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 strongest of the group, drowns, but the sea leaves unclaimed the wounded captain and the cowardly cook.
In the concluding passage, the survivors stand on the beach looking at the sea. They “felt they could be interpreters.” What they interpret is the sheer accident of their existence, the arrant tenuousness of life.