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...
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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 of the correspondent: ‘‘He thought: ‘Am I going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?’ Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.’’ This passage suggests the absurdity of an individual’s sense of self-importance against the mindless power of nature.
The heroism of the individuals in the story comes from their grim determination and human camaraderie in trying to overcome their situation. Crane creates a kind of collective consciousness for the crew by alternating the perspective from which the story is told, which includes each of the crew members as well as the vantage point of an objective observer. Often, it is not clear whose point of view is predominant at a given time. In this way, the reader is given the sense that all of the crew members share similar feelings about their predicament. In addition, each character contributes to the effort to save the group: the injured captain navigates, the correspondent and oiler take turns rowing, and the cook maintains lookout. None of them complain about the division of tasks, or betray any wish to improve their own chances of survival over the others. In a striking passage, the depth of their camaraderie is revealed: ‘‘They were friends, friends in a more curiously ironbound degree than may be common.… There was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.’’ Paradoxically, the harrowing hours on the rough sea is both terrifying and ‘‘the best experience’’ of their lives. Comprehending the cold indifference of the universe to their plight, the men rely on each other in the understanding that— if nothing else—they share the same predicament and are not alone in the world. In a strangely Darwinian scene, their return to a primitive state of nature in the ‘‘struggle for life’’ does not reduce the men to savages but rather affirms their humanity.
The Darwinian implications of ‘‘The Open Boat’’ demonstrate Crane’s interest in the philosophical ideas of the literary Naturalists. A European variant of the Realist movement, the Naturalists sought to integrate deterministic philosophies such as Darwinism or Marxism into their literature. The Naturalists emphasized the hidden forces or ‘‘natural’’ laws that affected what Darwin called the ‘‘struggle for life.’’ They were intensely concerned with the question of whether human beings could exercise control over their fate, or whether their fate was entirely determined by their environment. In ‘‘The Open Boat,’’ the fate of the four men would seem to rest mostly in the hands of forces beyond their control. For instance, when the correspondent makes his attempt to swim ashore he gets caught in a underwater current that prevents his progress. Literally and symbolically, he is trapped by an invisible force—a current—which he can neither understand nor escape. For unknown reasons, the current suddenly frees him and he is washed ashore by a giant wave. In this description, it would seem that Crane attributes the correspondent’s survival more to uncontrollable forces than to his own efforts.
Crane departs from the Naturalists, however, in that he does not posit the existence of any discernible ‘‘laws of nature.’’ Nature, in the story, is incomprehensible to man and probably without ultimate meaning or purpose. In an ironic reversal of the Darwinian rule of the ‘‘survival of the fittest,’’ the only member of the crew to perish in the ordeal is the oiler, who had seemed the most physically ‘‘fit’’ to survive. While it is possible to interpret the oiler’s death as a heroic sacrifice—suggesting that he exhausted himself rowing the boat for the others—it seems more in keeping with the theme of the story that the oiler was simply unlucky. For Crane, nature is chaotic and takes no account of human struggles. In the most famous passage from the story, the correspondent imagines that a tall windmill on shore with its back to the men is the personification of nature: ‘‘It represented to a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But, she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.’’ This realization haunts the men as they attempt to save themselves. Their heroism comes from their desire to live, and from their human dignity and camaraderie regardless of nature’s indifference.
The suggestion that the perilous hours on the open boat constituted ‘‘the best time of their lives’’ presents the idea that their understanding of the human condition can only come when confronted with the probability of imminent death. Each of the characters acquires what Crane calls a ‘‘new ignorance of the grave-edge.’’ It is interesting that Crane refers to this understanding as ‘‘ignorance’’ rather than ‘‘knowledge.’’ Being at the mercy of fate has demonstrated to them how wrong their previous beliefs about their own importance had been—they revert to a kind of primitive innocence. The correspondent thinks about a poem in which a French soldier dies, unceremoniously, far from his home and family. Realizing that he faces a similarly senseless death, he finds the true meaning of courage and heroism in the simple will to survive. Once the survivors are safe from danger, however, death’s senselessness is quickly forgotten. The last line of the story has the men looking out upon the sea once again deluded into believing they can make sense of it: ‘‘When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.’’ With the death of the oiler and the rescue of the others, the bond between the men is broken and each is left to believe that his experience and particular reason for survival has some larger meaning. Their brief moment of human brotherhood and understanding ends with their rescue.
