(review date 7 May 1898)

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SOURCE: Review of The Open Boat, by Stephen Crane. Literature 2 (7 May 1898): 535-36.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic surveys the strengths of Crane's short fiction through an analysis of “The Open Boat.”]

For the reader's information, we may say at once that this is a book to read, that is, if the reader does not expect too much from a writer who has been so unanimously praised as Mr. Crane. Nor do we dissent from the praise that has been bestowed upon him, although his admirers have been a little extravagant in their laudation. As far as we can judge—and Mr. Crane has not as yet written a great deal—his position in literature is in some ways peculiar. He has in a very unusual degree the power of bringing a scene, no matter what, before our eyes by a few graphic phrases. His subjects are not always interesting; it is his way of presenting them that is everything. In this respect he resembles those painters who care little for the subject but more for the method of their art, and are called, for want of a better term, Impressionists. To this extent, with his carefully-chosen details, his insistence on the main theme, and his avoidance of irrelevance, Mr. Crane is an Impressionist, and not a mere descriptive writer. His book must not be regarded as a collection of short stories. They are incidents rather than stories, and are selected, not for their dramatic interest, which the author apparently wishes to exclude, but as a vehicle for the telling touches in which he paints aspects of nature, or analyses human emotions. When a writer works in this manner, generally, it must be admitted, with less success than Mr. Crane, his friends as a rule urge him to sustained efforts of which he is not capable, and lament that he does not write a “regular novel.” For ourselves, we see no evidence in these sketches that Mr. Crane is equal to any such undertaking. The sketches are complete in themselves, and owe their effectiveness to that fact, and by no means to their intrinsic interest; nor do they seem to contain raw material that might be further developed. This is their peculiarity, that they all have the one same merit, without which, to say the truth, they would be somewhat poor reading. Some of them are so extremely slight that one is tempted to think that almost any other ordinary incident would have served Mr. Crane's purpose equally well. We can assure him that the value of his work, and the reader's pleasure, would be much increased if he chose his subjects as carefully as the words in which he describes them. In The Red Badge of Courage he had an excellent subject, certain aspects of which are repeated in one of these sketches; the rest, however, appeal too exclusively to our appreciation of his power of vivid presentment, and that, in our opinion, is their chief defect.

Having said this much, it remains for us to show by quotations wherein Mr. Crane's strength lies. “The Open Boat” records the experiences of four men from the sunk steamer “Commodore” who were endeavouring to make the nearest point of the coast of Florida.

It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here 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 was on him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common.

Then, when they near the land, where the boat was certain to be swamped among the breakers:—

As for the reflections of the men, there was a great deal of rage in them. Perchance they might be formulated thus:—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. It 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. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.

Every one in the dinghy was so tired with rowing that:—

it is almost certain that if the boat had capsized he would have tumbled comfortably out upon the ocean as if he felt sure that it was a great soft mattress.

Here, again, is one of many good bits of description from an account of an engagement between Greek and Turkish troops:—

An officer with a double stripe of purple on his trousers paced in the rear of the battery of howitzers. He waved a little cane. Sometimes he paused in his promenade to study the field through his glasses. “A fine scene, Sir,” he cried airily, upon the approach of Peza. It was like a blow on the chest to the wide-eyed volunteer. It revealed to him a point of view. “Yes, Sir, it is a fine scene,” he answered. They spoke in French. “I am happy to be able to entertain Monsieur with a little practice,” continued the officer. “I am firing upon that mass of troops you see there a little to the right. They are probably forming for another attack.” Peza smiled; here again appeared manners, manners erect by the side of death.

We will not say that we have chosen these passages quite at random, but there are many others like them, and they are fair instances of Mr. Crane's style and of his power of rapid and penetrating description.


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“The Open Boat” Stephen Crane

(Full name Stephen Townley Crane;i also wrote under the pseudonym Johnston Smith) American short story writer, novelist, poet, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism of Crane's short story “The Open Boat,” which was published in 1898. See also, Stephen Crane Criticism.

“The Open Boat” is considered to be one of the great sea tales of world literature. The story is based upon Crane's experience as a correspondent shipwrecked while on a filibustering expedition to supply Cuban revolutionaries in 1896. His report of the incident appeared in the New York Press on January 7, 1897, and was written in fictional form a year later. “The Open Boat” pits a handful of men stranded for days in a lifeboat against the destructive power of an indifferent, though violent, sea. Critics note that Crane uses vivid imagery throughout this story to underscore both the beauty and terror of natural forces and to convey the antagonism between the survivors and the sea, which Crane viewed as indicative of the struggle of the all humanity against nature.

Plot and Major Characters

“The Open Boat” is a story divided into seven parts and with a shifting point of view, which functions to illustrate how the incident would be interpreted from the perspective of the four characters as well as an outside observer. The first section introduces the four characters—the correspondent, the captain, the cook, and the oiler, Billy Higgins—who have survived a shipwreck and are drifting at sea in a small dinghy. These four characters are represented as types: the correspondent is a pretentious, erudite, and mocking observer; the cook is fat and comic; the captain is morose and indifferent; and the oiler is physically strong and industrious. In the following four sections, the moods of the men fluctuate from anger at their desperate situation and what they perceive to be a hostile sea to a growing empathy for one another and the sudden realization that nature is not hostile—just indifferent to their fate. When they see a lighthouse on the horizon, their hopefulness is tempered with the realization that it would be too dangerous to attempt to reach it. The final chapter begins with the dawn of a new day and the resolution of the men to swim ashore. As they begin the long swim to the beach, the captain, the correspondent, and the cook swim together and hold onto parts of the boat; the strongest of the bunch, Billy Higgins, swims ahead alone. After the three men reach shore safely, they find Billy dead on the beach.

Major Themes

Critics regard the central themes of “The Open Boat” to be man's eternal struggle against nature, the fragility of human existence, the struggle for survival, and the power of community. The story is viewed as an exploration of human behavior under extreme circumstances and the maturation of man from isolated and indifferent to compassionate and an integral part of society. Symbolically, the boat has been perceived as both a microcosm of society and a vehicle of escape, and the experience on the dinghy as a metaphor for the individual journey to self-knowledge. The story has also been regarded as an apt allegory for Crane's short but eventful life: a constant battle with internal elements that led to his outstanding artistic achievement but also his early death. Commentators have identified Christian motifs in “The Open Boat,” and some view Billy's death as Christ-like. Other critics perceive Billy's death as naturalistic—a strong, vital man losing his struggle to survive in an indifferent world. Others note that because of Billy's strength and generosity he rose above the pathos of his situation and truly enhanced the lives of his community.

Critical Reception

“The Open Boat” has been widely anthologized and is considered among Crane's major achievements in the short story genre. It has been the subject of a myriad of critical interpretations. Foremost, commentators have considered the story as naturalistic, realistic, impressionistic, or existentialist in nature. Recent studies have deemed it a prime example of the genre of literary nonfiction. Stylistically, critics note Crane's use of irony and praise his shifting perspectives in the story. Moreover, they explore his changing tone and narrative style in “The Open Boat.” Several commentators approach the story from an autobiographical perspective to determine how much of “The Open Boat” is derived from Crane's personal experiences in 1896. Others have elucidated links between Caroline Norton's poem “Bingen on the Rhine” and Crane's story. Critics have traced Crane's developing sense of the value of human community from The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to “The Open Boat” and often compare the story to the sea tales of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. Considered a masterpiece of the modern short story, “The Open Boat” remains Crane's most important work of short fiction.

Gorham B. Munson (essay date 1929)

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SOURCE: Munson, Gorham B. “Prose for Fiction: Stephen Crane.” In Style and Form in American Prose, pp. 159-70. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1929.

[In the following essay, Munson outlines the plot of “The Open Boat” and provides a stylistic analysis of the story.]


So much has been said about le mot juste and so little about le ton juste! Yet failure or success in writing depends more upon the latter than upon the first. By an edifying accident, in the collection of Stephen Crane's short stories known in the Modern Library series as Men, Women, and Boats, his greatest short story, “The Open Boat,” was immediately followed by his worst failure, “The Reluctant Voyagers.”

The plot of “The Reluctant Voyagers” was good. Two men bicker with each other at the seaside; they swim out to a raft and bask there; in their semiconscious loafing they fail to notice that the raft has drifted too far from shore; during the ensuing night they are picked up by a schooner and taken to New York Bay; as they, still in their bathing costumes, are being transported by rowboat to the wharf, they quarrel anew and capsize the boat; they are rescued by another boat and landed but for a time it appears as though their oarsman had been drowned.

Such a plot is at once seen to be amenable to a variety of treatments; Crane himself wished to present it humorously, to write a comic story. But he spoiled his intention as soon as he started the tale.

“Two men sat by the sea waves.

“‘Well, I know I'm not handsome,’ said one gloomily. He was poking holes in the sand with a discontented cane.

“The companion was watching the waves play. He seemed overcome with perspiring discomfort as a man who is resolved to set another man right.

“Suddenly his mouth turned into a straight line.

“‘To be sure you are not,’ he cried vehemently.”1

No light touch here! The sparseness of the diction, the brief rhythm, the heavy tone, cause one to expect something tense, as in “The Open Boat”: yet what follows is obviously meant to be diverting. In fact, throughout the entire tale Crane never found the right tone for it, and consequently the reader is continually misled. Therefore, “The Reluctant Voyagers” seems unreal, forced, bad in every respect, whereas it is bad in only one: wrong tonality.

Indeed, an erratic sense of tone was one of Crane's besetting sins as a craftsman. He strikes his tone right in “The Open Boat,” but even in that powerful story there are little stumbles into negligent journalese.


