Using only four characters, Crane establishes both brotherhood and individualism. The captain, the oiler, the cook, and the correspondent create a cosmos wherein the men have no actual common bonds. Their methods of earning a living, their education, and their social classes all seem to divide them, yet Crane shows us a very tight union. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893; see separate entry), Crane asserts that because few people care for anyone else, social problems like poverty and ignorance are never defeated. In "The Open Boat," he demonstrates that when people work together they can combat tremendous odds if they do not give in to their individual moods and emotions.
The captain is injured and unable to share in the rowing of the boat. Yet he serves the common good by giving navigational and other direction. He also serves the group by guarding the water bottle so that it is never washed overboard, ruined by salt water, or completely consumed. The men recognize that the captain has the most difficult job. He must set a course, make safety decisions, and decide how to gain the most from the men's efforts. Their obedience to the captain is willingly given. The captain, by tacit consent of the men, functions as a leader and father. Crane points out that even though the captain is forced to lie still he never seems to sleep. His care and vigilance continue throughout the night.
The oiler does the physical navigation of the dinghy, fulfilling the second most skilled job. The oiler will take turns at rowing but his main job is to hold and use a short stick as a rudder. The oiler enjoys having a share of the control and direction of the dinghy. This element of control is mirrored in the oiler's three mild flashes of temper. He is the only person in the story who administers an outright rebuke of anyone. He scolds the cook for discussing food. Later he mildly grumbles about the cook or the correspondent not taking their fair share of the rowing. While his irritability is mild and never to the point of causing disharmony Crane has given us an insight into his personality.
When the cook selfishly gives into his desires and begins describing unattainable food, the oiler in turn selfishly gives into his desire to snarl commands. While the cook is stirring up depression within the group by focusing on the absence of food, the oiler's foul temper is equally depressing, and there is no basis for his grumbling that the cook and correspondent are not taking their fair share of the rowing. Crane does not intend to present the oiler as a villain so much as a divisive element in a struggle for the greater good of humanity. Crane wants us to recognize that the cook's giving into wishful thinking and false hopes are also destructive. Yet, throughout the whole ordeal the men are able to overcome their small differences to focus on the large issue.
The silence of the captain throughout these outbursts is interesting in that it indicates his recognition that to respond to the petty issues gives them too much power and that it is the duty of the leader to remain focused on the real problems.
The oiler is the only member of the group to be given a name, Billy, potentially to help us see that he is a member of general humanity. Billy is the only person to die; he dies in sight of land and rescue when he is hit by the dinghy. The churning caused by the incoming waves mixed with the strong undertow of the Florida coast will cause the dinghy to swamp and sink if the men remain in it or to flip in the air if the weight of the men is removed. The captain warns all of the men to jump very far from the dinghy; Billy does not get clear. Nature, defined as laws of physics, defeats Billy. Yet, true to Crane's final understanding of nature, the same dinghy that kills the oiler saves the injured captain. The captain is able to lean on and float with the dinghy after it flips.
The cook, like the correspondent, fulfills the function of manual labor. These two men...
(The entire section is 1,485 words.)