Compared to his journalistic account of the Commodore’s shipwreck in ‘‘Stephen Crane’s Own Story,’’ Crane’s fictional account, ‘‘The Open Boat,’’ possesses a depth of philosophical meditation and symbolic meaning that raises it far above simple Realism. While the descriptive quality of the story is vivid and evocative, it is more than a straightforward realistic telling of an actual event. Crane uses the incident to question the possibility of human understanding of nature, and to pose a definition of heroism constituting a selfless brotherhood in the struggle for life. Under adverse circumstances, the men experience a rare connection as fellow beings united in their helplessness before the power of nature, and in their silent recognition of its indifference to their struggles. This moment of heroic transcendence is fleeting, however, as the men return to the false security of human society in the end. A triumph of short fiction, Crane’s ‘‘The Open Boat’’ explores the mysteries of nature and human life on many levels.
Source: Mark Elliot, ‘‘‘Interpreting’ the Uninterpretable: Unreasoning Nature and Heroic Endurance in Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Elliot is a Ph.D student in history at New York University. With a strong background in American literature, he is a former editor of ‘‘New England Puritan Literature’’ for The Cambridge History of American Literature.
‘‘The Open Boat’’ (1898), one of America’s finest short stories, describes the adventure that satisfied Crane perhaps most fully. He said once that he wanted to go ‘‘to some quarter of the world where mail is uncertain.’’ He did just that when he accepted Bacheller’s assignment in November, 1896 to cover the Cuban Revolution. Thick fog enshrouded the St. Johns River as the Commodore set sail from Jacksonville with Crane aboard. Although Captain Edward Murphy had taken the precaution of hiring a local pilot to help the vessel out of the harbor, it struck a sand bar. The following morning, the Commodore was towed free, but Murphy neglected to review the damage done the ship, which continued on into deeper waters. By the time the leak was discovered, there was no hope of saving the ship. Although the Captain tried to steer it back to the harbor, the pumps and engines gave out and it foundered. Passengers and crew were ordered into the lifeboats. Crane’s conduct during this harrowing ordeal was superb: he soothed frightened men, helped bail out water, and acted like a born sailor. After the crew was in the lifeboats, Crane, the Captain, the cook and the oiler climbed into a ten-foot-long dinghy.
Although the boat managed to stay afloat on the high seas, Crane’s harrowing experience was far from over. The mate’s lifeboat capsized and the men on it drowned. Crane was deeply moved by the courage of the sailors who drowned: no shrieks, no groans, only silence.
The remaining lifeboats reached land the following day. The dinghy, however, could not get ashore because of the rough surf and so remained out at sea. No one on shore could see or hear the men in the dinghy. The captain fired his pistol but to no avail, and the men were forced to spend another night in the dinghy, rowing frantically to prevent being swallowed up by the rough seas. They then decided to row to Daytona Beach and try to make it through the breakers there. But the boat overturned, and they had to swim. A man on the beach saw what happened and ran for help. All but the oiler were saved.
‘‘None of them knew the color of the sky,’’ is perhaps one of the most celebrated opening lines of any short story. The opening line conveys the fierce struggle between finite man and the infinitude that engulfs him—as in Melville’s Moby-Dick. The sea for Crane, as it is for Melville, is ‘‘the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.’’
The men’s agony at not knowing their fate is underscored by the power of those surging waters— waves that could sweep the men under at any moment. ‘‘The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.’’
Man, like the helpless survivors in the boat, is thrust here and there and floats about in utter helplessness. No matter how hard people try to fix and direct themselves, they are castaways. Salvation—if there is one—lies in the bonds between men that assuage their implacable solitude.
The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal. As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously high. The manner of her scramble over these walls of water is a mystic thing, and moreover, at the top of them were ordinarily these problems in white water, the foam racing down from the summit of each wave, requiring a new leap, and a leap from the air.