But so strong is the taste of reality in “The Open Boat” that it could survive much graver faults than these little slips. I should like to digress on this theme, the taste of reality, and for another reason than just once again to illustrate the difference between a subject-matter approach and a stylistic approach to the same piece of work. The digression is aimed point-blank at you, the readers of this book. Most of you are Americans and undoubtedly subscribe, if not in words, then in the still more meaningful language of your wishes and actions, to our supreme national cult of comfort. Of you who read this book—for your means, leisure, and habits can be inferred from your interest in our subject—it can be said as an absolute fact: you seldom or perhaps never get a full taste of reality. Generally speaking, though our lives are precariously led, we don't have to pay much attention to the perils—as we would in a time of revolution. It happens to be our lot to experience comfortable lives and to be mercifully treated by circumstances. This is simply a matter of luck, and it may well be that most of us will never feel what it is to stand alone in the universe and to be called upon to make a maximum effort to preserve ourselves.

Stephen Crane may be defined as a writer who wished passionately to taste reality, and he devoted many hours with the pen to the task of at least imagining individual men thoroughly up against it, as we say. (That Crane was eager to take greater risks than literary composition affords is shown by his career as a war correspondent.) He had a stern conception of reality, and it may be, I should like to add, that the situations in which his characters found themselves are quite comparable to the real situation of utmost danger in which the human race may actually be. Blinded by comfort, we do not perhaps see that we human beings, collectively considered, are castaways, up against it, and must fight against virtually impossible odds to win any foothold in the universe. This is going far from our selected field, but I have advised you that this is a digression—with a point.

Here is a situation for a story which Stephen Crane would have loved to write. A friend once said to me: “Imagine that you and I are two travelers approaching a village in Tibet. We are weary from our struggle through a high mountain pass. We do not know the language of the country. We have no money. There is the village a few miles away and night only a few hours off. Furthermore, we cannot stay outdoors in the cold night air of this lofty plateau. We should simply and certainly freeze to death. So we must do something, we must devise a plan, we must tax all our resources, we must make the effort of our lives. Imagine then our emotional state in this situation. Well,” he concluded, “on this occasion we should get a taste of what reality is.”

“The Open Boat”2 is the story of a struggle by four shipwrecked human beings against odds as great as those depicted above. A filibustering steamer has gone down off Florida, and the captain, with his arm broken, the cook, the oiler, and a war correspondent find themselves in a small boat. For two nights and a day, without food, they battle to reach shore against a very heavy sea. The agony of this backbreaking and heartbreaking effort is the theme of the tale.

Such a theme in itself cannot fail to grip the reader, but if the reader reads it as he should, with his experience, its effect will be no transient one, but forever memorable among one's encounters with printed pages. But do not think that one reads with one's experience simply by wishing to do so. There are a technic and discipline necessary, and as these as much as any analysis of style and form are a portion of the art of reading, I shall present them rather thoroughly.


We all know that each one of us has associations with words, and that we cannot help having these associations aroused whenever we read. But apparently it seldom occurs to anyone to make a critical scrutiny of his associations with words. This is rather strange, since we do in fact discriminate between two kinds of associations. Of So-and-so we shall say, “His understanding of the matter is purely verbal,” or “He's just saying words, words, words: he has no experience to back them with.” Or, conversely, we say of somebody: “His words testified that he has actually been through what he has described. He knows whereof he speaks. There was weight behind his speech.” Better yet: make an individual experiment. Contrast the associations with words that one has in speaking of some interval of ennui with the associations called upon in speaking of immortality. The second are sure to be verbal, mere associations with other words, all clustered about a given topic; whereas the former are associations with one's own experience, in this case not a word but a certain state of the emotions. Another experiment can be tried. Make a list of emotional terms: surprise, horror, irritation, anger, fury, panic, reverence, awe, ecstasy, etc. Then in all candor inquire of oneself for each term: have I experienced something for which this word was invented? Quite likely we have not in a number of cases. There are many people, for instance, who have never experienced or seen that extreme emotional state called panic, and for whom therefore panic is merely a word. And as for awe or sublimity, how many can truthfully say, “Yes, in my own life I have found out what these words stand for”?

So we can say that we have two types of associations: verbal and experiential. Now let us put the proposition. The active reader reads with his experience, whereas the passive reader reads with his word associations. To see how this would work out, take the opening lines of Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale.”

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
          My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
          One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'T is not through envy of thy happy lot,
          But being too happy in thine happiness,—
                    That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
          Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
                    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.”

I can read this in the ordinary way. That is, I first of all understand the words, and my mind grasps the contrasted statements that the poet is emotionally and even physically depressed and heavy, whereas the nightingale is light, happy, and buoyant with song. I am also somewhat affected emotionally. The music of the lines has drenched me. I do not know exactly what I feel, but the poet is beginning to manipulate me, and certainly I am induced to read on.

But I resist and instead read over the lines again: this time I attempt to read with my experience. “My heart aches”: I try to summon what actual experience I have had of the meaning of “my,” of the feeling of ownership. For some readers such a feeling may be connected with some article of property, but it just happens that of late I have been too much impressed with the transiency of such articles to feel that I in any sense own them. My feelings of ownership have, in fact, to do with my own body, and I recall one particular morning lying in bed and vividly realizing that the outstretched form was mine. For the next word, “heart,” I assemble certain sensations I have received from the feeling of my own heartbeat. “Aches” happens to recall a specific sharp experience of a toothache last summer, but for this I substitute the delayed recollection of an experience of “heartache” which I underwent six years ago. And so I proceed through the stanza.

When I come to “hemlock” I am, of course, stopped by a gap in my experience. I have no taste sensations to recall, but at least there are visual memories of hemlocks. Nor have I any concrete experience of Dryads a few lines further: the best I can do there is to recollect a few bits of mythological lore and a picture or two.

Obviously, this is a slow way to read—for a time, anyway. But it should be noted that the specimen lines from Keats are very difficult. Let the reader now try a simple descriptive passage from Thoreau, visualizing for each word of a pictorial character, recalling the song of the wood thrush if happily one's ears have ever been delighted by it, and reëxperiencing the sensations of looking into distance and of standing on tiptoe. Each one of our senses has its history, as has also each of our emotions and frames of mind: our repertory of previous responses to life should be at our disposal when reading.

“This small lake was of most value as a neighbor in the intervals of a gentle rain storm in August, when, both air and water being perfectly still, but the sky overcast, mid-afternoon had all the serenity of evening, and the wood-thrush sang around, and was heard from shore to shore. A lake like this is never smoother than at such a time; and the clear portion of the air above it being shallow and darkened by clouds, the water, full of light and reflections, becomes a lower heaven itself so much the more important. From a hill top near by, where the wood had been recently cut off, there was a pleasing vista southward across the pond, through a wide indentation in the hills which form the shore there, where their opposite sides sloping toward each other suggested a stream flowing out in that direction through a wooded valley, but stream there was none. That way I looked between and over the near green hills to some distant and higher ones in the horizon, tinged with blue. Indeed, by standing on tiptoe I could catch a glimpse of some of the peaks of the still bluer and more distant mountain ranges in the northwest, those true-blue coins from heaven's own mint, and also of some portion of the village.”

With practice one comes to be much swifter in relating an item of one's own sensory or emotional or mental history with a given word, but always it requires the expenditure of effort. Effort making, however, can be said to be the distinction between the active devouring reader and the passive devoured reader. And one of the results of this effort directed to the resensualizing of words, the matching of them with the composition of the stream of one's life, is that what is read in this way sticks in one's memory. But, more important than that, one comes to know oneself in a fuller measure, for this method of reading necessitates a growing familiarity with one's past life and makes that past experience accessible.

The gain then is double. The active reader takes a stronger and clearer impression from each word of a writer, and at the same time he revivifies his previous experience.3

This experiencing of words is really the foundation of the art of reading. Above it, as the second stage, comes the observation of literary behavior, that penetration into style and form which is the object of this volume. Above that comes a stage, the most important of all, which, however, I have repeatedly pointed out, does not concern us in our present restricted studies. It is pondering on the meanings, the values, the ends of literature; and on the discipline of pondering, a lengthy treatise could be written. The reader who resensualizes words, who divines the technic, who ponders the substance, can be said really to read: but less than that is either titillation or like playing chess or the attempt to value without accumulating the data for weighing.


One can, to be sure, study the form of “The Open Boat” as one pores over the moves in a chess game, but in what ensues remember that the difference between an art and a game is this: art is a means, whereas the game itself is the end. Anatomically considered, here is the outline of the plot of “The Open Boat.” But the reader is asked to take this skeleton and clothe it with the functions that each member performs in the story, for, to repeat, form is a plot functioning.

(1) There is a description of the situation that makes the story: a frail boat, four men in it, and the heavy waves continually charging at the little cockleshell.

(2) The conversation of the cook, the oiler, and the correspondent ending on a note of grim doubt: “We're not there yet.”

(3) The conversation of the cook, the oiler, and the captain revolving about the terrible question: “Do you think we've got much of a show now, boys?”

(4) The omen of the sea gull.

(5) The sighting of the lighthouse.

(6) The subtle brotherhood that springs up in the boat.

(7) Raising of the sail and the sighting of land.

(8) The smoking of the four dry cigars.

(9) The ominous exchange of home addresses by the four men as they near the surf.

(10) The reflections of the men as they approach the danger of the surf.

(11) The turning back from the shore and the rowing out to sea.

(12) The running man on the beach and the disappointment that follows.

(13) Out to sea again and the gripping of hunger.

(14) The feeling between the oiler and the correspondent voiced in the meek question, “Will you spell me for a while?”

(15) While the men take turns sleeping in the bilge water of the boat, a roving shark appears.

(16) The growth of a feeling of indifference toward human fate on the part of nature.

(17) Dawn comes and the suspicion of nature's aloofness is enhanced.

(18) The men take their boat into the surf and it is swamped.

(19) Swimming in the surf and the additional dangers of an unfavorable current and the wild swamped boat.

(20) Rescue.

(21) The death of the oiler.

(22) The terse conclusion.


