In "The Open Boat," what do the boat, the sea, the shark, and the waves symbolize?

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"The Open Boat" is a work of naturalism, which basically seeks to represent the ultimate futility of man's existence. Here are the central aspects of Naturalism:

·         Man is a helpless object, rather than a god or even just a man

·         Man is subject to forces greater than themselves, be it government or nature (Darwin)

·         Man is subject to dark forces and internal drives (Freud)

·         Man is subject to being exploited by the capitalist machine (Marx)

·         All of these three exploit man to some degree and degrade humanity

·         Characters can be studied by interactions with environment

·         Environment and heredity negatively impact characters and are a source of conflict

·         Nature is indifferent to man’s struggle

·         Free will is an illusion

·         Struggles generally man vs nature and himself

If you take these elements into consideration, the symbolism of the shark and the ocean/waves are fairly obvious.  These elements of nature are part and parcel of nature, which is the central conflict in the story.  Nature's indifference to the struggles of man are explicit in the shark's hunting of the men, causing them great duress, only to lose interest in the end, indifferent to their stress but also a reminder that the wolf is always at the door.  The greatest example of nature's indifference to the plight of man is the strongest of the men is within feet of salvation when he is consumed by the waves and dies in an ironic twist, while the weaker men survive.

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