How do the situation and the outcome of Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat" exemplify "naturalism"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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“Naturalism” in literature is often associated with the following traits, many of which are exemplified in Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat”:

  • an emphasis on a view of nature, including human nature, that is realistic, unromantic, and unsentimental.  Certainly Crane’s story, which focuses on a desperate struggle by shipwrecked men to survive in the dangerous ocean, is naturalistic in this sense.
  • an emphasis on a universe in which God can seem absent or distant. God in the Christian sense – a compassionate, loving, merciful, fatherly deity – is never mentioned in Crane’s story.  This is especially ironic, since one might have expected at least one of the men to call for help from this God.  Instead, the only “gods” mentioned (repeatedly) are the “the seven mad gods who rule the sea.”
  • naturalistic fiction often emphasizes some kind of struggle to survive, and certainly this is true in Crane’s story.
  • naturalistic fiction can seem dark and depressing, at least to anyone who looks to fiction to be uplifting and cheerful. Certainly Crane’s story is not brimming with optimism or joy.
  • naturalistic fiction often emphasizes challenges, suffering, pain, and death, and certainly these traits can be found in Crane’s tale.
  • the style of naturalistic fiction is often dry, understated, unexciting, even a bit drab. Naturalistic style tends to focus on facts rather than stirring (or otherwise strong) emotions. Consider this sentence, for instance, from “The Open Boat”:

The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves andwondered why he was there.

Not all the phrasing in “The Open Boat,” of course, is as plain and unadorned as the one just quoted.  Consider, for instance, the final sentence of the story:

When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.

Still, one is far more likely to find sentences like this one in Melville’s Moby-Dick than in Crane’s “The Open Boat.”

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