How is Marxist criticism applied to the short story "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane?

Marxist criticism can be applied to Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" if one considers the way class distinctions dissolve during the men's experience. Because they meet on common ground outside of the context of the class system, they can know each other as people, not as members of a capitalist system.

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One could argue that "The Open Boat " is amenable to a Marxist interpretation—however strained—in that it reveals the existence of a common human nature beneath the artificialities of class distinction. Despite the shipwrecked men coming from a variety of different social backgrounds, they are all in the same...

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One could argue that "The Open Boat" is amenable to a Marxist interpretation—however strained—in that it reveals the existence of a common human nature beneath the artificialities of class distinction. Despite the shipwrecked men coming from a variety of different social backgrounds, they are all in the same boat, both literally and figuratively. Out there on the ocean waves, their social class means nothing; all that matters is survival, which requires that everyone put aside their social differences and work for the good of all.

On dry land, the men would almost certainly never come into contact with each other as men. They would be, in Marxist terms, involved in the kind of economically exploitative relations that characterize the capitalist system. Yet out there on the high seas in the open boat, it's a whole different story. Class distinctions have effectively been abolished—temporarily, at any rate. There are no classes, only men.

This means that everyone can work together for the benefit of the group instead of being concerned for their own selfish interests. In that sense, then, one could argue that the men on the open boat provide an example of a communist society in miniature, the kind of society that Marxists believe will spontaneously arise once capitalism, with all its class distinctions, has been abolished.

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Despite the fact that these four men came from different social strata prior to the shipwreck, their perceived differences make absolutely no difference whatsoever when faced with the incessant waves, sharks, and the lack of water in their life boat.  It has come down to life and death for these characters, and suddenly differences that might normally seem so significant now seem absolutely trivial (potentially even disappearing entirely).  The fact that, when it matters most, social divisions seem to dissolve and "each man felt [the bond among them] warm him" indicates that these divisions are arbitrary and meaningless.  The correspondent's education would, formerly, have differentiated him from the cook and the oiler. He had learned "to be a hard judge of men;" however, he "knew even at the time that it was the best experience of his life."  As these social distinctions fall away, the men feel a "oneness" with each other.  It is powerful.

Crane develops the idea, then, that our perceived social differences are actually getting in the way of true camaraderie.  The men in this boat would likely never have spent time together outside of this dire situation, but, thrown together now and facing death, they see their compatriots' humanity and privilege that over everything else.  

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The answer by rdb919 looks at how Crane's story reinforces and highlights society's treatment of the social classes. Another approach would be to examine Crane's attitude towards social hierarchy. Is he in favor of the social structure that capitalism creates or not? Well, in the boat, social class does not seem to be helping anyone. All the men are scared and facing the same difficulties. Nature here, not social class, seems to have the power. Men are made equal—and insignificant—under the power of nature, suggesting that Crane believes social classes are irrelevant. Consider this quote:

It would be difficult to describe the secure bond between men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it was on the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends—friends in a more strangely iron­bound strength than may be ordinary.

Then how do we explain the death of the oiler, the character who represents the average man and the lower end of the social ladder? As the everyman, the average man, Billie (the only named character) is the one with whom Crane wants us to identify. Therefore, his death has more meaning, which drives home Crane's message.

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There are four characters in Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat.” There is a cook, an oiler, a correspondent, and a captain—all stranded in a small boat in the middle of the sea. The class rankings of these characters would be the captain at the top, with the most power, followed by the correspondent, an educated man, the cook, and lastly, the oiler. Throughout the story, the oiler--Billie--must do most of the rowing because he is physically the strongest, is used to manual labor, and the captain is injured. In the end, weakened from doing so much rowing, Billie dies. He is the only one who dies. Marxist theory would show that because Billie is of the lowest class and had no power among the four men, he was forced to do the most work, which ultimately resulted in his death. He held very little power in the real world or on that boat and as a result of this lack of power, had the worst situation of all of the men.

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