The problem, which I am for the most part handing over to the reader, is to assign functions to each one of these items. It is easy to see from the outline that the story moves on two planes. On the physical plane it is developed by reiterated descriptions of the hugeness and might of the waves and the smallness of the boat. On the emotional plane the development proceeds by alternation, the alternation of hopefulness and despair.

In the end I believe all who study the story will concede that it is itself wavelike in form. The reader's sympathy is firmly attached to the four men because of their utmost exertions in fighting the sea, and because of this sympathy the reader shares their suspense and is carried by hope up to the crest of an emotional wave only to tumble into the trough of despair as some new hostile element enters. Finally, in a surf of excited feelings, the story grounds on the shore of its conclusion.

Here then is an exercise which, if completed, should reveal better than any full account by a critic how organic literary form is. But while engaged in that, do not overlook our many other technical concerns with this story. Notice how limited the vocabulary is to words that denote sensible objects and to words that denote emotions. Notice the particularization of the circumstances of the struggle, Crane's much applauded sense of the telling detail. And notice the tone of the story—a tone of seriousness and anxiety. Le ton juste!


  1. Reprinted from Men, Women, and Boats, by Stephen Crane, coyright 1921, by and with the permission of and special arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., authorized publishers.

  2. This story happens to be based on an actual experience of shipwreck suffered by Crane. That he could have conceived it without the experience is shown by The Red Badge of Courage, which, written before Crane saw warfare, is a remarkable triumph of “as if-ness” for him.

  3. Warning: This book contains a fair number of practical suggestions. That is, things to do. They can and should be tried out at once. But many readers have a habit of postponing action on ideas that seem plausible and perhaps beneficial to the furtherance of their aims. Usually postponement is fatal. The new idea is held for a while and then the life goes out of it: it is taken for granted and never really used. In this way, while one's stock of merely verbal information grows, one's experience remains the same, and in the end one becomes incapable of putting ideas into practice.

Principal Works

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The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War 1896

The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure 1898; also published as The Open Boat and Other Stories, 1898

The Monster, and Other Stories 1899

Whilomville Stories 1900

Wounds in the Rain: A Collection of Stories Relating to the Spanish-American War of 1898 1900

Last Words (short stories and sketches) 1902

Men, Women, and Boats 1921

The Sullivan County Sketches (sketches and short stories) 1949

Stephen Crane: An Omnibus (poetry, short stories, and novels) 1952

The Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane 1963

The New York City Sketches of Stephen Crane, and Related Pieces (sketches and short stories) 1966

The Works of Stephen Crane. 10 vols. (poetry, short stories, novels, and journalism) 1969-72

The Western Writings of Stephen Crane 1979

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (novels, novellas, short stories, sketches, journalism, and poetry) 1984

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (poetry, journalism, and short stories) 1988

The Blue Hotel and Selected Works 1991

The Red Badge of Courage, and Other Stories (short stories and novel) 1991

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York) [as Johnston Smith] (novel) 1893; revised as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1896

The Black Riders, and Other Lines (poetry) 1895

The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (novel) 1895

George's Mother (novel) 1896

The Third Violet (novel) 1896

Active Service (novel) 1899

War is Kind (poetry) 1899

The O'Ruddy [completed by Robert Barr] (novel) 1903

The Collected Poems of Stephen Crane (poetry) 1930

Stephen Crane: Letters (letters) 1960

The Complete Novels of Stephen Crane (novels) 1967

Peter Buitenhuis (essay date autumn 1959)

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SOURCE: Buitenhuis, Peter. “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existential Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 5, no. 3 (autumn 1959): 243-50.

[In the following essay, Buitenhuis discusses “The Open Boat” as existentialist fiction, contending that “no story of Crane more profoundly embodies within its structure, style, and symbolism the meaning of experience.”]

Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” is not a naturalistic story, although it has often been labelled as such.1 The protagonist, in the interpretation of his own experience in the boat, transcends the limits of naturalistic philosophy and makes the kind of affirmation that has become familiar to us from the work of Albert Camus and other existentialist writers. No story of Crane more profoundly embodies within its structure, style, and symbolism the meaning of experience. Several critics have examined these techniques, but they have done so without fully relating them to the story's meaning.2 It is the intention of this essay to show how Crane brings his protagonist to the realization of the absurdity of the experience and thence to his realization of the human condition.

A good deal of the criticism of “The Open Boat” has gone astray in assuming that the story is more autobiographical than fictional.3 It was certainly based on immediate personal experience, but even the subtitle confessing as much—“A Tale intended to be after the Fact”—is ambiguous. The whole account of the ill-fated filibustering expedition, of which the escape in the dinghy is only a part, was told by Crane in a newspaper story for the New York Press. This has been reprinted by R. W. Stallman in his Vintage edition of Crane's work. Almost all of the newspaper account is taken up with the departure, voyage, and sinking of the ship. But it seems that Crane is deliberately saving up the dinghy episode for artistic treatment when he writes near the end of the account: “The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here and now.”4 He must have seen at once that the episode, though only inferior material for journalism, would provide him with an excellent situation for the development of his favorite fictional theme.

“The Open Boat,” like The Red Badge of Courage, is the story of an initiation. Unlike Henry Fleming, however, the correspondent, the protagonist of “The Open Boat,” is no stripling. He is represented as an experienced, cynical, somewhat dogmatic individual. His initiation is not into manhood, as is Fleming's, but into a new attitude towards nature and his fellow-men. Crane's remark that the story would be instructive for the young betrays a didactic intention that he did not entirely overcome. His considerable success in doing so is the result of the way in which he portrays the attitudes which the protagonist takes towards the experience and towards himself.

These are attitudes which occur frequently in Crane's work. John Berryman first pointed them out in his book on Crane in the American Men of Letters Series. He noted that Crane often combines the traits found in the traditional opponents in classic greek comedy, Alazon, the impostor, and Eiron, the ironical man, into one character. The impostor, trying to be more than he is, is invariably routed by the ironical man, who affects to be a fool. “As comedy,” Berryman writes, “his work is a continual examination of pretension—an attempt to cast overboard, as it were, impediments to our salvation.” Under the stress which always appears in Crane's fiction, the impostor side of the character is constantly being unmasked by the ironical side. “A Crane creation, or character,” Berryman states, “normally is pretentious and scared—the human condition; fitted by the second for pathos, by the first for irony.”5

This statement exactly describes the situation of the correspondent in “The Open Boat.” Moreover it gives a clue to the central conception of the story, a conception responsible for its peculiar effectiveness. The correspondent's conflicting attitudes are part of a whole series of conflicts and paradoxes that are reflected in the story's rhetoric and symbolism and provide it with its structure.

From the outset it is obvious that the correspondent and his three companions are at the mercy of nature, which appears savagely hostile to them. Their helplessness is captured by the correspondent's image of his companions as “babes of the sea—a grotesque rendering of the old babes in the wood” (231).6 The tiny dinghy can be swamped at any moment by the “barbarously abrupt and tall” waves (215). On the other hand, they are, even at the beginning of the journey, only a few miles off-shore. This is to be no heroic odyssey of endurance. We know soon enough that they have a good chance of getting safely to shore in a relatively short time.

The structure of the story depends on the fluctuating moods of pretension (optimism, assurance) and fear (pessimism, despair) that the correspondent, the cook, and the oiler feel in the course of the journey. The captain, after an initial plunge into apathy, soon demonstrates a stoic serenity that acts as a silent commentary on the emotions of the others. Early in the story, as the men debate their chances of survival, his chuckle breaks through their talk. It comprehends the whole of the experience, expressing “humour, contempt, tragedy, all in one” (218). He is the still center of the story's conflicts. By exploring the fluctuating moods of the others, Crane not only gives form to the story, he is also able to suggest the slow drag of time.

The story is divided into seven parts. The first sets the scene, stresses the selfish concerns of each of the four characters, and briefly defines their individual natures. At the end of the first part there is a conversation (strikingly similar in style to Hemingway's dialogue) in which the cook shows his facile optimism, the correspondent his cynical assurance, and the oiler his common sense. The captain remains silent.

The cook had said: “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.


In the following four parts the men's moods fluctuate between the cheerfulness they feel on sighting the lighthouse to their despair on finding out that they cannot get through the surf to land before night falls. In the fifth and sixth they are shown to go beyond pretension and fear as they work and sleep their way stolidly through the night. The seventh part opens with the splendor of dawn and ends with three of them swimming ashore and the fourth drowning.

To accord with this framework of shifting moods, Crane used several contrasting strands of rhetoric in the story. A good deal of the narrative, like the dialogue, is written in a realistically colloquial, casual, and straightforward style. Other parts are written in a brilliantly “poetic” and rhythmic manner. Still other parts are written so awkwardly and flabbily as to seem like parody; for example, “In a ten-foot dinghy one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves that is not probable to the average experience which is never at sea in a dinghy” (216). It could be said that these and similar shoddy sentences merely show Crane's carelessness. Yet this explanation seems inadequate after taking account of the craftsmanship lavished on the story as a whole. Could it be that Crane is deliberately using a kind of immature “adventure-yarn” style in order to parody the pretentiousness of his own story and also the genre in which it appears to fall? Even if parody is not intended, such flat prose stands in vivid contrast to the “inspired audacity of epithet,” to use Conrad's phrase,7 of, for example, “the terrible grace in the move of the waves,” “the ominous slash of the wind,” and “the whirroo of a dark fin.” Too much of this audacity would cloy. By using prosy idioms, Crane punctures the pretension that the poetic idiom tends to inflate.

The shifting strains of rhetoric reflect the different attitudes that are taken towards the experience. Unfortunately, instead of confining these attitudes to a single character, the protagonist, Crane shifts at times to the points of view of the oiler, the cook, and the captain as well. He was probably trying to emphasize through this device that the experience was deeply shared by the four men, a point essential to the story's conclusion. However, in attributing to the four not only similar emotions but also similar formulations about the nature of existence, he presumes too much on the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Crane also unnecessarily seeks to make his point by using the omniscient point of view. Near the beginning of the story, for example, he writes: “Viewed 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 if they had had leisure, there were other things to occupy their minds” (217).

