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

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Jonathan Beutlich eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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 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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Lorna Stowers eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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