What are some examples of Naturalism in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his story, "The Open Boat," Stephen Crane portrays the men on the boat as representatives of human endurance in an indifferent universe against which they are helpless. This, of course is a theme of Naturalism.  Other aspects of Naturalism that Crane uses are as follows:

  • There is a view of Nature that is lacking in sentiment and is bleakly realistic.  For instance, Part I which opens with the simple statement that "they" were unaware of the sky's color, contains these lines,

 As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all esle from the view of the men...and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water.

  • There is an emphasis upon a world in which God is distant or entirely absent.  For example, after rowing some ways, the men look for some life-saving station, but find none. They, then, rail against an unprovidential and unreasoning universe:

"If I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven gods, who rule the seven seas, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?"

  • There is an emphasis on a struggle to survive that is almost animalistic in its lack of choice.  Crane narrates, 

In his struggle to reach the captain and the boat, he reflected that when one gets properly wearied drowning must really be a comfortable arrangement....

  •  The tone of the omniscient narrator is detached.  For instance, in describing the shark that circles around the boat as the other men sleep while the correspondent rows, the narrator describes it thusly,

The thing which had followed the boat and waited had evidently grown bored at the delay.  There was no longer to be heard the slash of the cutwater, and there was no longer the flame of the long tail.

It is worth noting, however, that Crane also employs other points of view such as that of different characters.

  • Ordinary characters are placed in extraordinary circumstances. The correspondent has never expected to be in a small dinghy on the cresting waves of the sea with no land in sight.
  • The style is understated.  When, for instance, the oiler, who is an accomplished sailor, unexpectedly dies, Crane merely writes, "In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler."
  • There is a certain determinism.  What the men are plays no part in their outcome as exemplified by the only death being that of the oiler.


edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literary critics believe that Naturalism takes some inspiration from Darwin's evolutionary theory that the fittest survive.  Viewed through this lens, it seems inexplicable why the cook, correspondent, and captain survive while Billie, the oiler, does not, but naturalistic writers like Crane believed that there was a limit to the applicability of Darwin's theory.

The fitness of the men goes beyond the physical.  Because of the psychologically grueling nature of their plight of being at the mercy of an indifferent environment, namely, the sea, their survival depends on their ability to maintain their focus and work together. The cook, though "fat" and unable to help with the rowing, remains "cheerful" and amenable to the captain's directives. His ability to bail the seawater from the open boat keeps it from sinking. The captain, though injured and unable to help row or bail, uses his experience and intellect to navigate and create a sail from an overcoat. His calm voice and levelheaded demeanor prevents panic even in the midst of their troubling situation. When the men are in the midst of swimming to shore, he advises the cook to float on his back and use the oar to paddle. The cook benefits from the captain's wisdom and survives. The fact that Billie (the oiler) endures rowing stints with the correspondent and swims strongly toward shore only to die within sight of it exemplifies the naturalistic idea of determinism. Despite Billie's strength and desire to survive, he encounters an indifferent, superior force that he cannot overcome. Billie is not rewarded for his perseverance; Nature, in fact, neither rewards or punishes him.

Read the study guide:
The Open Boat

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question