“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.
(The entire section is 575 words.)