Seen from a balcony, the four men obviously represent a microcosm of life on a waste of waters. The destructive power of the sea is not only continuously insisted upon but also symbolized from the beginning in various ways: by the “somehow gruesome and ominous” seagull that follows them and by the shark that cuts the water around them like a “projectile.” At the same time, symbolic images remind the men that they are making their way towards their native element. They pass floating “brown mats of seaweed,” which appear to be like “islands, bits of earth.” In an ironic domestic simile, Crane compares the seaweed patches to “carpets on a line in a gale” (218-9). The men can tell from the receding seaweed that they are moving landwards. A little later this progress is made more obvious as they sight a lighthouse on the shore which grows steadily larger.

Their only solid link with the land is the dinghy. This is appropriately compared at first to a “bathtub,” then to a “bucking broncho” which rises to the waves “like a horse making at a fence outrageously high” (216). This absurd use of the pathetic fallacy is justified here, for the gallant boat is emotionally identified with life itself. The sea is animistically pictured as the boat's natural enemy, “the mountain cat.” It “growls,” it “snarls,” it “rages” and “rushes” at the boat, finally catching it near the shore and whirling it almost perpendicular before swamping it.

From the outset the attention of the men is riveted on the colors of the threatening sea, which are grey and white. Grey is the sign of desolation and despair, and is often reflected on their faces. White is used to signify the destructive power of the sea. Like hell itself, it seems capable of torment by both fire and ice. Water swarms “like white flames” into the boat. At the same time it feels icy and looks like “tumbling snow.” This comparison is comically transformed, however, near the end of the story. As the correspondent is swimming to the shore hanging on to a piece of life-preserver, he sometimes whirls “down the incline of a wave as if he were on a hand-sled” (239). Black and red are also used as omens of disaster to the men. Yet their hopes are sustained during the night by someone lighting a watchfire on the beach. It makes a “roseate reflection” against the black. At dawn “carmine and gold” is painted on the waters, and sunlight flames “on the tips of the waves” (236).

This is conventional color symbolism. Yet the duality of the experience is insisted on by the ambiguity of the colors. Land itself, when first sighted, is nothing but “a long black shadow on the sea.” Later on, when it appears more distinct, it is “a line of black and a line of white—trees and sand” (222). The land is not only the element of safety but also the dangerous ledge on which the white waves break. As the correspondent swims in the water, the white slope of the shore and its “green bluff topped with little silent cottages” mocks him by its indifferent proximity. The sea, destructive as it is, at one time beckons the correspondent like “a great soft mattress” (226), and when he sleeps in the water at the bottom of the boat he finds it not only cold but also comfortable. The land, even though it finally generously welcomes the men, also extends to the oiler “the different and sinister hospitality of the grave” (241).

The irony of the situation is emphasized by numerous incidents. The hopes of the men in the boat are mocked by their discovery that those whom they see on shore seem to think that they are out on a fishing trip. A hotel omnibus—first thought to be a lifeboat on wheels—comes down full of holiday-makers to see the endangered men as if to an excursion. Even the situation in the boat itself has its comic elements. Although the task of rowing seems like “diabolic punishment,” the correspondent gets a smile from the others when he tells them how the amusement of rowing strikes him. When, exhausted, the oarsman drops down to rest after his trick at the oars, his teeth “play all the popular airs.” The cook “dreamfully” asks his hungry companions what kind of pie they would like.

The greatest irony of the story is seen when the men approach the shore only to discover that the dinghy would be swamped if they proceeded through the surf. They decide to remain off-shore all night. Crane formulates the thoughts of the men into a kind of choral lament which is repeated three times in the story: “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?” The correspondent wonders if he has been brought here merely to have his nose dragged away as he is about to “nibble the sacred cheese of life.” “If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this,” he thinks, “she should be deprived of the management of men's fortunes. … 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” (224-5). Facing a universe that plays such unjust and incomprehensible tricks on the individual, he rebels, like one of Camus' heroes.8

The absurdity of the situation returns again and again to the correspondent's mind throughout the long night. He contemplates the probability that nature, regarding him as a creature of no importance, is about to do away with him. He feels a desire to throw bricks at the temple, but since there are no bricks and no temple, he then feels a desire to confront a personification as a supplicant and at least proclaim the reality of his own existence by saying, “Yes, but I love myself.”

Then a few lines of verse mysteriously enter his head:

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 lines, discreetly edited, are from a sentimental poem called “Bingen,” written by the Victorian poetess Caroline, Lady Norton.9 For the first time the correspondent appreciates the “actuality” of the poem, originally learnt in childhood. He is moved by a profound and impersonal comprehension. The plight of the soldier, he sees, is his own too. In a sympathy which, however, is expressed in the form of a parody, “he was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers” (233-4).

As dawn breaks, the men see a white windmill on the shore. To the correspondent it is a symbol of nature, but of nature which is neither cruel nor beneficient, merely “indifferent.” Paradoxically, instead of giving in to a similar indifference and yielding to fatalism, the correspondent makes the affirmation of the absurd man.10 He recalls the innumerable flaws in his own life and wishes for another chance. The distinction between right and wrong “seems absurdly clear to him … in this new ignorance of the grave-edge.” Now he sees the futility of self-love alone, since in order to get ashore he is dependent upon the assistance of his companions, as they are dependent on him. Having recognized his responsibility to them, he once more wishes for another opportunity “to mind his conduct and his words. …” To avoid sounding too pretentious, however, he characteristically concludes the sentence “and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea” (236-7).

Immediately after this the boat enters the surf. The correspondent knows that his companions are not afraid, although the full meaning of their glances is shrouded. The comradeship that has been established during the voyage is now to meet the final test. Four individuals have fully realized the meaning of what Crane earlier in the story called “the subtle brotherhood of men” (220).

The boat fills up; the men jump and attempt to struggle ashore. With mutual assistance and the aid of a man who strips and dashes into the water shining “like a saint” (240) three of them get to land. By an unlucky chance, the oiler, whose quiet competence has been insisted on throughout the tale, dies. As the night wind brings the voice of the great sea to the survivors, “they felt that they could then be interpreters” (241). Their hardships, the arbitrary death of the oiler, and their success in getting ashore through united effort have initiated them into the ways of nature and the plight of men; and now they feel they know something that can be of value to other men.

The story itself is the interpretation of the experience to the reader. Crane has taken pains to make it not only particular but also universal in its application. At the beginning of the tale, for example, as the captain lies injured in the bow, he is “buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy-nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down” (215-6). In the course of the journey, however, he rapidly regains his perspective and serenely sustains his role as captain of his three-man crew.

Similarly the correspondent, by enduring this experience, which is the most bitter but at the same time “the best experience of his life” (221), as comic as it is tragic, comes face to face with the absurd nature of existence. When he concludes that nature is not hostile but merely indifferent, he is ready to realize existentially the responsibilities of being a man. Conrad was right when he said that the story “by the deep and simple humanity of presentation seems somehow to illustrate the essentials of life itself, like a symbolic tale.”11 The correspondent's ultimate recognition is that “in the ignorance of the grave-edge” every man is in the same boat, which is not much more substantial than a ten-foot open dinghy on a rough sea.


  1. A good example is Richard P. Adams's study “Naturalistic Fiction: ‘The Open Boat,’” Tulane Studies in English, IV (1954), 137-46. He concludes that the story, although it combines contradictory elements into a “synthesis of great power and beauty,” exposes the “weakness of naturalism as a philosophy and a way of life.”

  2. The most thorough studies are by John Berryman in Stephen Crane, American Men of Letters Series (New York 1950), pp. 277-93; R. W. Stallman in the introduction to his edition Stephen Crane: Stories and Tales (New York, Vintage Books, 1955), pp. xv-xxxii, and notes to the story, pp. 209-14; and Stanley B. Greenfield, “The Unmistakable Stephen Crane,” PMLA, LXXIII (Dec. 1958), 562-72. Berryman's work is the starting point for most recent discussions of Crane, while Stallman has made the first intensive study of the text. Greenfield, in his recent article, criticized Stallman for “distortions” in his reading. He commented on the “richness” of the story, but ignored some of its elements. I believe also that he has overemphasized the role of fate in “The Open Boat.”

  3. A recent example of the biographical interpretation is Cyrus Day's “Stephen Crane and the Ten-foot Dinghy,” Boston University Studies in English, III (Winter, 1957), 193-213. Mr. Day has discovered a number of facts about the actual sinking and the actual dinghy voyage from contemporary records. He points out the discrepancy between the facts and the voyage in the dinghy as portrayed in “The Open Boat,” and concludes on this basis that the story “as a work of fiction must be reappraised.” The essay only makes plain, however, that the story is even less “factual” than has been previously thought. Mr. Day does, on the other hand, usefully point out some howlers in Crane's seamanship.

  4. Stallman, p. 265.

  5. Berryman, pp. 278-80.

  6. Page numbers refer to the text in Stallman's edition of Crane.

  7. Introduction by Joseph Conrad to Thomas Beer's Stephen Crane (New York, 1924), p. 13.

  8. Both the Introduction and Part One of Albert Camus' The Rebel (New York, Vintage Books, 1958) are remarkably germane to the intellectual processes of the correspondent in this part of the story.

  9. The first stanza of the poem runs as follows:

    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, while his life-blood ebb'd away,
    And bent, with pitying glances, to hear what he might say.
    The dying soldier falter'd, as he took that comrade's hand,
    And he said, “I never more shall see my own, my native land;
    Take a message, and a token, to some distant friends of mine,
    For I was born at Bingen,—at Bingen on the Rhine.”

    From The Undying One & Other Poems (New York, 1854), p. 226.

