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"The Open Boat" begins with "None of them knew the color of the sky." The story ends with ". . . they could then be interpreters." That is, the men in the boat could then interpret nature, "the great sea's voice." These bookends suggest that the men initially can not make sense of nature or their place in it, but by the end they do have some new understanding which, being an interpretation, must be subjective.
There are times when the third-person narrator describes or speculates what all the men are/might be thinking. In Section II, the narrator says, "To express any particular optimism at this time they felt to be childish and stupid, but they all doubtless possessed this sense of the situation in their mind." So, to begin they are cautiously optimistic and we see this on the following page when the correspondent tries repeatedly to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse.
In Section III, the correspondent, a writer taught to be skeptical of human generosity, recognizes the profound comradeship he shares with the other men as they are in a life and death situation. When they hear the surf on the shore, all four, correspondent included, enjoy a "quiet cheerfulness" as they approach the shore.
However, when there are no signs of life from the alleged "life-saving station" the men become pessimistic. Here in Section IV, the narrator supposes what each man might be contemplating:
"If I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned--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?"
After a miscommunication with someone on shore, the men become even more frustrated and the narrator repeats the complaint "If I am going to be drowned . . ." which suggests that the men are questioning the purpose of existing in a world where nature is indifferent or hostile to their existence. When the oiler, captain, and cook fall asleep, the correspondent is now alone questioning his existence in a seemingly meaningless world. He spots a shark and longs for one of the men to wake up so he doesn't feel so alone in this battle with the sea, wind, and now a shark.
In response to nature's seeming indifference to he and the men, the correspondent meditates on a new found empathy and sympathy with a dying soldier he had learned of as a child. By this point, the correspondent saw nature as perfectly indifferent. He then focuses on his own life with remarkable clarity about his successes, failures, and how he might improve himself. It is a classic, "If I get out of this alive, I'm going to be a better person."
When the boat capsizes, the correspondent considers the possibility that acknowledging death might be a relief in spite of the agony of drowning. A lucky wave tosses the correspondent to shallow water. In the end, the correspondent surely has a renewed appreciation of life but his new knowledge of nature, of being an interpreter of "the great sea's voice" is ambiguous. Despite that lucky wave, does he still see nature as indifferent? He does understand the profound camaraderie one can only experience when facing death with others. He also has a better understanding of empathy as he felt sorry for the soldier in Algiers as well as the oiler. Although still unsure of man's significance in nature, he does change his perspective on human nature with a new sense of connectivity.
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