Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Open Boat” is not simply a realistic account of the ordeal of four men on the open sea. The story is, indeed, largely autobiographical, based on the sinking of the USS Commodore, on which Stephen Crane was en route to Cuba as a reporter covering the Spanish-American War; the character of the correspondent is an obvious persona for Crane himself. Nevertheless, the story goes beyond mere journalistic accuracy and makes a statement about man’s relationship to nature, his place in the universe.
The overwhelming theme of the story is the conflict between the men and the cold indifference of the sea. The sea, in fact, is a character in its own right, an elemental force, unmindful of the human struggle to survive. The sea, as an analogue to nature, is cruel or sportive, taunting, menacing, or easeful, having no other motive but the exercise of its own power.
When, for example, the correspondent remembers the childhood verse about the soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers, he realizes that as a child he had no interest in the soldier. Now, on the verge of death himself, the correspondent understands that nature, the sea, has no interest in him. He and the soldier are thus brothers, sharing in the total apathy of fate. Survival on the sea or in Algiers is a matter of chance, of accident, of complete indifference.
Man’s struggles in the face of this elemental indifference are often marked by a grim irony. The oiler,...
(The entire section is 303 words.)
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"The Open Boat" is a discourse on man's relationship to nature. Crane never tired of this theme, but rarely had an opportunity to discuss it so thoroughly. In his earlier fiction, Crane had treated the theme of man versus nature as one of many issues clouding the interactions of humankind. But in "The Open Boat," man versus nature is all encompassing and the survival of the me is physical, emotional, and psychological. Therefore Crane gives nature a depth requiring multiple definitions. Nature is defined as the external elemental forces (wind, ocean, and rain), the basic physiological laws such as gravity, man's inner self, and God Himself.
The correspondent concludes, by the end of the voyage, that the people in the boat are the interpreters of the "sea." Just like nature, Crane is using sea in its most liberal definition. He is talking about the sea of life, mankind, and broadly defined nature rather than just a particular ocean off the coast of Florida.
Crane's all encompassing definition of nature is played against his equally compelling definition of mankind as symbolized by the men in the dinghy. As their emotions vacillate they see Nature differently. When they are angry, Nature dolls out the punishment of an angry deity; when they are hopeful, they regard Nature as a symbol of the unity of people; when they are jubilant, they see Nature as being the best in themselves and each other; when they are disappointed, Nature is...
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Individual vs. Nature
During the late nineteenth century, Americans had come to expect that they could control and conquer their environment. With the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution humankind appeared to have demonstrated its ability to both understand and to dominate the forces of nature. In "The Open Boat,'' Crane questions these self-confident assumptions by describing the precarious situation of four shipwrecked men as they are tossed about on the sea. The men seem to recognize that they are helpless in the face of nature. Their lives could be lost at any moment by the most common of natural phenomena: a wave, a current, the wind, a shark, or even simple starvation and exposure. The men are at the mercy of mere chance. This realization profoundly affects the correspondent, who is angered that he might be drowned despite all of his efforts to save himself. In a passage that drips with irony, Crane writes of the correspondent: "He thought: 'Am I going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?' Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.’’ This passage suggests the absurdity of an individual's sense of self-importance against the mindless power of nature.
One of the main themes of the story concerns the limitations of any one...
(The entire section is 895 words.)