What do each of these symbols represent in "The Open Boat": the sea, the gulls, and the tower?

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sciftw's profile pic

sciftw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I would say that the tower is the most straightforward symbol in the story because Stephen Crane comes out and writes down exactly what the tower symbolically represents to the correspondent. 

It represented to the correspondent the calm of Nature against the struggles of the individual—Nature in the wind, and Nature in the sight of men. Nature did not seem cruel to him then, nor kind, nor dangerous, nor wise. But she was not interested, completely not interested.

The correspondent's view of what the tower represents is not shocking considering that Stephen Crane is a naturalist.  Naturalism often will portray nature and the universe as completely indifferent.  Crane's poem "A Man Said to the Universe" is a nice portrayal of the universe according to naturalists.  

A man said to the universe: 
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe, 
“The fact has not created in me 
A sense of obligation."
The men in the boat might be struggling for survival and cursing the universe for their situation, but nature, like the tower, sits there with zero care.  
 
In my opinion, the sea represents the same kind of indifference.  I remember reading this story the first time, and I remember being upset at the ending.  I had just read an entire story that painstakingly told a story about the heroic efforts of four men to make it ashore.  I found myself willing all of them to survive.  Then the end of the story happens, and readers learn that the oiler still dies.  All of his efforts were for nothing.  The sea simply didn't care how much he wanted to live and how hard he worked for it. I suppose that the sea could also symbolize death.  The men in the boat know that their safety is found in the boat and on dry land.  If too much of the sea gets in the boat, the boat sinks and the men die.  If the boat capsizes, the men likely die.  If anybody falls overboard, that person will either drown or be eaten by sharks.  Staying out of the sea is critical for living.  Being in the sea is a death sentence. 
 
Finally, the gulls.  I do think they are also symbolic of nature's uncaring eye on the men in the boat; however, I think they are also symbolic of death as well.  There is one paragraph in the story that is intensely focused on the gulls, and the words used to describe the birds all hint toward a future death in the story.  The men in the boat seem to sense that about the birds as well because once the birds are frightened away from the boat, then men have a sigh of relief.  
After it had been discouraged from the pursuit the captain breathed easier on account of his hair, and others breathed easier because the bird struck their minds at this time as being somehow gruesome and ominous.
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gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Well, first of all, remember that this story was based on actual events and Crane a Naturalist who sought to evoke the world as it was. Therefore the details you mention need to function first and foremost on the literal level: the sea is first the sea (and only second anything symbolic), etc. Next, remember that the point of view shifts, and so these objects might mean different things to different people. To the news correspondent, for example, "This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented ina degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men." That's a clear statement of meaning, but it isn't the only meaning. The others on shore seem not to care about the tower, almost not to see it. For them it means less.
As for the gulls, we're told they are "uncanny," and so they represent the weird and unpredictable: fate that could go any way. The sea is related; it is the power that determines the fate. It is the great unknown of nature.

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