“The Open Boat” is characteristic of Crane’s naturalistic style. Naturalism in literature is a point of view that often emphasizes the material, the physical environment as a determinant in human behavior. Crane had already shown the detrimental effect of slum life on the character of Maggie, for example, in his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), regarded by some critics as America’s first naturalistic novel. In that work, Crane had used precise detail and an objective tone to record Maggie’s fate. In “The Open Boat,” one of the finest short stories in the language, Crane relies on tone and imagery to portray the heartless indifference of nature. The famous opening line, “None of them knew the color of the sky,” establishes an immediate bleakness, a world void of the emotional value of color. The sea is described as gray and the only green, suggestive of hope, is that of the land that the men cannot reach.
In support of the theme of indifference, the tone is consistently maintained by the men’s having no names. They are merely “the correspondent,” “the captain,” “the cook”—trades, occupations, things, not persons; they are anonymous, like so much flotsam. Ironically, only the oiler has a name, “Billy,” and he alone does not survive, as if having a name has marked him.
Finally, imagery is consistently employed, almost as in a poem, to reinforce meaning. The men are belittled by the sea, their boat compared to “a bathtub,” the waves “slate walls” or “snarling” crests. When the correspondent fears drowning, he regrets the injustice of his fate, dying before he could “nibble at the sacred cheese of life”—as if he were a mouse, a puny thing, more of a pest than a noble creature.