The Open Boat Questions and Answers
by Stephen Crane

The Open Boat book cover
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How is the first paragraph of the story "The Open Boat" important to the passage as a whole?

The first paragraph of the story "The Open Boat" is important because it shows us the predicament of the men in the open boat. The men are stranded at sea, and as the opening paragraph tells us, their eyes are fixed upon the waves. That these waves are gray is also important, as the grim color of the ocean foreshadows the many dangers that lie ahead.

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Dolly Doyle eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The opening paragraph efficiently establishes the setting, tone, and inner worlds of the characters within "The Open Boat." The men are trapped on the open sea in a lifeboat. The water and sky are both gray, and they are so stressed and frightened that they apparently cannot tell where the sky ends and the sea begins as they try to row the boat to shore.

Firstly, the color gray is prominent in the passage. Gray is usually associated with two concepts: despair and tedium. The men are certainly in despair about their desperate situation, but the situation, scary as it is, is also tedious. They are constantly falling and rising on the waves without an end in sight.

The unending grayness also suggests uncertainty. The men are rowing their boat but do not know where they are going. They cannot use the sky as a guide, and there is no shoreline in sight. This uncertainty will soon become philosophical as well as physical once the men start to consider that there is no force in the universe that they can blame for their plight nor is there a benevolent deity that they can ask for aid.

This opening is brief, but it sets the stage for the existential drama to come: the men are stuck, the men are likely to perish, and the natural world presents more of an indifferent threat than a benevolent guide or a malevolent force.

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The fact that none of the men knew the color of the sky shows just how bleak, how confusing and how terrifying conditions on the open boat are. Their entire world has become reduced to the gray of the ocean and the whiteness of the foamy waves, with nothing in between.

Their monochromatic world is indicative of their state of mind, which is one of extreme stress. Having been forced into the open boat by the sinking of their ship, the captain has been injured. He, of course, would have had far more knowledge of seafaring than his companions, who were a cook, an oiler and a correspondent. However, thanks to the captain's injuries, it is up to the other three to do the rowing through the endless waves.

The monotony described in this first paragraph could, as the men well knew, be broken by a storm at any time. The fear that they would have felt as "the line between the water and sky narrowed and widened" is made palpable by this detailed description of the colors they can see.

The use of the color gray in this first paragraph is a powerful indicator of the hopelessness that the men would have been feeling. Of all the colors on the spectrum, it is commonly felt that grey is the most morose and bleak. In the context of this first paragraph, it can be argued that gray is the color of despair.

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As the very first line of the story tells us, none of the men know the color of the sky. That's because their eyes are fixed upon the waves. The men are in trouble, drifting idly on the ocean without any immediate hope of rescue. The seas are choppy, and the men know that at any moment they could be hit by a crashing wave generated by a violent storm.

The color gray is significant here as it reflects the men's grave situation. The outlook for the men is very bleak, to say the least, with little sign of hope or expectation for survival. During their ordeal, the men have come to know the color of the sea very well. That's because their eyes are fixated upon the ocean, wary as they are of the slightest rise in the waves.

This means, in symbolic terms, that they are obsessed with lower things, with the desperate fight for survival. They aren't looking upwards, either literally or figuratively, as they have no realistic hope of survival. And so they don't know the color of the sky. Under the circumstances, this no longer matters, as the men are too preoccupied with the existential question of their own mortality.

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The first paragraph of the story goes a long way toward setting the mood for the text. There is something sad about the statement that none of the men "knew the color of the sky." It is as if there is nothing more in the world than what one can see before oneself, no chance of a higher power or redemption, second chances, or even purpose. The waves are the color of "slate," a dark and oppressive gray; this color feels impenetrable and heavy, like the stone for which it is named. Further, the narrator says that

The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.

This description of the horizon changing uncontrollably and unpredictably contributes to the idea that life is both uncontrollable and unpredictable. Further, the negative connotation of a word like "jagged" and the description of the water that looks like pointed and dangerous rocks, adds to the unknowability of a world where water can seem like sharp stone. The mood is heavy and menacing, as though there is always some danger awaiting on the horizon, a horizon that is ever-changing.

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