  10. Camus “At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions such becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. … The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays [New York, Vintage Books, 1959], p. 91).

  11. Beer, p. 13.

Ralph Ross John Berryman, and Allen Tate (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Ross, Ralph John Berryman, and Allen Tate. “Stephen Crane: The Open Boat.” In The Arts of Reading, pp. 254-88. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960.

[In the following essay, Ross, Berryman, and Tate investigate whether “The Open Boat” is based on a true story and provides an analysis of the first paragraph and the cast of characters in the piece.]


The other stories we have studied have been definitely stories, invented things. Babel's epic figure Benya Kirk is said to have had an original, or model, in some actual Odessa gangster, but how fully the author's imagination is at work in that story we have seen. A story like Hemingway's “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” comes to us as almost pure invention. Even if Hemingway once happened to witness such an occurrence as he describes and based his story on it—but the word “occurrence” is obviously not a possible word here, is it? There is a café at night, an old man, two waiters talk, close up, one goes away and thinks. The absence of explicit resort to the author's detailed experience of reality is complete.

Stephen Crane's story presents itself to us—or he presents it to us—as a very different matter. The shipwreck, of which the men's experience in the boat is the aftermath, actually occurred, on a definite date early in 1897, and when Crane got ashore safely with the captain and the cook he wrote a long dispatch to his New York paper (he was a reporter) about the shipwreck, which it published. His dispatch does not describe the experience in the boat. Now the story is said by him, in the subtitle, to be “after” (in accordance with) the fact, “being the experience of” and so on. Shall we expect then to hear the true story of the ordeal? It would certainly seem so, and a very interesting article by Mr. Cyrus Day of the University of Delaware has lately appeared,1 studying the story from this point of view: as a full and veracious account of what took place between the foundering and the landing. Mr. Day inquires into the ethics of the captain's having left his ship at all, into the specifications of the dinghy, the speed of the wind at the time of the wreck and afterward (using U.S. Weather Bureau records), the distance from land, Crane's seamanship as an author, the oiler's and the captain's actual seamanship (apparently), and other such matters. He emerges with a rather dim view of most of these topics and appears to feel that he has discredited the story.

But all this has nothing really to do with the story at all, important though it certainly may be from a biographical point of view. It is a little as if we called in a fashion expert, expert in color, to determine whether the sides of the face of the mistress of the Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion, whom he calls “Rose-cheekt Laura,” have been accurately described or not; supposing, for this purpose of research, that we are able to resurrect the lady in something resembling her original condition. The author's intentions—as to which we were quoting Crane—do not matter very much; it is what he does that counts. Besides, we quoted him very imperfectly. He only says “intended to be after the Fact”—a word that recognizes, of course, the impossibility of exact correspondence between any event in nature and any literary account (whether work of art or not). He also says “A Tale,” using a word of which the connotations are (as the dictionary says) “a false story,” “a mere story”; a word rather like the American word “yarn,” meaning a tall tale told by a sailor, partly incredible. Crane used language with great precision. In short, whether we ignore his intentions or take them into account, we may disregard the question whether much of the story is true. Many even experienced readers, like Mr. Day, never learn to do this. Imaginative art takes off from reality (including the reality of the unconscious); but it takes off, becoming something else. As readers we are interested in what, and how.


In investigating these things, our best tacks with “The Open Boat” will be: the first page of the story, particularly its style, and then the story's form-and-outline as a whole. It is misleading, of course, to separate the topics thus into two sections, but it is also not only unavoidable but helpful to the kind of clarity we aim at in this book.

What is the opening sentence of the first page up to? “None of them knew the colour of the sky.” Why are we told first a fact so flat and odd? A negative fact? Perhaps we are being told this instead of something else that we expected to hear. But the story begins with this sentence! you may say. No, it began with its title, and sub-title, and it is in the light of both these that we read the first sentence. Then an expectation has been disappointed; for when one hears of an open boat, and four men in it from a sunk steamer, the first thing one thinks of is the excellent view which they unfortunately have of the sky and their deep interest in the weather that it will be foreshadowing. “Completely wrong,” Crane is saying: “You know nothing about the matter.” Instead, the men are watching the sea, with anxiety about the waves presumably (we do not know yet—the sea may even be calm), and watching the horizon, with an equal anxiety to see it (we do not know yet how far out they are). The line, thus, is far more businesslike than anything one expected. It has the effect, shall we say, of bringing the reader's gaze—as if taking him by the back of the neck—down from the skyey expectations of the title and sub-title to what is level (this word then occurs immediately) and a matter of human efficiency. (The general method of disappointment-of-expectation, which characterizes this story, is an intermittent feature of most literary art; it will be dealt with again when we come to A Note on Prosody, p. 314, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” p. 337.) Crane's opening sentence is anti-heroic, that is to say, standing as it does like a blunt sentry, in the forefront of what looked to be an epic of the sea. Anti-heroic and ironic, in view of the “big” opening (high-keyed, exalted) that the reader presumably expected.

But it is a curious fact that this very prosaic though active sentence makes a line of formal verse. It is an iambic pentameter, what is called a heroic verse, with trochaic substitution in the opening foot (see p. 316 for these terms, or you can look them up in the Glossary). No doubt the line is not so intense or highly colored as the first line of a poem on this subject might be. But the character of the rhythm, being formal, is antithetical to the sentence's anti-heroic muscular meaning and tone. As you can see by now, this author desires to take possession of the reader, on several fronts simultaneously, at once. In a longer analysis, one could do very much with this first sentence. Here, just three additional points. One is slight, that the word “sea” excludes directly any possibility of a lake-disaster, say, and states the true scale of the experience to come. A second is more substantial, namely, that the quality of the thought of the sentence already, here at the outset, forces the reader to begin to think with the men. What looks like an impersonal declarative sentence is really in its effect personal, questioning, psychological. At the end of just a page or so, this process of obliging the reader to enter the boat (and share the men's experience) has gone so far that Crane can say “the faces of the men must have been grey” and we are inside—though not yet with the correspondent, only with all four.

Our third point is formal. We have spoken of complication and resolution, as large sections of a whole literary work. The terms may be applied also, and help our understanding of form, to details in a work. Clearly, Crane's opening sentence, by not being about the sky but about—what? well, something else—introduces a complication: what is the other thing (why were we disappointed?) and what about it? After this short sentence, the longer second and third are not only explanatory but resolving, and the resolution comes in almost the rhythm of the complication: “and all of the men knew the colours of the sea.”

A wave has passed. Almost at once a second wave begins. “Many a man” is mock-heroic in tone (burlesquing heroic style) and the bathtub carries on the low-comedy sense. But the effect of the sentence is not comic. This dry, gay, senseless remark—as one critic has said—enables Crane to contrast, as in a flash of lightning, the most comfortable and sheltered situation conceivable (a bath in one's own bathtub) with on the other hand the sinister wilderness of wave and wind, where a man owns (“ought to have”) nothing except, precariously, his life. But there is something more. A bathtub exists to fill with water—and with this sinister glimpse of the dinghy shipping water (we have not even been openly told yet that she is), the second complication is over. The wave is about to break, and in the famous sentence that follows it does break: “These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall …” The sentence itself appears to swell and tower like a wave in the ear and mind, after the light, odd, little sentence preceding: its long, mournful middle-sounds (“most wrongfully and barbarously”) are succeeded so rapidly by the extremely surprising, fast word “abrupt” and the even shorter, also sinister “tall,” that it is a little as if a comber had loomed and broken over oneself. But the key word is “barbarously.” The men are here in a world that has nothing to do with bathtubs. Civilization has been obliterated, for them, and their ordeal is going to be primitive, barbarous. Notice, finally, that the tone has risen so very high in the part of the sentence we have been studying, that Crane, in order to be able to get on with his narrative, drops his tone sharply in its second half, to make a technical remark; which has also the effect of saying that the barbarous is being confronted, at any rate, with skill.

So much for the opening paragraph, which is certainly one of the fastest, subtlest, toughest operations in American prose. Then each of the four men in the boat has a little paragraph to himself. These need our separate attention, but the first thing to be observed about the four of them, with respect to what we were saying a moment ago, is negative: we spoke of “skill,” and it immediately follows that not one of the four men is a proper sailor. Instead we have men (in poor condition, as it will turn out) from the galley, the engine room, the passenger cabins, and the bridge—and the man from the bridge is injured. It follows that they will not be able to summon much except courage and endurance to save themselves. The author is clearly an author strongly given to irony.

Crane's treatment of the first man, the cook, is the reverse of heroic. There does not seem to be anything wrong with him and yet he is not doing anything; his costume is undignified, so is his speech, so is his fatness, so is the evident fear with which he regards the two inches of gunwale. This general impression is somewhat neutralized, however, by the last thing we hear, that he “invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea.” This tone is more elevated than that of the rest of the paragraph, his intensity is communicated, and, after all, he does seem to be exercising a role: he is lookout.

We might expect, from this paragraph, that the cook would not play a very special role in the story, but rather that of the ordinary guy caught up in a predicament very exceptional. (We would be quite right in entertaining this expectation, as it happens.) You will have noted already that the mock-heroic tone partly characteristic of the opening paragraph makes the semi-clownish cook the perfect character, of the four, to introduce first. However, we may well expect to hear more, and especially more that is emotional or psychological, about the others.

What is our surprise, then, to hear far less about the oiler—almost nothing except that he is steering with a thin little oar and raises his body sometimes to avoid water. Is he going to prove even more insignificant in the story than the cook? Or is the author holding his fire, as with the cook there seems no reason to think he may be doing? All we can note at the moment is surprise.

Of the correspondent we hear, if possible, less still. He is rowing, watching, wondering “why he was there.” But is this less? Surely with “wondering” we enter briefly the mind of the correspondent, as we never did the cook's mind, much less the oiler's. The notion of an explanation for the ordeal begins, with this verb, to reverberate in the story. It is suggested to us, in addition, technically, that at least one of our main points of view—notwithstanding the general tact of Crane's third person narrative—is going to be that of the correspondent.

