How does the phrase "impressed with the unconcern of the universe" help the reader understand the theme of "The Open Boat"?Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It strikes me that so many stories about the "indifference of nature" by authors such as Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway are not really concerned about the indifference of nature but about the absence of God. God not only doesn't care what happens to human beings. God not only isn't listening to people's prayers. God doesn't even exist. Writers like Crane, London, and Hemingway seem fascinated with the idea that God does not exist. This is undoubtedly because they grew up in homes where people attended church regularly and where they were taught to believe that a benign deity had created everything and looked after everything. He was what is commonly called a "personal God." Children prayed to him every night and trusted him to look after them and their loved ones. Then somewhere along the line there began to be a decline in religious faith which accompanied the growing ascendency of science. Matthew Arnold deplored this sad, relentless withdrawal of the sea of faith in his famous "Dover Beach." Edgar Allan Poe deplored it in his sonnet "To Science."  Yeats deplored it in his "The Second Coming." T. S. Eliot deplored it in "The Wasteland." It is probably the most important change that has taken place in human psychology in history. It has been very traumatic for some people, e.g., the waiter in Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," and it continues to be traumatic and controversial to this day, as seen in the ongoing quarrel between the Creationists and the Humanists. When I read a story about the so-called "indifference of nature" I read a story between the lines about the absence of God . The inference is that man has to rely on himself, which seems to imply a socialist philosophy of one kind or another. Nature has always been indifferent, if not cruel--but nature was not the ultimate power. Overhead was a supreme power who could be appealed to for mercy and special favors. Without Him it's a pretty cold, cruel world.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his essay, "'Interpreting’ the Uninterpretable: Unreasoning Nature and Heroic Endurance in Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’," Mark Elliot writes,

In a perfect metaphor of the forces of nature versus the struggles of man, Crane makes the men on the boat a symbol of the heroism of simple human endurance against an indifferent universe.

As they row heroically, yet mechanically, hour after desperate hour toward the shore, the men in the life boat become aware of the pathos of their situation; for, "nature does not regard them as important." The correspondent wonders,

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?  Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?

Now, surrounded by a shark, the rolling waves, and the expanse of sea, the correspondent is, indeed, "impressed with the unconcern of the universe."  And, he ponders, "Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature." Ironically, however, iin the existential moments of his comprehension of the indifference of the universe and the possibility of his death, the correspondent realizes that he has become united with the cook, the oiler, and the captain:

They were friends, friends in a more curiously ironbound degree than may be common.

And, they have endured.  Still they are subject to the whims of this indifferent nature as the correspondent, who has been so anxious about drowning, is caught by a large way and flung with "supreme speed" and "ease" over the boat and toward the shore. He survives, but the best swimmer and oarsman, the oiler, lies in the shallows, face downward--dead.