An example of Crane's description opens the story and illustrates how description adds to the story's effectiveness. First, Crane's description adds dramatic tension. The first descriptive line, "None of them knew the color of the sky" immediately adds dramatic tension. The reader asks, "Who? Why not? How is that possible?" As a result, an impossible situation full of dramatic tension is instantly opened up before the reader. This adds to the effectiveness of the story because, first and foremost, Crane wants the reader to feel--along with the characters--the power of the impossible situation they are in at sea in their open boat.
The dramatic tension is heightened later in that same paragraph when Crane writes that the sea's "edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks." In this implied metaphor (the sea is rocks), which embodies contrast between the fluid sea and crushingly hard rocks, Crane introduces danger and imminent peril. This metaphorical description adds to the effectiveness because in the opening paragraph the reader is thus thrust into a situation of grave crushing danger.
Another example occurs a bit later on. The narrator describes how the waves come. He says they come with "grace" in "silence":
There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.
This description wraps the men and the waves in a blanket of silence. This adds to the effectiveness of the story by creating a deep and impenetrable isolation around the men--an isolation bred in soundlessness. We know, even if we know little else about the ocean, that it has a mighty roar. To remove this and replace it with silence removes the men from common experience and embeds them in unreachable isolation.
Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” a wonderful short story because its characters are sharply drawn and believable; captain, cook, oiler, and correspondent are fully realized portraits, etched with great economy. Crane deeply probes the mind of his primary character, the correspondent, from the point of view of third-person limited omniscience. The author knows all, but confines his report to what he sees through the correspondent’s eyes.
The story is written with intense descriptive energy; there are many phrases and figures of speech to admire. In a vigorous simile, Crane conveys the motion of the boat and a sense of its precarious balance: “By the very last star of truth, it is easier to steal eggs from under a hen than it was to change seats in the dinghy” (paragraph 31). In the same passage, a man changing places in the boat picks himself up and moves his body as carefully as if he were a delicate piece of china.
In the opening sentence of Part II (21): “As the boat bounced from the top of each wave the wind tore through the hair of the hatless men, and as the craft plopped her stern down again the spray slashed past them.” Building suspense, Crane brings the men again and again within sight of land and then drives them back to sea. He aligns enemies against them: sharks, the ocean current, the weight of water that sloshes into the boat and threatens to swamp it. The climax of the story—the moment of greatest tension, when the outcome is to be decided—comes in paragraph 204, when the captain decides to make a run through the surf and go for shore.
The situation of having one’s nose dragged away before he can “nibble the sacred cheese of life” (70, 143) is a clear instance of irony of fate, or cosmic irony. Crane, who sees Fate as an “old ninnywoman” (70), knows that the rain falls alike on the just and the unjust. There is no one right way to state the theme of this rich story, but here are some attempts: 1) The universe seems blind to human struggles. 2) Fate is indifferent, and doesn’t always reward the brave. 3) It’s an absurd world; only people are reasonable.
This theme (however it is stated) may be seen also in the symbol of the giant tower (204) and Crane’s description remarks on what it suggests: “The serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual,” a presence not cruel or beneficent or treacherous or wise. Students who like to hunt for symbols sometimes want to see the boat as the universe, in which man is a passenger. A case can be made for reading the story in this way. But everything in the story (ocean, waves, shark, beach, lighthouse), however full of suggestions, is first and foremost a thing concrete and tangible.