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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 row the boat and bail water in turns; they have nothing to say about direction or navigation, nor do they want to have a say. Yet the two men are very different in personality. The cook tends to indulge in wishing and sharing his wishes even when both wishing and sharing are destructive to the common good. The cook dreams of pies and says so out loud. He imagines a rescue and spends a great deal of his and the other men's emotional energy on this imagined rescue. Yet the cook is not malicious, simply not thoughtful. He is shown as living on the surface of life and enjoying it.

In contrast is the correspondent, who is shown as contemplative. The third person narrator focuses on the correspondent's thoughts and actions, showing the correspondent analyzing many matters and attempting to understand a larger picture. Yet, we will not ever meet the surface person. We do not know what type of correspondent he is, why he was on the ship, if he is married, or any other humanizing details. These details would destroy the interpretation of the sea of life. The correspondent is simply an intense analytic member of the great brotherhood. Although the men have different personalities, the personalities are unimportant. The importance is the controlling and blending of personalities to form a brotherhood and a universe.


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The injured captain is unable to help row the lifeboat. Having lost his ship, the captain is more forlorn and dejected than the other characters, but he feels that it is his duty to guide the men to safety. He makes the decisions for the crew, and he provides words of encouragement to the men rowing. At one point, the captain seems the least optimistic about the possibility of survival. However, he only once allows himself to express such pessimism, and he quickly reverses himself, speaking as if he is ‘‘soothing his children,’’ saying that ‘‘we'll get ashore all right.'' in the end he survives by clinging to the overturned boat as it is washed into shallow water by the surf. Even then, he waves away a rescuer and points to the correspondent, indicating that he should be helped ashore first.

The cook is described as fat and untidily dressed. He does not help row, but he does work steadily bailing seawater out of the boat. He is the most talkative of the four men, and remains unshakably certain that they will be rescued. When they finally sight shore, and a building, he keeps commenting on how strange it is that the "crew" of what he imagines is a life-saving station has not spotted them and sent out a rescue boat yet. He repeats this long after it becomes apparent that the building is vacant and no one has seen them. He is the only one of the four men in the boat who wears a life jacket. Underscoring the randomness of the natural disaster that has befallen the four very different men, the unfit cook is one of the three who survives, while the oiler, a strong and capable seaman, drowns in the surf just off shore.

The character of the correspondent is autobiographical in nature. Crane was himself shipwrecked off the Florida coast while working as a war correspondent. The correspondent is the only character in the story to whose thoughts the reader is given direct access. As the story progresses, the absurdity of the situation impresses itself deeply on the correspondent's mind. He recognizes that he might drown despite all of his efforts to survive, which causes him to consider the disheartening possibility that nature is indifferent to his fate. His melancholy leads him to imagine his own death as like that of a French soldier in a poem who dies, unmourned, far from his homeland. In the end, the correspondent survives, largely due to sheer luck: a large wave that carries him into shallow water near land.

The oiler, Billie, is the only character in the story whose name is given. This fact has often been remarked upon by critics. He is also the only character in the open boat who does not survive the ordeal. He is the most physically able of the four characters and seems the most determined to survive. The strongest rower, the oiler also makes the strongest effort to swim ashore when the boat capsizes in the surf. Yet his efforts come to nothing—he drowns in the shallow water just off shore while the other characters are saved by what appears to be random chance.

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Critical Essays