Crane’s use of changing rhythms throughout the tale points up the terror of the dinghy’s passengers and exemplifies the utter senselessness of existence itself.
Crane suggests that if an observer were to look upon the events objectively, viewing them ‘‘from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque. But the men in the boat had no time to see it, and even if they had had leisure, there were other things to occupy their minds.’’ Values of virtue, bravery, integrity were once of importance, but now are meaningless in a godless universe where nature observes impassively human despair and frustration. Yet, the harrowing sea journey creates a new morality, which gives fresh meaning to life: ‘‘the brotherhood of men … was established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.’’ Comfort and feelings of well-being emerge as each helps the other assuage his growing terror.
In the midst of fear and harrowing terror, there is also irony and humor:
If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble. The whole affair is absurd.… But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. Not after all this work.
A mystical relationship exists between the men in the dinghy—and the sea and heavens. Crane feels compelled to point out man’s smallness, to set him back into nature and reduce him to size.
Conversations between the oiler and the cook, seemingly trivial, since they revolve around food— ‘‘What kind of pie do you like best?’’—serve in reality to point out the absurdity of humankind’s preoccupations. They also act as a way of dispelling progressive terror. As for the captain, he is ridiculed; the men laugh at him, again distracting themselves from their great fear of death.
The sight of a shark heightens the men’s dreadful tension. Crane does not mention the shark by name, but the reader can almost hear the shark’s fin cut the water’s surface and see its phosphorescent gleaming body. Like the survivors of ‘‘Raft of the Medusa,’’ whose harrowing episode is famous in French maritime history, the men in the dinghy do not know there is a lifesaving station twenty miles away.
When the ordeal is over, the men, safely on land, look back at the water: ‘‘white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.’’ The narrator’s voice withdraws, as it were, from the chaotic drama, introducing a sense of spatial and temporal distance. Comfortable on land, the narrator can indulge in the luxury of waxing poetic and thus transform subjective emotions into a work of art.
Its poetry and rhythmic schemes make ‘‘The Open Boat’’ the match of Melville’s ‘‘White Jacket’’ and the best of Jack London and Joseph Conrad. This tale’s unusually punctuated sentences of contrasting length simulate the heart beat of man under extreme stress, producing an incantatory quality. 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....
Source: Bettina L. Knapp, ‘‘Tales of Adventure,’’ in Stephen Crane, Ungar Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 145-62.
Only the most primitive critical response would insist that Crane’s fictional treatment of his experience of shipwreck off the Florida coast on New Year’s Day 1897 could have been drawn directly and transparently from immediate life, that the author, moreover, had only to recall the details of existence aboard the small open boat, along with his moment-by-moment reactions to his plight and situation, to produce his ‘‘tale intended to be after the fact,’’ as he described the story. In this note I shall attempt to show how in two key instances in ‘‘The Open Boat’’ Crane drew upon memories of his reactions to three texts: one poetic, one expository, and one visual.
Poetic and Visual In an early review of The Open Boat and Other Stories, the London Academy called Stephen Crane ‘‘an analyst of the subconscious.’’ To give ‘‘a faint notion of the curious and convincing scrutiny to which, through some forty pages, the minds of the crew are subjected’’ in the book’s title story, the anonymous reviewer quotes two passages: the first is the ‘‘If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned’’ question that the correspondent poses to himself at various moments; the second is the correspondent’s meditation on the ‘‘soldier of the Legion’’ dying in Algiers. It is the second instance that interests us here.
Having long since enlisted in what he called the beautiful war for realism, the young author nevertheless had reached back for a schoolboy’s memory of Mrs. Caroline E. S. Norton’s poem, ‘‘Bingen.’’ ‘‘A verse mysteriously entered the correspondent’s head,’’ writes Crane; ‘‘he had even forgotten that he had forgotten this verse, but it suddenly was in his mind:’’
A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, There was lack of woman’s nursing, there was dearth of woman’s tears; But a comrade stood beside him, and he took that comrade’s hand, And he said: ‘‘I never more shall see my own, my native land.’’
