. Another man appears, riding a bicycle, and finally onto the beach drives an omnibus from one of the large resort hotels. The men in the boat wave and yell frantically, but the party on the beach, obviously there only for an...
(The entire section is 695 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Four men, crewmembers and a passenger of the sunken ship Commodore, are floating in a lifeboat scarcely bigger than a bathtub, their eyes fixed on the ocean waves that continually threaten to overwhelm them. The cook bails water from the boat while the oiler and correspondent row. The captain of the Commodore is injured, consumed with despair and visions of the sinking of the ship and the faces of its crewmembers.
The struggle to keep the boat upright and free of the waves is continuous. The men know it is daytime only because the color of the sea changes. They have no cause to look at the sky; their attention is only on the menacing waves. The cook says hopefully that he knows of a house of refuge on shore with a crew that could rescue the shipwrecked men. The men begin to squabble about whether the house of refuge will indeed have a crew, but the oiler twice reminds them that they are not yet ashore.
The ocean, “probably splendid,” continues tossing the boat, but the men are in such danger and hardship that they have no inclination to consider the sea’s beauties. Caught between childish optimism and hopelessness, the men talk idly about whether they have a chance of making land. The captain spots a lighthouse so far away that it looks like the point of a pin. The men still cannot discern any progress through the ocean, but the cook is cheerful as he bails water. The men begin to feel an intense sense of fellowship. Even the cynical correspondent knows that this is the best experience of his life.
On the captain’s suggestion, the men rig up a mast and sail. The lighthouse has been growing in size, indicating they are getting closer to it. The cook mentions, as if in passing, that he believes the life-saving station on shore had been abandoned about a year ago. The wind dies, and the men take the oars. The men had hardly slept for two days and nights before getting on the dingy, and had eaten little as well. Their efforts are so great that the correspondent wonders desperately how anyone could row a boat for pleasure.
As the land comes closer, the captain is able to make out a house on the shore; the cook and the captain anticipate men coming out to rescue them. The oiler notes that none of the other lifeboats can have made it to land, given that no rescuers have been looking for survivors. As the men approach shore, their mood lightens. The correspondent finds four dry cigars, and everyone smokes and takes a drink of water.
The house of refuge shows no signs of life. The men are puzzled; they do not realize that...
(The entire section is 1062 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Open Boat” is considered by some critics to be Stephen Crane’s masterpiece. Summarizing the rudimentary plot—the struggle of four shipwrecked men to survive in a rough sea in a ten-foot dinghy—suggests little of the story’s abiding interest. At its center lies not the question of who will survive, ultimately revealed as a matter of chance anyway, but rather the progressively revealed nature of human life and the place of humanity in the universe. The theme is not presented as an abstract philosophical statement; it emerges, rather, from a brilliantly compelling rendition of life in an open boat, vividly portrayed and psychologically exact.
The events immediately preceding those of “The Open Boat” are recounted in “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” published January 7, 1897—five days after the Commodore sank—in the New York Press. The short story can be appreciated without reading the journalistic narrative, though knowing the context is useful as background. It is instructive, nevertheless, to compare the openings. “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” begins, after the dateline, “It was the afternoon of New Year’s. The Commodore lay at her dock in Jacksonville”—functional journalistic prose, whose sole purpose is the objective presentation of facts. The opening of “The Open Boat,” on the other hand—“None of them knew the color of the sky” is one of the most famous sentences in modern literature. Arrestingly, with the utmost concision, it reveals the essentials of life in a ten-foot dinghy: One’s world is reduced, one’s attention is focused solely on survival from moment to moment. What the men know about, in frighteningly intimate detail, is the waves that threaten to swamp the boat.
The four men in the dinghy are the captain of the Commodore; the oiler, who worked in the engine room; the ship’s cook; and the correspondent, Stephen Crane himself. They have come together by accident, strangers whose names—except for the oiler’s, given incidentally in...
(The entire section is 838 words.)