Interpreting the Uninterpretable: Unreasoning Nature and Heroic Endurance in Crane’s The Open Boat
Ever since it was first published in 1897, ‘‘The Open Boat’’ has widely been considered a masterpiece of literary realism. All of the most recognizable elements of Realism are present within the story. In its graphic probing of events and in its objective description of the characters’ psychological state, the story successfully presents a realistic sensation of the characters’ experience without any of the false heroism or romantic plots that characterized other contemporary fiction. ‘‘The Open Boat’’ has no plot in the traditional sense; it is almost a mere description of thoughts and events. In fact, since author Stephen Crane actually experienced the events related in the story when he was ship-wrecked with the crew of the Commodore, one might suspect that the story is not fiction at all. Indeed, the story’s subtitle, ‘‘A Tale Intended to be After the Fact, Being the Experience of Four Men From the Sunk Steamer Commodore,’’ presents the story as if it were a journalistic account. Yet, despite its appearance as an objective narrative, ‘‘The Open Boat’’ raises deeply philosophical issues and is rife with symbolism. When analyzed closely, it becomes clear that a simplistic categorization of the story as ‘‘realistic’’ fiction fails to do justice to the multi-dimensional qualities of ‘‘The Open Boat.’’
A few days after Crane survived a shipwreck off the Florida coast, he published an account of his experience in a newspaper story entitled ‘‘Stephen Crane’s Own Story.’’ It is interesting to compare this non-fictional account with the short story ‘‘The Open Boat,’’ which appeared six months later. In this first account, Crane relates only the events of the Commodore’s sinking, without either the descriptive quality or the access to inner thoughts that characterize the later fictional story. In addition, Crane deliberately leaves out any description of his experience on the life raft, commenting that ‘‘the history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be very instructive for the young, but none is to be told here now. For my part I would prefer to tell the story at once, because from it would shine the splendid manhood of Captain Edward Murphy and of William Higgins, the oiler.’’ In this statement, the theme and purpose of ‘‘The Open Boat’’ can be discerned. Despite the unsentimental realism of the story, Crane sought to portray his idea of the true meaning of heroism. His remark that such a story would be ‘‘instructive for the young’’ is particularly revealing because it links the purpose of ‘‘The Open Boat’’ with that of Crane’s most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, in which a young man’s romantic dreams about courage and heroism are shattered by his encounter with a real war. Henry Fleming, the young soldier, learns that battle is chaotic and meaningless and that heroism has nothing to do with extraordinary acts, but more with the mere luck of survival. Similarly, after Crane reflected upon the events of his shipwreck, he tailored his fictional account of it to the theme of heroism in the face of imminent death. In a perfect metaphor of the forces of nature versus the struggles of man, Crane makes the men on the boat a symbol of the heroism of simple human endurance against an indifferent universe.
Each of the men in the dinghy is faced with the likelihood of his own death. While they row and wait to be rescued, the realization sets in that they are largely helpless in the face of nature’s awesome power. The sea serves as a powerful reminder of the forces of nature: their lives could be lost at any moment by the most common of natural phenomena, such as a large wave, a strong current, an ill wind, or most ominously, a hungry shark. This profoundly affects the men, who feel that it would be unjust to be drowned after all their best efforts to save themselves. In a passage that drips with irony , Crane writes...
(The entire section is 5,174 words.)