Using only four characters, Crane establishes both brotherhood and individualism. The captain, the oiler, the cook, and the correspondent create a cosmos wherein the men have no actual common bonds. Their methods of earning a living, their education, and their social classes all seem to divide them, yet Crane shows us a very tight union. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893; see separate entry), Crane asserts that because few people care for anyone else, social problems like poverty and ignorance are never defeated. In "The Open Boat," he demonstrates that when people work together they can combat tremendous odds if they do not give in to their individual moods and emotions.
The captain is injured and unable to share in the rowing of the boat. Yet he serves the common good by giving navigational and other direction. He also serves the group by guarding the water bottle so that it is never washed overboard, ruined by salt water, or completely consumed. The men recognize that the captain has the most difficult job. He must set a course, make safety decisions, and decide how to gain the most from the men's efforts. Their obedience to the captain is willingly given. The captain, by tacit consent of the men, functions as a leader and father. Crane points out that even though the captain is forced to lie still he never seems to sleep. His care and vigilance continue throughout the night.
The oiler does the physical navigation of the dinghy, fulfilling the second most skilled job. The oiler will take turns at rowing but his main job is to hold and use a short stick as a rudder. The oiler enjoys having a share of the control and direction of the dinghy. This element of control is mirrored in the oiler's three mild flashes of temper. He is the only person in the story who administers an outright rebuke of anyone. He scolds the cook for discussing food. Later he mildly grumbles about the cook or the correspondent not taking their fair share of the rowing. While his irritability is mild and never to the point of causing disharmony Crane has given us an insight into his personality.
When the cook selfishly gives into his desires and begins describing unattainable food, the oiler in turn selfishly gives into his desire to snarl commands. While the cook is stirring up...
(The entire section is 942 words.)
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The injured captain is unable to help row the lifeboat. Having lost his ship, the captain is more forlorn and dejected than the other characters, but he feels that it is his duty to guide the men to safety. He makes the decisions for the crew, and he provides words of encouragement to the men rowing. At one point, the captain seems the least optimistic about the possibility of survival. However, he only once allows himself to express such pessimism, and he quickly reverses himself, speaking as if he is ‘‘soothing his children,’’ saying that ‘‘we'll get ashore all right.'' in the end he survives by clinging to the overturned boat as it is washed into shallow water by the surf. Even then, he waves away a rescuer and points to the correspondent, indicating that he should be helped ashore first.
The cook is described as fat and untidily dressed. He does not help row, but he does work steadily bailing seawater out of the boat. He is the most talkative of the four men, and remains unshakably certain that they will be rescued. When they finally sight shore, and a building, he keeps commenting on how strange it is that the "crew" of what he imagines is a life-saving station has not spotted them and sent out a rescue boat yet. He repeats this long after it becomes apparent that the building is vacant and no one has seen them. He is the only...
(The entire section is 543 words.)