What are the conflicts and climax of "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane?

The main conflict of "The Open Boat" is man versus nature, which takes form in the men's own exhaustion and the threat of the ocean. The climax occurs when the men decide to swim to shore.

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The conflicts in "The Open Boat" are, primarily, man against nature and, as a subsidiary conflict, man against self. The men in the boat cooperate and work reasonably well together, so there is no serious conflict between them, but the captain and the correspondent, at any rate, are riven with internal conflict. The captain blames himself for the loss of his ship and is plagued with guilt when he thinks of all the people who have died. The correspondent, perhaps the most sensitive of the four men, and certainly the one with whom the author identifies most closely, struggles to maintain a stoical exterior in the face of a frightening situation which often seems hopeless.

Although these internal conflicts heighten the drama and human interest of the story, it is the conflict with nature that is life-threatening. As the story progresses, the correspondent in particular becomes resigned to his fate. He recalls a poem about a soldier dying far from home and is indifferent when he sees a shark in the water. At this point, it appears that he at least has given up the conflict. However, the climax comes when the men decide to swim ashore despite the danger. The climactic passage begins as the correspondent goes overboard:

The January water was icy, and he reflected immediately that it was colder than he had expected to find it off the coast of Florida. This appeared to his dazed mind as a fact important enough to be noted at the time. The coldness of the water was sad; it was tragic.

It appears at first that the correspondent will not survive this ordeal, but when they reach the shore, the three surviving men discover that it is the oiler, the strongest of them, who was swimming ahead, who has died on the way to the beach.

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"The Open Boat" is dominated by the classic man versus nature conflict. A group of men are trapped at sea in a boat. They have no real sense of direction, and the conditions of the sea are formidable. It is cold, it is infested with sharks, and it is large. What's worse is the men's realization of their own helplessness in the face of the natural world: the sea is indifferent to their desperation to cling to life.

This external conflict prompts many other conflicts for the characters. The men struggle against their exhaustion and hunger. They need to stay alert in order to stay alive, but this is difficult in their condition, especially since they have not slept in two days. They grow bitter about their situation, too, finding it cruel that they are so close to the shore but still likely to drown.

The climax occurs when the men make a run for the shore since there are no rescue boats out to fetch them. The correspondent is swept up in a current and almost dies, but he manages to make it. Everyone except the oiler makes it to the shore, where they are met by a man who saw them. Unfortunately, the oiler drowned, and they find his body face down in the water.

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In Stephen Crane's "Open Boat," there is in the correspondent and the others who are shipwrecked an antithesis of feelings that parallels the rise and fall of the waves as the men "watched the shore grow" and feel "the influence of this expansion." Their "doubt and direful apprehension was leaving" the men's minds, and the boat "could not prevent a quiet cheerfulness"; yet, at the same time, his being at the mercy of the fateful sea clarifies for the correspondent how erroneous his beliefs in his own importance have been.

INTERNAL CONFLICTS

  • After the shipwreck and the correspondent finds himself with three other men in a dinghy, "wondered why he was here."
  • The correspondent rails against an uncaring universe and its seeming injustice:

"If I am going to be drowned...why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?"

  • The correspondent's mind fights to overcome his weariness. After hours at sea, the correspondent tries to grapple with the facts of his situation, but "the mind was dominated at this time by the muscles."
  • After the correspondent falls overboard, he wrestles with the fact that the water is cold and the "immovable quality of the shore" as he is caught in a current. He thinks, "Im' going to drown? Can it be possible?" He ponders the senselessness of his death at this point.

EXTERNAL CONFLICTS

  • The cook and the corespondent argue about the difference between a house of refuge and a life-saving station when the cook believes there is a house of refuge near Mosquito Inlet Light.
  • The cook comments on the "good thing" of an on-shore wind, and the others agree, but the captain chuckles "in a way that expressed humour, contempt, tragedy, all in one."
  • When the captain then assures his crew they will get ashore since the "ethics of their situation was decidely against any open suggestion of hopelessness," the cook then dissents, "Yes! if we don't catch hell in the surf!"
  • The main conflict is man vs. nature as the men struggle against an indifferent sea that threatens them with its expansiveness, its sharks, its cold, its current that prevents the boat from finally reaching the shore. While in the water, the correspondent struggles against the sea:

"Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous....She [Fate] cannot mean to drown me....Not after all this work."

CLIMAX

  • The climax, the highest point of emotional intensity, comes as the men struggle to reach the shore and wonder why no one sees them, not knowing there is no lighthouse or house of refuge. So, when no one is to be seen, the men realize that they must try to reach shore on their own. The captain cautions that the boat will swamp and they must swim to shore. Finally, a man runs and undresses; rushing into the sea toward them.
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