What do the wave, boat, sea, and shark symbolize in "The Open Boat"?

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"The Open Boat" is written by Naturalism author Stephen Crane , and the story is a great example of what Naturalism adheres to. Simply put, Naturalism paints nature and the universe as completely ignorant and immune to the workings and pleadings of mankind. That's why Crane's poem "A...

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Man Said to the Universe" has the universe replying that it doesn't care that the speaker exists at all.

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 Open Boat" works the same way. The men fight hard for their own survival. They care for each other and the boat. The boat is symbolic of a work of mankind and man's attempts to subdue nature. It is their only hope to fight the onslaught of nature that comes in the symbolic forms of the waves, the sea, and the sharks. They naively believe that if they fight long enough and hard enough, nature will somehow surely let them all live. Readers get this vibe, too, by the end of the story and feel that somehow the men deserve to live. Unfortunately, nature feels no obligation to these men, and they all do not survive.
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Stephen Crane wrote from a Naturalistic perspective. What this means is that he upheld specific characteristics and beliefs regarding how life was portrayed in his texts.

Essentially, the Naturalist believed that life needed to be portrayed as it really was. Therefore, the setting and characters were realistic, the action was believable, and nature was powerful. The narrator of the Naturalistic text was an observer, meaning they only described what they "saw" and did not interfere with the action of the story.

That said, the symbols found in Crane's short story "The Open Boat" are very important when examining it through a Naturalistic lens.

The wave, sea and shark all represent nature in the text. The boat, on the other hand, represents mankind (given mankind created the boat). This sets the conflict in motion. The men are stranded in the boat, or dingy as the text calls it, upon the sea surrounded by waves and sea life. Given that this is a Naturalistic text, nature is far more powerful and takes front stage to the men and their boat.

The imbalance seen, with the small nature of the men and the vastness and grandness of nature, illuminates the power of nature from the very beginning. For the Naturalist, nature's power always won out over man.

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In "The Open Boat," what does the shark symbolize? 

You are only allowed to ask one question so I have had to edit down your question. Please do not ask multiple questions in future.

You might want to think how the presence of the shark ties in with a wider theme in this excellent short story, which is the age-old conflict between man and nature. Crane seems to emphasise the incredibly precarious situation that the men are in by showing how helpless they are in the face of the might of nature. In the context of the times, mankind had experienced the Industrial Revolution and the age of Reason, where more and more about science was being discovered. However, in spite of all the power that mankind had discovered, the men in the "open boat" are still shown to be incredibly powerless in the face of nature.

One way that this is manifested is by the presence of the shark. Note how it is described:

But the thing did not then leave the vicinity of the boat. Ahead or astern, on one side or the other, at intervals long or short, fled the long sparkling streak, and there was to be heard the whirroo of the dark fin. The speed and power of the thing was greatly to be admired. It cut the water like a gigantic and keen projectile.

Note how the narrator focuses on the beauty and strength of the shark. It is shown to be elegant, graceful and all-powerful in its environment, like a "gigantic and keen projectile." The men are forced to realise that this is yet another example of how puny they truly are in the face of nature, where at any moment, a wave or a shark could be the end of them.

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

"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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