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In "The Open Boat," the characters struggle to understand nature, their place in it, and the meanings of life and death—with the possibility of death looming. The first line states this premise. "None of them knew the color of the sky." They were focusing on the waves. But this line indicates they are busy trying to save their lives; they don't have time to look up and contemplate their place in the spiritual world. They are focused on themselves and nature; thus, their concept of life and death is caught up in the reality of their struggle which has to do with themselves and their place in nature. This is not a story about spiritual significance. It is about humans and nature.
Nature is portrayed as cruel and indifferent. In Part IV, the narrator supposes what the men might be thinking in regards to their hope and despair:
"If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—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?
The "seven mad gods" are nature itself: the winds and waves that rock the boat. Having come far enough to see land, the narrator supposes that the men are outraged that they have possibly been given false hope and the men are also frustrated in searching for answers from an indifferent nature.
In Part VI, the narrator once again speculates on what the men must be thinking:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.
At the mercy of nature, man can not fight back or even pray to nature because nature is an unconscious, amorphous thing. The narrator recognizes the men's frustrations in dealing with an indifferent force and having no outlet (no "bad guy") against which to vent their frustrations. In the end, perhaps the narrator indicates that the men learn to accept this with the line saying the men now "felt that they could then be interpreters" of the "great sea's voice."
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