Picture this: you've been shipwrecked. You are in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with three other men. There is no land in sight and very little hope of rescue—there's only the crashing waves all around you, filling the boat with water as you struggle to pull your oar. Would you have thought it was the best experience of your life?
Yet that is what the correspondent in Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” senses. And the other men, the cook, the oiler, and the captain, share his feelings even though they never speak about it. But why? How could such a frightful experience be the best experience of one's life?
We can identify at least two reasons: human fellowship and a sense of the true meaning of life. First, the four men in the boat are united in a way they have never been before with anyone. They are friends, the narrator remarks, “friends in a more strangely iron-bound strength than may be ordinary.” All they have is each other. All they can do is depend upon one another for their survival. All they can do is trust one another. All they can do is obey the captain and respect and support one another. And they do. Notice how quickly the cook obeys the captain when he tells him to empty the boat. The cook is even cheerful about it. Notice how easily the correspondent and the oiler take turns at the oars without ever a quarrel. Notice how the men team up to suspend a makeshift sail as long as they can. Notice how they curl up to sleep and stay warm. These men are united in a human fellowship that only arises in the midst of disaster, and they all know it. Such a fellowship is rare and precious, and it can easily be one of the best experiences of a person's life.
Second, the men in the boat, as the narrator suggests, discover the true meaning of their lives. In the face of death and in the face of a disinterested nature, their lives come into sharp focus. In such circumstances, a man notices the
many faults in his life. They may rest badly in his mind, and he may wish for another chance. The difference between right and wrong seems all too clear to him then. And he understands that if he were given another opportunity, he would improve his conduct and his words.
These men now see what they have done badly and why it was wrong. They understand that if possible, they will act differently the next time. They will be better human beings for having looked death in the face. This insight into life and death is also rare and precious, and it, too, can easily be one of the best experiences of a person's life.
The correspondent senses that the other three men share his feelings. How could they not? They are in the very same dangerous position, and they are all behaving the very same way, united as one to survive in a friendship they would probably never have formed otherwise. But these men do not speak about their feelings. They don't have to. It is enough to feel them. It is enough to recognize their unity and their newfound truths without having to discuss them. To discuss them would almost be to cheapen them, and besides, it would take their focus off their mission of getting safely to shore and perhaps have broken the unity and the focus these four men have finally found.