What are the impressionistic elements in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Impressionistic elements in "The Open Boat" can be found in the sensations, emotions, mental associations, and details brought to the forefront of the story by way of the author's use of imagery.

The first details that strike me are the "finely penned" descriptions of the waves.  The impressionist writers tend not to interpret as much as convey details to the reader, so we are led and left to learn how to appreciate the beauty and savagery of each wave as it approaches the men in the boat.

The waves are compared to 'horses jumping over a fence' that is impossibly high.  The waves toss the small boat around (like a "bucking bronco") lifting it high into the air and then sliding it down when the wave recedes--with a bump, and then the men notice another approaching swell of water in the wake of the first one, and brace themselves again and again.

The crests of the waves are described as "snarling;" the foam is like "tumbling snow;" and, the color of the water changes from "slate to emerald-green, streaked with amber lights." (The narrator notes that a preoccupation with death distracts the men from being able to appreciate the beauty of the water, but the reader gets the impression of a living thing.)

Crane provides arresting descriptions of seaweed, and the birds that follow the men.  The "seaweed...rolled over the waves with a movement like carpet in a gale." The birds sat in groups on the water, and the men in the boat envied them.  Upon the surface of the ever-moving water, "the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens...miles inland." The birds stared at the men with "black bead-like eyes." They wanted to shoo the birds but needed to be careful so they did not to capsize the boat. The bird that tries to land on the captain's head conveys a sense of the ominous.

Again, the detail of sounds captures the reader's imagination.  "Finally a new sound struck the ears of the men in the boat.  It was the low thunder of the surf on the shore." Without interpretation, the author brings to our ears not only the majesty of the water, but also the power and death-threat contained in the sound.

The men describe Fate as "an old ninny-woman" who should be "deprived of the management of men's fortunes" if she would bring a man so close to safety only to let him drown.

Other examples include "The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end."

And, "There was a long, loud swishing astern of the boat, and a gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like blue flame, was furrowed on the black waters.  It might have been made by a monstrous knife."

In all of these instances imagery is the primary tool used to accomplish the impressionist's task: to bring images to the reader's mind.  This intent is specifically accomplished by the use of similes, metaphors, and--in Crane's case--especially personification.

Like a gifted teacher, Crane collects the material for his student (using imagery) and presents it without telling his student (the reader) what to think; he leaves the imagery to speak for itself.  The reader interprets and comes to his/her own conclusion to find personal meaning in the literary piece.  The language is evocative, vivid and mesmerizing, transporting the reader to a seat in the boat, watching the sea, feeling the cold and isolation, and ultimately, elation (as well as sorrow) as the survivors find their way to shore.




mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Impressionism in literature applies to the use of a few select details as sufficient to convey the sensory impression of an incident or scene.  Much like Impressionistic art, suggestion and atmosphere prevail over detail.  Like the painter, the author describes, rather than interprets the impressions, sensations, and emotions that constitute a character's mental life. In composition, the main object commands the viewer's attention. 

Stephen Crane's story, "The Open Boat," interestingly, is based upon a real incident in Crane's life in which he was a passenger on a ship that sank off the coast of Florida; he and four men were in an open dinghy, struggling on rough sea for thirty hours.  Recording this human struggle in an indifferent universe, Crane utilizes, among others, these impressionistic techniques:


Most clearly, the entire focus on the struggle against nature is suggested in the opening line:  "None of them knew the colour of the sky."  Also suggested is the "subtle brotherhood of the men...on the sea."  The interplay of the characters on this dinghy is, indeed, central to the composition of Crane's Naturalistic narrative.


Crane's use of grey tones creates the atmosphere of an indifferent universe in which the men struggle for their lives against a threatening nature.  The "canton-flannel gulls" come close to the men and stare at them "with black bead-like eyes."  There are "brown mats of seaweed" which appear after the "slaty wall of water"approaches.  Even the men's faces are of this tone:  "In the wan light the faces of the men must have been grey"; as the oiler rows, he is depicted vaguely as "Grey-faced."  The man on the shore is described as a "little black figure."


With a remarkable use of rhythm in this story, Crane constantly suggests and reminds the reader of the motion of the sea.  Phrases have a distict sense of rising and falling, each one different in length, just as are waves:

As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously high....Then, after scornfully bumping a crest, she would slide, and race, and splash down a long incline, and arrive bobbing and nodding in front of the next menace.

Even in his character development, Crane does not make the reader privy to any individual's personal interpretation of the experience, for only in the end can they "grapple fundamentally" with their experience:

The correspondent did not know all that transpired afterward.  When he achieved safe ground he fell, striking the sand with each particular part of his body.  It was as if he had dropped from a roof, but the thud was grateful to him.

More important to Crane is the capturing throughout the narrative of the sights, sounds, and emotions of the possibility of death so powerful that it is incomprehensible, only creating a series of impressions upon the occupants of the small boat that is open to the fury of nature in an indifferent universe.