“The Open Boat” is based on Stephen Crane’s own experience of a shipwreck in 1897. Crane had been working as a war correspondent when he sailed for Cuba on the ship Commodore. He was stranded in a lifeboat with three other men for thirty hours. Three of the men made it to land, but as in the story, the fourth, an oiler, drowned while attempting to swim to shore.
Crane’s depiction of the harsh forces arrayed against the shipwrecked men marks the story as an example of literary naturalism, a genre closely related to literary realism. Both schools champion realistic detail over idealized pictures of the world. Naturalism, specifically, tends to focus on the plight of humans in the face of larger forces—often society, but also the overwhelming, indifferent forces of nature.
The correspondent’s sense of this indifference is one of the key developments in “The Open Boat.” One thought returns to the correspondent again and again as the ordeal continues: Why should he (and the others) have to endure so much, to come within sight of land, only to drown just before reaching shore? The devastating injustice of this haunts him. This feeling might just be a temporary loss of faith in providence, but it is proven apt in the case of the oiler, who indeed drowns just on the brink of making it to shore. The story meditates on these questions further when the correspondent comes to the conviction that nature does not care about his personal fate. Nature’s indifference cannot, however, take away the correspondent’s own sense of his ineluctable importance: Unimportant though he may be, he loves himself.
Crane’s style of realism is also distinctive and groundbreaking in the way in which it focuses on the minute-by-minute thoughts and emotions of the men, particularly of the viewpoint character, the correspondent. In this way the story resembles Crane’s most famous work, the novel The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895). Like “The Open Boat,” The Red Badge of Courage follows the reactions of a single man, a soldier, under extreme duress. In both stories, Crane traces the sometimes contradictory, sometimes unheroic inner life of a person who might outwardly appear to be resolute and unemotional.
Although Crane does not similarly enter into the minds of the other men in “The Open Boat,” he allows their seemingly casual remarks to reveal their inner states. The men’s conversations about the house of refuge, the likelihood of rescue, and the chances of making it to shore veer between alarm and casual certainty. After one man expresses an opinion, the others contradict him, revealing the continuing tension between the two states of mind. Near the end of the novel, the correspondent becomes so exhausted that he says that drowning would be easy and comfortable; only then can he admit to himself that throughout this ordeal he has been terrified that drowning would be agony. Crane’s observations on the mental and emotional processes of men in desperate trouble are acute. The story also brings home the tragic ironies of such situations, such as the correspondent’s studied casual remark on being saved, as if he is unmoved by his ordeal, only to have his casual demeanor made wholly inappropriate by the discovery of the death of the oiler. Such incisive observation and trenchant irony makes “The Open Boat” a landmark of literary naturalism.