Now for the captain, and it is obvious, instantly, that one of the things Crane has been doing with the others is holding his fire in order to do a proper job on the captain. Injured, shipless, he is lying down (the others squat or sit), and the quality of his reflection and memory (of his foundering ship) is conveyed by Crane in language which has none of the irony that has characterized the opening page down to this point. The others are anxious, working. He is withdrawn. One realizes at once that his situation is not going fully to be that of the others: in a sense, his defeat has already taken place, Fate can do nothing worse to him. He still gives orders—his “profound dejection and indifference” do not extend to an abandonment of his duty to the others; but he gives them in a voice “deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears,” and one does not receive an impression that the captain's fate is going to be the major concern of this story.

Whom, then, does it seem the story is going to be about?—at the end of this first page, that is; for a good reader is sensitive to as many as possible of an author's announcements and foreshadowings (and omissions, which is often the way announcements are made and suggestions conveyed).

The cook? Hardly. Of course the author may have surprises in store for us; but a good author does not work in terms of surprises so much as of expectation, discussed later. It is unlikely that Crane will have misled us to that extent. The cook—just as we know him so far (and do we ever learn more?)—does not seem fitted to be either the hero or the victim of a tale one of whose keynotes is set by the august paragraph about the captain. We have to say hero or victim, naturally, because we do not know how the story will turn out. But is it likely, do you think, to turn out either a simple tragedy or a simple escape-story?—considering the complexities of tone we have been examining on its first page?

The oiler? Conceivably; for we know nothing about him yet; the author may be making us wait, and it is a little striking that the first thing we learn, after the four characterizing paragraphs, is the oiler's name. Those paragraphs have already made it apparent that we are in the hands of an author who does not lightly reveal his characters' names: he is concerned rather with their roles, perhaps with their fates.

The correspondent? Conceivably; but, if so, in a very different way from the way the story will be about the oiler if it proves to be. The correspondent, as one would expect, reflects and inquires.

Or all four?

A study of the story's form will take us further, now, but you see how intense and elaborate is the initial impression made just by one paragraph and a little cast of characters.


The ordeal dramatized in the story has three parts, each growing out of, and superseding, the part preceding (this is true even of the first part, as will be clear in a moment), and each having a theme different from what one expected. The seven sections into which Crane has divided his story, that is, we may see as three waves. Each gathers, swells, breaks, and is followed by another, until the final word of the story brings the movements to a conclusion. But then this word itself shows that the three movements were one movement only. Far more than is the case even with most really good stories, “The Open Boat” reserves its true meaning to its actual final word.

What would the title, and the initial line of explanation (“A Tale” etc.), lead us to expect the story to be about? Hardship, certainly; fear; the relation between man and Nature. But the first wave of the story (sections I-III) is not about these things, essentially. It is about comradeship—the relation between man and man—and its basic tone is optimistic. At first no land is visible at all, then II ends with a “pin” appearing on the horizon, and the words “serenely” and “cheerful” are applied to the men. Section III strengthens this feeling at its close with the exquisite iteration “Slowly the land arose from the sea. … Slowly and beautifully the land loomed out of the sea,” and the men light cigars. The climax of this wave comes at the beginning of III, with “the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas.” A man, that is to say, in his ordeal, is not alone; he may trust other men, and must, and does, and finds that they will help him. This is a preliminary conclusion, in the light of the rest of the story, but two things are to be noted about it at once. In the first place, it is, for this author, an unusually hopeful way of seeing man's situation. In Crane's earlier works, Maggie and The Red Badge of Courage, and in his later stories, such as “The Blue Hotel,” men are seen as either completely alone or as collaborating into disaster. In the second place, this brotherhood is not arrived at easily or at once. As against the cliché that men in adversity stick together, Crane is careful to show these men quarreling toward the end of section I; so that the establishment of brotherhood comes as an achievement.

The second wave (sections IV-VI) is concerned powerfully to question both this brotherhood and the nature of the ordeal itself. Its tone is very dark; all three of its sections end in gloom.

Already in part one, it was clear that the brotherhood was established against an enemy, the Sea, which is envisaged as animal: “There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests” and “There was a preparatory and long growl in the speech of them.” The nature of this enemy is now to be explored. But the brotherhood itself—to deal with this first—is seen as both partial and incompletely operative. It does not include the men on the shore, who can only stand and wave, not help. So, are men able to help their fellow-man in crisis, after all? Moreover, the brotherhood does not spare the correspondent his agony in the night—though we have to qualify this statement with a reminder that the captain is awake and with him, without his knowing it until later. Men must undergo their crises of rage and fear essentially alone.

To move now toward the nature of the enemy: man's fear is of death, but his rage is directed rather toward what is going to cause his death—that is to say, nature. But is nature man's enemy? To the extent that it is going to cause his death, one would think so. But in that it cannot receive rage, it is not after all an enemy: “he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” The final formulation of the truth about nature is reserved to the third part of the story: here it is enough to know that nature is not an enemy, so far as man's expression of emotion is concerned. Therefore, in one of Crane's subtlest passages (in section VI), the rage and fear are transformed into self-love and self-pity. Nature does not hate man but does not love him either, and does not pity him; and so if he needs these emotions, he must supply them himself. There is irony, of course, even in this view, but it is a tenderer irony than most of Crane's, and the paragraphs about the soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers form one of his most beautiful achievements. (Technically, they get their effect by holding back and holding back in order to accumulate enormous pressure on the simple word “sorry” in the final sentence, making it ring in the mind.)

The dramatization of nature, in the correspondent's mind, as the shark, then, was false or misleading, and in the third part of the story we hear what nature is: she is “indifferent, flatly indifferent.” Emotion directed toward her—anger or entreaty—is wasted. What is wanted is something very different: understanding of her. With this conception, however, we are approaching the word with which the story ends, and before entering on that final subject it is necessary to understand the death of the oiler.

The oiler's death is the price paid by the men for the salvation of the other three. He dies as a sacrifice. Nature is indifferent, but the arrangements of nature—so to put it—exact tribute. From the narrative point of view, it has to be the oiler who dies because of the disqualifications of the other three. The cook is lacking in dignity, the correspondent is the perceiving mind, and the captain is already injured (a sacrifice must be in perfect condition). But somebody must die; man (the four men in the boat) does not escape scot-free from ordeal; and so the oiler perishes.

And now for the word “interpreters,” toward which the entire story has been moving.

This unexpected and dramatic word lifts the story explicitly to a plane that has earlier only been implied. The experience, and only the experience, of nature's most dangerous and demanding ordeals, fits man to do what it is most his duty and power to do: to explain—explain what nature is, what man is, what matters. The whole story, then, has in some sense been a metaphor, and the ordeal of the boat only an instance of what can happen to man and what it means, what qualities the experience of nature requires. The best imaginable comment on Crane's word “interpreters” is the splendid passage with which William Faulkner closed his Nobel Prize address in 1950. “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”


  1. “Stephen Crane and the Ten-foot Dinghy,” Boston University Studies in English (1958) iii, 193-213.

Mordecai Marcus (essay date April 1962)

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SOURCE: Marcus, Mordecai. “The Three-Fold View of Nature in ‘The Open Boat’.” Philological Quarterly 61, no. 2 (April 1962): 511-15.

[In the following essay, Marcus delineates Crane's changing view of nature in “The Open Boat” as“malevolently hostile, then as thoughtlessly hostile, and finally as wholly indifferent.”]

Most commentators on Stephen Crane's story “The Open Boat” remark that it shows nature as indifferent or as simultaneously indifferent and cruel. I believe, however, that the story's major themes and structure grow out of a slowly changing three-fold view of nature which is revealed in the characters' thoughts: they see nature first as malevolently hostile, then as thoughtlessly hostile, and finally as wholly indifferent. This progress of ideas also accompanies the men's deepening concept of brotherhood. Although three discussions of the story, one by Ray B. West, Jr. and Robert W. Stallman,1 and the others by Richard P. Adams2 and by Stanley Greenfield,3 do give attention to a conflict between the ideas of a hostile and an indifferent nature, they neglect its stages, its psychological meaning, and its resolution. The idea that nature is indifferent does not come as “a revelation to the correspondent when the men are stalled within sight of land,” as Greenfield maintains (p. 564), but rather grows out of a progressive change of thought.

All of these critics observe that in addition to the concepts of a hostile and an indifferent nature, Crane employs the idea of a beneficent nature. This concept, however, is mentioned only once, in the famous passage in which the correspondent observes that nature is neither cruel, beneficent, treacherous, nor wise, but only indifferent, and in only two passages does Crane ironically take account of romantic views of nature. He satirizes the idea that the sea “was probably splendid … [and] glorious,” and notes that the deadly presence of a shark “did not affect … [the correspondent] with the same horror that it would if he had been a picnicker.” But these passages chiefly show the pathos of the men's experience and the way in which perception is ruled by circumstance. The idea of a beneficent nature is not essential to the drama and psychology of the story.

The men's three-fold view of nature grows out of their changing experience. However, Crane is truthful to human psychology, and possibly unconscious of much of his artistry, in portraying traces of the three views throughout the story at the same time that he shows a progressive change. In the first three of the story's seven sections, the men's feeling that nature is malevolent and constantly threatening is conveyed through an abundance of animistic images, which have been widely noted. Although it becomes less abundant, animistic imagery persists throughout the story because the men continue to experience the sea as hostile. Their growing speculation about nature's indifference cannot change all of their immediate perceptions.

In the fourth section new experience introduces the intermediate idea that nature is playfully and thoughtlessly cruel. As the men make their first approach to the surf, and grow alarmed at the prospect that no one has appeared to help them land, they are filled with rage at the thought that they may die with land in sight. Here their thought, in a passage which is twice reiterated in the remainder of the story, shows that they are experiencing nature as a thoughtlessly cruel force which plays a cat and mouse game with suffering man: “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?”