These, the opening lines of Mrs. Norton’s poem, with some twenty words silently omitted at the very middle of the verse, Crane drew upon to render the emotional state of his castaway narrator. It was the pathos of the soldier, dying far from his homeland, in the throes of defining his hopeless situation and his unavoidable fate that came suitably to the writer’s hand. Crane tells us that the correspondent ‘‘had been made acquainted’’ with the soldier dying in Algiers ‘‘in his childhood,’’ even as Crane had probably discovered Mrs. Norton’s poem, its title expanded to ‘‘Bingen on the Rhine,’’ in his grade-school reader. (Over the years at random I have picked up copies of three such readers—National Fifth Reader (1870), Lippincott's Fifth Reader (1881), and Swinton’s Fifth Reader (1883)—and in what must be a measure of the poem’s popularity, each one of them prints "Bingen on the Rhine.’’) It is equally clear, however, that Crane’s knowledge of Mrs. Norton’s poem went beyond the unadorned reprintings in grade-school texts, for his description of the dying soldier and the setting for his death elaborate on Mrs. Norton’s text. Crane expands,
The correspondent plainly saw the soldier. He lay on the sand with his feet out straight and still. While his pale left hand was upon his chest in an attempt to thwart the going of his life, the blood came between his fingers. In the far Algerian distance, a city of low square forms was set against a sky that was faint with the last sunset hues.
There is nothing in the lines Crane quotes to validate the correspondent’s view of the dying soldier, though the clause ‘‘the blood came between his fingers’’ expresses concretely what the poem, in a clause omitted by the correspondent, states more abstractly as ‘‘while his life-blood ebb’d away.’’ It could be argued, of course, that in having the correspondent elaborate on the original lines of ‘‘Bingen,’’ Crane was merely exercising a writer’s legitimate license. It is more likely, however, that Crane was also familiar with a particular reprinting of Mrs. Norton’s poem, an edition in 1883 featuring illustrations by William T. Smedley, Frederic B. Schell, Alfred Fredericks, Granville Perkins, J. D. Woodward, and Edmund H. Garrett. Published in Philadelphia by Porter and Coates, this edition appeared more than three decades after the first publication of the poem and six years after the poet’s death. Crane’s paragraph of ‘‘elaboration,’’ it seems likely, draws directly on two illustrations by Smedley keyed into the lines ‘‘a Soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers’’ and ‘‘His voice grew faint and hoarser.’’ Since the soldier does not hold his hand over his heart, as Crane has it, it is unlikely that Crane had Smedley’s illustration before him as he wrote—though it is possible, one should note, that the ‘‘light’’ patch just below the soldier’s throat might well have been remembered by Crane as the soldier’s ‘‘pale left hand.’’ But the soldier’s feet, both in story and illustration (if not in the poem), are ‘‘out straight and still.’’ And the soldier’s death in both story and illustration (though not in the poem) plays itself out against ‘‘the Far Algerian distance, a city of low square forms … set against a sky that was faint with the last sunset hues.’’ It should surprise no one that we have here still another instance of Crane’s translation of visual experience into the stuff of fiction.
Expository The major lines of Crane’s imagination were set by his familial concerns with matters of religion and warfare, particularly as that imagination shaped his early work. Indeed, … Crane saw the events aboard the ‘‘open boat’’ and subsequently out of it and in the ocean as ironically bringing to question the tenets of Christian consolation. This he did in the broadest context, playing off the configuration of events against the trope of the Pilot-God and his Ship-World. Parables of man (a pilgrim) sailing in a lifeboat (belief in Christianity) on the rough seas (life in the world), dating from the Middle Ages were abundant in Crane’s time in religious tracts and emblem books. Such parables also appeared in textbooks used in the public school system. These later, however, were demythologized. There were no longer any Christian referents in stories of shipwreck in the grade-school readers issued by Lippincott’s and Swinton’s. Typical of these is the following excerpt, the concluding paragraphs of an account entitled ‘‘A Ship in a Storm,’’ taken from a typical grade-school reader:
On the dangerous points along our sea-coast are lighthouses, which can be seen far out at sea, and serve as guides to ships. Sometimes the fog is so dense that these lights can not be seen, but most light-houses have great fog-bells or fog-horns; some of the latter are made to sound by steam, and can be heard for a long distance. These bells and horns are kept sounding as long as the fog lasts.
