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...
(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....
(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....
(The entire section is 838 words.)
"The Open Boat'' begins with a description of men aboard a small boat on a rough sea. Details begin to emerge. They are four survivors of a shipwreck: the cook, overweight and sloppily dressed, who is bailing water out of the bottom of the boat; the oiler, a physically powerful man named Billie who is rowing with one oar; the unnamed correspondent, who is rowing with the other oar; and the captain, who lies injured in the bottom of the boat. Each man stares intently at the waves which threaten to swamp the boat. A few characteristics become evident about each man: the cook is the most talkative of the four; the oiler, taciturn and an adept seaman. The captain is profoundly sorrowful at the loss of his ship and the potential loss of life along with it. The correspondent remains less well defined. The reader does learn that he engages in rather pointless discussion with the cook about the liklihood of being seen by rescuers or of finding a house of refuge on shore. They debate the points until the oiler has twice repeated that they are ''not there yet.’’
This section features further character development and superb descriptive passages depicting the tiny boat's course across the rough waves. The captain briefly expresses doubt about their chances of survival, but then reassures the men that ‘‘we'll get ashore all right.'' The captain is the first to spot a barely visible lighthouse and they know they are approaching shore.
(The entire section is 963 words.)