In a slice-of-lie story of four men in a life boat after a shipwreck, Stephen Crane writes a detached chronicle of their efforts to survive against an indifferent universe in this extraordinary circumstance. Prisoners of the sea on this small boat, the men
...were friends... a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain...spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingey. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. (3)
The men are made heroic by Crane in their endurance against this indifferent universe. In this extraordinary circumstance, the men struggle to survive by working together as the oiler steers with one oar, the correspondent pulls at the other oar, the cook bails out the boat, and the injured captain directs them, although he mourns the loss of his ship. "None of them knew the colour of the sky" because they are immersed in their struggle with the waves and their efforts to understand.
"Four scowling men sat in the dinghy and surpassed records in the invention of epithets" for those they thought were in a life-saving station, but no one is there, really. The men begin to feel bitterness against the forces of nature. For instance, they wonder,
"If I am going to be drowned....why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?...It is preposterous."
Of course, their railing against fate is unreasonable since the amoral forces of nature are mindless. Thus, there is a despair and helplessness that the men feel as they struggle to survive in what seems a determined event. Moreover, even though the men are not equal in abilities and strength, their fates are truly determined by environmental forces because the oiler, who is the strongest, "ahead in the race" to shore, swimming "strongly and rapidly," washes ashore, face downward.
Clearly, that free will is an illusion is illustrated with the narrative of "An Open Boat." The last line which includes the phrase, "they felt that they could then be interpreters" is an absurdity as the men attempt to formalize their experience and apprehension of the conditions of their time fighting against nature into some kind of verbal or written exposition.