Although last developed, the suggestion that nature is indifferent rather than hostile first appears in the second section of the story. Gulls, who are untroubled by “the wrath of the sea,” settle calmly on the surface. They suggest both the isolation of the men from the land and the accident which makes the men, but not the birds, alienated from and at the mercy of the sea. These details show how a suggestion of nature's indifference can be presented at the same time that nature is described as wrathful. At the end of section two, an on-shore wind which gives the men some chance of being saved and which contrasts with the vicious motions of the sea, also suggests nature's indifference.

This stance of nature—or lack of stance—becomes explicit in section six, which opens with the third refrain of “If I am going to be drowned …” followed by a long generalization about what men think of during such a night. This time, however, the reference to “the sacred cheese of life,” with its connotations of cat and mouse, is omitted. Now the correspondent—representing the men—rages against the abominable injustice of their probable death by drowning. Lacking a personification of nature as some kind of beast, he desires another personification to attack; thus he “at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” Wishing to confront a “visible expression of nature” which he may revile, he is ironically answered by “A high cold star on a winter's night.” The star symbolizes the indifference of nature, before the idea is explicitly formulated by the correspondent.

Towards the opening of the seventh and final section, Crane makes his most explicit reference to nature's indifference, but this comment is a culmination of a slow change of thought rather than a revelation. This section brings the morning after the night on the open sea and moves swiftly toward the final event, the run through the surf to safety for three of the four men. Before these final events the correspondent sees on shore the tall and deserted wind-tower—the most famous symbol in the story—which represents to him “the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of man. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.” No longer protesting against nature nor yearning for a personification to attack, the correspondent has suffered by now a catharsis which prepares him for a final confirmation of this meaning in his experience.

It is not, however, a complete catharsis, for his state of mind creates a partially false knowledge. Faced with the unconcern of the universe: “A distinction between right and wrong becomes absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea.” This “new ignorance,” the illusion that given a second chance at life he will easily improve himself (the examples are deliberately trivial), ironically suggests that the correspondent has yet to grasp the central meaning of his experience. As we come to see, his final education will be a profounder matter.

The real education of all the men has been emerging since the third section of the story, where their feeling of brotherhood is first described. In this section the feeling of brotherhood stems from the men's mutual sympathy in their struggle against an apparently hostile nature. As the story progresses and the men make greater sacrifices for one another, the feeling of brotherhood deepens. It reaches a higher point, in the correspondent's mind, after he contemplates the “high cold star” and discovers in himself compassion for the soldier dying in Algiers. His experience of nature's universal indifference momently extends his compassion far beyond his own small group. The concluding section of the story brings the theme of brotherhood to a culmination.

As the boat heads shoreward and is swamped, animistic images appear once more in some abundance, for the renewed intensity of the men's struggle against the sea leaves them no time for speculation; flashing impressions now predominate. As many critics have observed, the death of the oiler—the strongest of the men and the one who has done the most to bring them to safety—is bitterly ironic. The oiler's death gathers up and leads to a resolution of several themes. He is killed just before reaching land and after swimming strongly, demonstrating that nature appears to play a cat and mouse game with man. But the apparent hostility and cruel treachery of the sea are again an illusion dictated by the circumstances; the oiler's death results from the unconscious and therefore indifferent force of nature—from pure chance—and three men are spared by the same chance that destroys him. The “white waves” pacing “to and fro in the moonlight,” contrast with the “barbarously abrupt” waves of the story's opening to reveal the change of the men's vision of the sea. The sea no longer seems hostile to them, although it has destroyed the oiler. It is merely a fact in nature, calmly and meaninglessly active, and accidentally destructive when circumstances permit.

The message of “the great sea's voice” which the men can now interpret must be all of the knowledge derived from their experience. This knowledge, as has been widely recognized, is that out of the experience of the pain inflicted by indifferent nature men learn to treasure brotherhood and life. If nature were finally seen as hostile, Crane's effect would change in several ways. The situation of man might be less pathetic but it would probably be less dignified. Unable to placate nature and too wise to rage against it, man must face the struggle and hold on to whatever values he can discover in its midst.

Crane's impressionistic method suggests that he intuited the successive attitudes toward nature, but it is clear that he sensed them deeply and that they induced the structure of the story.


  1. The Art of Modern Fiction (New York, 1949), pp. 53-57.

  2. “Naturalistic Fiction: ‘The Open Boat,’” Tulane Studies in English, IV (1954), 137-146.

  3. “The Unmistakable Stephen Crane,” PMLA, LXXIII (1958), 562-572.

Charles R. Metzger (essay date October 1962)

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SOURCE: Metzger, Charles R. “Realistic Devices in Stephen Crane's ‘The Open Boat’.” The Midwest Quarterly 4, no. 1 (October 1962): 47-54.

[In the following essay, Metzger examines the realistic elements in “The Open Boat.”]

There is some argument among critics over the question of whether Stephen Crane's fiction is classically realistic or classically naturalistic. Accepting the working definition of naturalism as pessimistic realism, we can, if we wish, turn from the critic's argument over whether Crane is a realistic writer or a naturalistic one to consideration of realistic elements in his writing, leaving to others the determination of whether or not the total impression of his writing or of each single work is pessimistic or neutral or something else still.

There is much to be said for discussing realistic or romantic or naturalistic “elements” in the writing of a given author rather than discussing the author as a “romantic,” or a “naturalist” or a “realist.” By discussing certain elements in a writer's work we expose ourselves less to the disappointment that attends having put one kind of label on an author, only to find that it doesn't adhere properly in all places. We expose ourselves less to the embarrassment that follows having labelled an author according to one category, only to discover in his writings features that belong equally, sometimes exclusively, to another category. In limiting ourselves initially to the consideration of elements or features, we are better prepared to live in a world where it is unavoidably apparent that even the most wildly romantic pieces of fiction (such as “Gawain and the Green Knight” and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) have features that are clearly recognizable as realistic; we are better prepared to live in a world in which even the most sternly realistic pieces of fiction (such as Silas Marner and An American Tragedy) betray features that are clearly recognizable as unrealistic and therefore presumably romantic.

We are better prepared to face up to the possibility that perhaps all predominately realistic kinds of fiction, that all so-called “realistic” points of view, are partially romantic—insofar as these are based upon assumptions, upon guesses, upon hopes. I should like, in this connection, to propose for consideration the suggestion that writers and critics who are primarily concerned with realism assume, with varying degrees of consistency, three things:

1) that there is a real world (independent of man's knowledge)

2) that it is possible to know this world, and

3) that it is possible to write about it accurately in fiction.

As philosophers are quick to tell us, all three of these assumptions are challengeable, and possess accordingly some of the qualities of make-believe.

The writers of predominantly realistic fiction and the critics who celebrate such fiction assume, quite rightly, I believe, that it is possible in fiction to present works that correspond with, that represent, things as they really are. These persons usually assert that the privilege as well as the duty of the writer of fiction is therefore to present things as they really are. The rather staggering question that follows immediately from such an assertion is: How are things? The answers to this question, needless to say, are various. The religious mystic's version of how things are is likely to be quite different from the civil engineer's. As applied to literature, however, most answers to this staggering question are made practically, rather than theoretically, and show up as fairly simple attitudes and judgments. In effect people are inclined to conclude that a piece of writing is realistic when they can see in it some correspondence between the experiences which are presented to them as fiction, and real-life experiences which they themselves have had (either directly as action or indirectly through reading, etc.).

Recognizing the danger inherent in such an attitude toward fiction (the danger of discovering that any piece of fiction may qualify momentarily as realistic in these terms) some critics following I. A. Richards have labeled this recognition of correspondences “mnemonic irrelevancy” and have ruled it out of the critic's canon. I should prefer not to rule it out at all. Rather I should suggest that memory is hardly ever totally irrelevant. One does not have to have been on the open sea in a ten-foot dingey to recognize the veracity of Crane's treatment of his material, but it helps. It helps even to have talked to persons who have had such experiences; it helps to have read about the sea; it helps to have rented a rowboat for an hour's row; it helps to have seen the surf at the ocean shore.

People are inclined also to conclude that a piece of fiction is realistic when they recognize in it some correspondence with their own views of life—with their own favorite generalizations, their own theories, their own beliefs, their own myths and fantasies. The nightmarish fiction of Franz Kafka can therefore be judged highly realistic by anyone who has had or can imagine having the hallucinatory experiences he described and who has accepted or can admit the possibility of accepting the conclusions about life which Kafka's fiction suggests.

My principal concern here is not (fortunately) with discussing the many varieties of human experience, nor the various theories man has advanced in attempting to explain to himself how things really are. It is rather—having recognized that human experiences and that theories about how things really are are broadly various—to go on to consider some of the technical devices, some of the things a writer can do, in this case some of the things Stephen Crane has done, that increase the probability that the reader will conclude that the author's presentation of his material is realistic.

One of the most obvious things that a writer can do to make his writing seem true to life is to introduce a considerable amount of factual detail. In “The Open Boat” Stephen Crane does exactly this. He is able to introduce a great deal of factual detail largely because he has chosen to tell the story of “The Open Boat” through the person of an “invisible” character that we might call the omniscient narrator. The omniscient narrator can introduce the other characters; he can tell us facts that the characters do not know; he can tell us facts that we do not know and that the characters would not mention in dialogue simply because they know them so well. The narrator can announce for our benefit certain generalizations that will either explain action that follows or summarize action that has already occurred. The omniscient narrator, once he has introduced us to the scene, can be silent and let us overhear conversation, let us learn facts, opinions, etc., from the characters themselves. Being omniscient, the narrator can know what is going on in the mind of a particular character—what he is thinking—as is the case with Crane's reporter in “The Open Boat,” and he can even allow us to “overhear” such interior monologues.

