There are several themes in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane including comradeship, the struggle to survive, and nature’s indifference. Choose one of these, or identify another theme in the story, and discuss incidents in the story where the theme becomes clearest. Explain how Crane emphasizes the theme, citing passages from the text.
The swim for shore is described only from the correspondent’s point of view. What details are there of the other passengers' swims? Use what information you have to piece together an explanation for the oiler's death.
Explain what the Crane achieves by repeating certain passages of dialogue, reflection and description within the story. What are some of these repeated lines and how many time do they recur? Do their meanings change with repetition or with the changing context in which they occur?
Only the oilier is ever called by his name in the story and then never by the narrator. What is the significance of naming just the one character? Discuss this significance in the light of Billie’s death.
Stephen Crane in The Open Boat reveals, not only the fight for survival of those now lost at sea in the boat, but of man's constant struggle against the elements. The struggle to survive is highlighted by the men's cheerfulness, hopefulness and togetherness as it contrasts with their desperation, anger and depression. The boat is small and almost inconsequential as it floats on the vast ocean. Man's struggle is comparable to this. The words "A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking bronco," confirm this point. Crane adds details that do not enhance the story but serve to confirm the struggle. The "Canton flannel gulls" who watch the men indifferently, represent those in life who ignore the pleas of others and also those who leave nothing but trouble behind them, even though they have, seemingly, no place in this society. They are "gruesome and ominous."
Just as in life, there are unlikely friendships formed, the men, in their circumstances have formed "a subtle brotherhood," necessary for their very survival. There is also the understanding that friendship is critical in life, even for those, like the correspondent, who is admittedly cynical but recognizes the value of this friendship as "the best experience of his life." The men also become self-absorbed by their own difficulties and almost blame the visitors to the beach for not rescuing them, especially "the chump, even acknowledging that he really did not do anything to deserve being berated. They cannot understand how it is not clear that they are in dire need of assistance. Co-operation is also essential to survival and the oiler and the correspondent are indicative of this as they work together and relieve each other of the rowing.
Even in their desperate circumstances, there are moments of tranquil calm and some men sleep. This is significant as man accepts his lot and makes the best of his circumstances. The reference to the soldier in Algiers reveals how sometimes lessons can only be learned from experience. Until the correspondent himself experiences this isolation, he has no capacity for understanding.
In repeating certain phrases or creating verses, Crane cements the pattern of life, the daily struggle and the enduring quality of nature such that nature has no favorites. We are reminded, "the oiler rowed and then the correspondent rowed and then the oiler rowed..." No matter what crisis we may be facing, life goes on just as before. Some things remain the same.
The words, "If I am going to be drowned"...repeated significantly three times, brings a possible spiritual element that the narrator all but abandons especially as he includes a reference to the "seven mad gods, who rule the sea." There are three people in the Trinity and Peter denied Jesus three times in the Garden of Gethsename which may hold some comparison to the events on the boat. First there is the perfect Trinity and then there is the imperfect Peter who feels alone and unsafe away from Jesus, fearing for his life; just as the men experience joy and abandonment on the boat. There is obvious confusion about where this journey will lead them.
The captain is ever the brave and noble captain, such as his position demands and he advises the cook to swim on his back and ensures the safety of the correspondent rather than his own. The unexpected death of the oiler, just as it seems as if they will all survive, stresses the randomness of nature.
He swims strongly and confidently at first and as there is no explanation of what caused his death, the reader can only assume that he struck a rock, collapsed from exhaustion or was perhaps, even if unlikely, bitten by the shark and bled to death. The use of his name gives the story meaning and adds a personal element to this fight for survival.