What are the main themes of Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” deals with a handful of men who have survived the sinking of their ship at sea and who are now trying to make it back to land in a tiny boat. Many of the key themes of the story are implied in the following single passage from the work:

It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingey. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.

The themes implied here include the following:

  • The reference to “the seas” reminds us that some of the key themes with which this story deals are (1) the enormous power of nature; (2) the sheer vastness and size of nature; (3) the insignificance of man in nature; (4) the utter indifference of nature (which actually has no feelings) toward man; (5) the lack of any real inherent meaning in nature.
  • The idea that humans have to struggle to survive in nature and that cooperation among them can give some value and meaning, however temporary, to life.
  • The idea that although human beings may fulfill different functions in life (as the job titles here imply), in the final and truest sense all humans are equals in their efforts to survive in nature.
  • The idea that there is in fact a deep-seated instinct to try to survive, even against the greatest odds.
  • The idea that it is best if humans face their challenges stoically, without undue emotion and without any great complaints.  Notice that none of them men prays here, just as none of them weeps. The lack of praying here and throughout the story, like the absence of any reference to the Christian God, implies that none of the men believes in the existence of God.  In this story as in other works by Crane and other naturalist writers, God is most notable because he seems so obviously absent.
  • The idea that luck is important in survival, but that struggle and cooperation can be as well.





William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main theme of "The Open Boat" is Stephen Crane's favorite theme of the complete indifference of nature to mankind in a godless universe. When the men are finally washed ashore, one of them is drowned and the others survive. It is a matter of pure luck. Nature knows nothing and cares nothing about any of them, and there is no supernatural entity to whom they can appeal for help. They are strictly on their own (which is another theme), and they had better learn to cooperate for their mutual benefit.

Stephen Crane was Ernest Hemingway's favorite writer. It is easy to see why. Hemingway not only admired Crane's philosophy, but he admired him for being a writer who based his works on personal experience.

Another writer who resembles Stephen Crane is Jack London, who was a newspaper correspondent and adventurer like Crane and Hemingway.

hinashahid | Student

Stephen crane has written "The Open Boat" with thorough observation and perfection of thought.This is the story of human struggle.The four men are portrayed struggling and they represent the human race in general.While going through the story ,we get an impression that humans overwhelm the nature,but the outcome reveals that man can never dominate over it.Humans,by themselves think that they have been created to conquer all the forces of nature .The struggle between the nature and man is evolutionary.Man thinks himself to be the   champion and superior of the universe .At his defeat , he is disappointed and seem to surrender completely .Therefore a man continue to struggle and at the end of the day he would get the fruits of his hardships.

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The Open Boat

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