What are the qualities of the sea that contribute to the power of Crane's story, "The Open Boat"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Herman Melville once remarked that he learned all he knew of life from the sea. Indeed, the sea seems a world of its own in "The Open Boat." In this naturalistic short story, Crane's opening paragraph places focus upon the monumental significance of the sea as the water is all that the men stranded in the boat perceive-- 

None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them.

Adding to the power of the ocean as a controlling force in the lives of the survivors of the shipwreck is the great expanse of the ocean that the men sense as the boat rises and falls upon the waves, creating a horizon that 

narrowed and widened and its edge was jagged with waves that thrust up in all points like rocks.

So overpowering is the force of these jagged waves that spill into the small boat that the men must put all their energies into bailing out the water and trying to steer the boat toward a shoreline. Truly, the sea demands the entire focus of the men as they find themselves mere pawns of the rolling and threatening waves. Crane creates this controlling environment with description: 

...this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn....

In fact, the sea in its natural puissance creates a formidable world, one that in its largesse and deadly potential which is beyond the control of man is, moreover, indifferent to him. In their helplessness and despair, the absurdity of their human condition, the men call upon the capricious gods of the sea,

“If I am going to be drowned... why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?

Certainly, the power of Crane's story emanates from the world that the indifferent sea becomes for the men struggling to survive upon it. Because of its expansiveness, it becomes an endless and sinister threat and a massive adversary that makes its deadly moves with caprice as evinced by the death of the best of sailors, the oiler. Indeed, no other natural force can be as eternal and capricious as this sea upon which Crane's characters struggle.

Read the study guide:
The Open Boat

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