Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625
‘‘The Open Boat’’ is widely considered to be a technical masterpiece of the modern short story. As far as artistry is concerned, the story's excellence in realism and dramatic execution have never been questioned. As Bettina Kapp wrote in Stephen Crane, ‘‘Crane's sensual images of man struggling against the sea remain vivid long after the reading of ‘The Open Boat.’ The salt spray and deafening roar of the waves pounding against the dinghy can almost be tasted and heard.’’ Many critics have dissected the technical aspects of this story’s Realism and plot construction. John Berryman has composed a nearly line-by-line close reading of the story, demonstrating its tight movement from the opening line to the last word.
On the surface, the meaning of ‘‘The Open Boat’’ would seem rather straightforward. Most contemporary readers of the story recognized the realism in Crane’s approach, but few remarked on its deeper philosophical meanings. It has subsequently become clear, however, how much Crane shared with the more pessimistic Naturalists. Indeed, the most common understanding of the story would point out how it demonstrates that human fate is determined by the forces of nature. But, how does Crane characterize the meaning of nature? The way in which critics answer this question largely determines how they interpret the story. In ‘‘The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existentialist Fiction,’’ Peter Buitenhuis argues that, in fact, the story is not Naturalistic but Existential. To support this assertion, Buitenhuis points out that nature is not governed by any discernible natural laws in the story—Darwinian, Marxist, or otherwise. Instead, the story is about the correspondent’s realization of the absurdity of the human condition. The Existentialists were a school of philosophers in the 1940s who argued that the only possible meaning given to the universe is subjective, that is, a creation of each person’s individual perspective. Donna Gerstenberger has expanded on this position in ‘‘‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective.’’ She argues that the story is essentially an ironic statement about the disparity between man’s belief in a just and meaningful universe and the reality of a world that is totally indifferent to man’s concerns. In contrast to Buitenhuis, Gerstenberger points out that the correspondent never reaches any kind of ‘‘heroic’’ knowledge of man’s condition, but continues to insist on his false ability to ‘‘interpret’’ his experience. Both of these interpretations suggest that Crane may not fit very neatly into the category of ‘‘Naturalist.’’ While he shared many of their same concerns, Crane seems profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of understanding nature, or the universe, whereas most of the Naturalists believed that nature’s laws could be discerned and explained (if not controlled).
In a recent article, ‘‘For the Record: Text and Picture in ‘The Open Boat’,’’ George Monteiro provides evidence that suggests the story should not be too narrowly viewed as a retelling of personal experience. Monteiro demonstrates that Crane’s descriptions closely resemble episodes from other sources, including an illustration, a poem, and a textbook. By drawing these parallels, he shows Crane’s artistry in choosing particularly telling images and episodes to create his fiction rather than simply reconstructing actual events. Finally, James Nagel in Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, suggests that Crane’s fiction mimicked the concepts of the Impressionists in painting. By emphasizing the flawed perspective of individuals, Crane did not simply attempt to reconstruct ‘‘reality,’’ but rather showed that reality cannot be reduced to a single viewpoint. The Impressionists believed that a truly realistic painting should depict the subjective and distorted impression that an image inscribes upon the mind. Nagel argues that in ‘‘The Open Boat’’ the characters are able to transcend this weakness by accepting the inadequacies of their own perspective.