There are also many life-saving stations along the coast where trained men are ready with life-boats. When a ship is driven ashore they at once go to the rescue of those on board, and thus many valuable lives are saved.
This account stresses not loss of life, but the saving of it. The efficacy of strategically placed light-houses and life-saving stations is indicated, the implication being that man is capable of mitigating and diminishing the dangers posed for him by a destructive sea. Many valuable lives are otherwise saved because of man’s foresight in creating and skillfully deploying life-saving stations. This is the lesson of this grade-school account, and it is a lesson remembered (and subsequently tested) by the correspondent and his companions—babes in the wood—in the open boat.
‘‘There’s a house of refuge just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light, and as soon as they see us, they’ll come off in their boat and pick us up.’’
‘‘As soon as who see us?’’ said the correspondent. ‘‘The crew,’’ said the cook.
‘‘Houses of refuge don’t have crews,’’ said the correspondent. ‘‘As I understand them, they are only places where clothes and grub are stored for the benefit of shipwrecked people. They don’t carry crews.’’
‘‘Oh, yes, they do,’’ said the cook.
‘‘No, they don’t,’’ said the correspondent.
‘‘Well, we’re not there yet, anyhow,’’ said the oiler, in the stern.
"Well,’’ said the cook, ‘‘perhaps it’s not a house of refuge that I’m thinking of as being near Mosquito Inlet Light. Perhaps it’s a lifesaving station.’’
‘‘We’re not there yet,’’ said the oiler, in the stern.
Nor would they ever get to it if they were thinking of a life-saving station, for there was not a one on that coast of Florida. (And if they returned their thoughts to houses of refuge, there was none within twenty to thirty miles in either direction, north or south.) Since there were no life-saving stations on the entire Florida coast, what prompted the cook and the correspondent to think that they might be close to one? And on what basis would the cook later say, ‘‘We must be about opposite New Smyrna.… Captain, by the way, I believe they abandoned that lifesaving station there about a year ago.’’ To which assertion the captain answers only, ‘‘Did they?’’
It is possible, of course, that the author of ‘‘The Open Boat’’ did not know, just as his cook did not and just as, possibly, the oiler and the captain did not, that there were no life-saving stations off the coast of Florida. It is further possible that the notion that there would be such stations, even to the extent of the cook’s ‘‘remembering’’ the existence of one at New Smyrna, did not derive from personal experience but was the legacy of an elementary-school textbook. It is no wonder that they argue over the very existence and the probable location of those stations whose crews will save them, elation and despair following one another as they become sure and less than sure about the accuracy of their senses and the soundness of their information. Ultimately, of course, they will have to jettison their hopes for rescue by those who man such stations because there are no such stations anywhere near them. They will brave the unpredictable waves and the surf as each man is forced to strike out for himself.
A concluding point. The grade-school account had begun with the observation that the sea can have two opposing appearances: it can be blue and calm, the setting for joyous peace; and it can be turbulently destructive to human life. Something like this notion had impressed Crane. In a little poem collected in War Is Kind he wrote,
To the maiden The sea was blue meadow Alive with little froth-people Singing. To the sailor, wrecked, The sea was dead grey walls Superlative in vacancy Upon which nevertheless at fateful time, Was written The grim hatred of nature.
In ‘‘The Open Boat’’ Crane had written wryly of those on shore who, certain of the nature of sport in a boat, waved gaily at the men in the dinghy in false recognition of their playful holiday at sea.
For Stephen Crane the task of the literary realist called for creative response to experience in all modes, including those that are literary and visual.
Source: George Monteiro, ‘‘For the Record: Text and Picture in ‘The Open Boat’,’’ in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 11, No. 2, July, 1984, pp. 307-11.