What do the cigars and the matches symbolize in the story?
Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" is based upon a true incident involving Crane; he and others were shipwrecked on the sea for some thirty hours. Most likely, Crane is represented by the character of the correspondent who finds himself in a boat with a cook, an oiler, and a captain.
From the injured captain's coat the men have fashioned a sail and the oiler bails the water from the boat. As the men begin to despair, they sight a lighthouse and start to row towards it While the "waves continued their old impetuous swooping at the dinghy, ...the little craft...struggled woundily over them." Nearing the lighthouse, the men hope that the keeper will spot them soon. As the men "watch the shore grow," they develop a "quiet cheerfulness." It is then that the correspondent discovers that he has four cigars that have not become wet and three good matches are produced from someone else.
...with an assurance of rescue shining in their eyes, [they] puffed at the big cigars, and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water.
With the sight of the shore, the men gain confidence and, upon discovering the cigars and matches, they smoke and drink water to celebrate their hope of rescue. Cigars are symbols of prosperity and pride; on many happy and light-hearted occasions, cigars are passed out: the birth of a child, a promotion, the acquiring of an inheritance or fortune, a successful venture in business.
Unfortunately, however, people on the shore believe them to be fishermen and in need of no one, so they merely wave. Finally, they are rescued except for the oiler who is dead. having experienced the indifference of Nature is the lesson that the men "felt they could then be interpreters." No need to celebrate with cigars.