The danger that attends using an omniscient narrator in order to present large quantities and varieties of factual information to the reader is that this narrator may get in the way of the action; he may impede it by volunteering too many facts, too many opinions. Stephen Crane reduces this danger by doing several things. He limits the amount of factual detail or commentary that is introduced—altogether and at any given time. He does not introduce factual detail that the reader doesn't really need to know. He doesn't tell us the name of the ship that sank; he doesn't tell us the Captain's name or the color of the dingey. He does not try to introduce the factual detail he does present all at the same time and he does not introduce all of it through the narrator; he introduces some of it through dialogue. We learn that the oiler's name is Billie by hearing the Captain address him by name. We learn the crucial difference between a house of refuge and a lifesaving station by overhearing an argument between the cook and the correspondent. By the time the narrator tells us there is no lifesaving station within twenty miles of the dingey, we have already learned what a lifesaving station is.

Crane is careful not only in restricting his presentation of facts to those that will prepare for or validate action, but he is careful also to present facts in terms of appropriate perspectives. In announcing at the beginning of the story that “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes … were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them,” he suggests to the reader those facts that would be significant to persons in the situation being described. A person in a small boat threatened by every wave is going to be looking at the waves. Later on in the story Crane repeats the same kind of assertion in a slightly different way. He indicates the approach of dawn by describing a change observable in the color of the waves.

Crane also introduces facts to his characters (and hence to the reader) in versions of the ways in which we apprehend facts in real life. In the scene where the correspondent (who is rowing) sees the shark, the word shark is not used until after the evidence that would lead a person to conclude that he had seen and heard a shark has been presented: the correspondent is described as hearing the tearing sound (of the shark's fin cutting the surface of the water), as seeing the phosphorescent flash, as seeing the fin itself. All of these events are described and repeated before the word shark is ever introduced. In real life, when an experience is unanticipated, we have it first; then assign the words to it that give it discursive meaning. Conversely, as in the sighting of the house of refuge in this story, we sometimes are able to perceive things that we would not otherwise notice, or perceive them earlier than we would otherwise, because we have them, or the word for them, in mind.

Crane's short story appears realistic to us, his characters seem believable, not only because he presents us with a large number of relevant facts apprehended by the characters and by ourselves in versions of the ways that we apprehend facts in real life; but also, because he allows for, because he presents in his story, multiple perspectives, multiple interpretations, and the commission and correction of error. The correspondent does not know for example that anyone but himself has seen the shark, until the captain mentions that he saw it too. The characters in the boat do not know that there is not a lifesaving station within twenty miles; but they are able, by checking their interpretations of what they see and by correcting for error, to determine that the “lifeboat” on the beach is not a lifeboat, but an omnibus, that the man who appears running, but seems to be going too fast, and with an awkward posture, is actually riding a bicycle. Crane also allows (as in the case of the omnibus) his characters to interpret the things they see hopefully; then he allows them to realize the less hopeful but more accurate interpretation; and then he allows them to be angry. He has his characters do this repeatedly, as we readers do the same things repeatedly in real life.

A word now about repetition, which is a very common and a very effective device for making a fact or an event in fiction seem real. There are actually two main kinds of repetition. The first kind is sometimes called preparation and involves mentioning one or more times the possibility that something is likely to happen (in “The Open Boat” the repeated suggestion that the boat will probably swamp, that somebody is likely to be drowned, etc.). Later on in the story when the event actually takes place it seems credible; it seems real to the reader because he has been prepared for its happening by having been told that it might. Most readers don't notice on the first reading of a piece of fiction that they are being “prepared.” They forget in their conscious minds what they have been told. The fact that subconsciously many readers remember what they have been told about action that may transpire, makes the action seem real to them when it finally is presented. Another kind of repetition, one of which the reader is usually quite conscious, is akin to the refrain used in poetry. Crane's refrain in “The Open Boat” that begins “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned,” is of this sort. Yet even as a refrain that is repeated grossly, it is psychologically defensible since it reminds the reader of those thoughts in real life that often occur to him repeatedly and over which he has a minimum amount of control, since those thoughts are occasioned by his experience and are expressions of his anxiety in relation to that experience. Even the apparently irrational recollection by the correspondent of the poem memorized in childhood about “the soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers” is of this same sort; for the topic of dying—the meaning of the poem memorized in childhood but not understood until the presence of death has been made real by experience—pervades the whole story—and the poem as fact has the same relevance as any other of the facts presented, only ironically so.

Irony is a device often used by “realistic” writers (even as it is used by Crane) to create the illusion of reality. In one sense irony can be viewed as a special version of multiple perspective. It involves a double or contrasting view of events—a contrast usually stated as opposites, between what is expected and what happens, between illusion and reality, between what man would prefer and what he gets. In some respects irony is one of the weakest of realistic devices, because it is so easy. One of the easiest things in the world to do is to point out the contrast between a particular view of the world (i. e., that nature is our home, our permissive and gentle parent) and the facts (namely that the wind, the sea and the tides do not care about us). When irony is given a broader statistical base, when the writer suggests that his characters do not get exactly the opposite of what they expect or want, but merely something different; when irony is expanded to become chance, it is a stronger device. Notice, for example, that it is not the cook who is wearing the life jacket who drowns. It is the oiler, who, however, is portrayed as a strong swimmer.

Despite the weakness of what amounts to occasional gross irony, “The Open Boat” is a very realistic piece of writing; and it is so because the facts presented, the perspectives employed, the contrasts stated are all joined in the work to describe not only some impressive facts of life, but also to demonstrate some defensible generalizations, not only about human experience, but also about how that experience is apprehended and how, when it is apprehended, we react to it.

William Randel (essay date November 1962)

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SOURCE: Randel, William. “The Cook in ‘The Open Boat’.” American Literature 34, no. 3 (November 1962): 405-11.

[In the following essay, Randel investigates discrepancies in the real-life incident that inspired Crane's story “The Open Boat.”]

On December 31, 1896, the filibuster Commodore left Jacksonville with a cargo of guns and ammunition for the insurgent army in Cuba. Instead of slipping away surreptitiously, eluding the government cutters that for months had been harassing all ships suspected of filibustering intentions, she set out with official permission, to the considerable bewilderment of Stephen Crane scholars—for Crane's presence aboard, as a seaman at twenty dollars a month, is what gives this particular voyage a continuing interest. Why was the Commodore allowed to sail openly? Later, after the sinking, one survivor said that five men reached safety in a ten-foot dinghy, while all other accounts spoke of four. Which number is correct? And why the discrepancy?

A news report in the New York Press on January 4, 1897 (dateline Jacksonville, January 3), tells of five men reaching shore at Daytona Beach at noon on the third: Captain Murphy, Stephen Crane, the cook, and two sailors, one of whom died of injuries. A survivor's narrative that follows describes Captain Murphy, Stephen Crane, the oiler Higgins, “myself,” and one other sailor taking to the dinghy at the last moment, and Higgins being struck on the head by floating timbers as the dinghy approached the beach and dying almost at once. An attached report in the same issue, with the dateline Daytona, January 3, quotes the cook at some length; he praised Crane as “nervy” and a good swimmer, and credited him with saving one of the sailors from drowning. The article closes with the cook's taking a swig of “life preservative.” All other newspaper reports of the event, including Crane's own dispatch in the New York Press on January 7, tell of four men in the dinghy, and so does Crane's short story “The Open Boat.”1

The effort to account for the twenty-eight men known to have been signed on for the expedition has proved troublesome enough without the confusion added by conflicting reports of the number of men in the dinghy. The final moments before the Commodore cast off were abnormally chaotic, but not for the reasons most often suggested. The chief reason for the chaos is that almost all the crew, including the captain, were recruited and given their instructions in less than thirty hours—the period between the arrival of the unexpected permission to clear the shipment for Cuba and the actual departure.

All filibustering activities were planned and controlled by the Cuban Junta as a major part of its campaign to promote the cause of Cuban freedom. The Junta headquarters was in New York, but local Junta groups had considerable latitude of action, and the Jacksonville group was one of the most aggressive. On Tuesday, December 29, a telegram was sent to Washington requesting clearance for the Dauntless,2 which, together with the Commodore and the Three Friends, belonged to what was locally (and admiringly) dubbed “The Cuban Fleet.” Since there was little reason to expect a favorable reply, and even less reason to expect a reply both favorable and prompt, the Dauntless was sent to sea that very day, ostensibly to resume a wrecking operation somewhere down the east coast of Florida. Astonishingly, a reply telegram from Washington arrived the next morning, December 30, granting clearance to the Dauntless to take arms and ammunition to Cuba.3 The Junta telegraphed agents at various points along the coast to signal the ship to turn back, but the effort failed.4 The vessel proceeded according to plan, picking up men and arms that had been left on No Name Key by the Three Friends, transferring them to Cuba, and slipping back into port at Jacksonville on January 6.5

The Commodore, ever since her transfer from Charleston in August, had remained in Jacksonville harbor under the close surveillance of the Boutwell and other government cutters. She had spent part of the time on the ways, having her bottom scraped; and she had been thoroughly overhauled. But despite all this effort to bring her to a peak of seaworthiness, she could not get clearance, and even so brave a man as Captain Morton, it was reported, would not take “the famous filibuster” to any Cuban port, even Spanish-held Havana, without papers.6 For a while early in December all three of the filibusters were in port together. On the thirteenth, about half past three in the afternoon, the Commodore hung out a sign reading “Positively No Admittance,” which immediately prompted a rumor that an expedition was imminent. One was, but not by the Commodore; the sign was only a ruse to draw the attention of the Boutwell, for that night the Three Friends put out from Fernandina, a few miles north of Jacksonville, with a group of Cubans aboard and two American correspondents, Ralph Paine and Ernest McCready. The Spanish spies, the Pinkerton detectives, and the United States government had all been fooled.7 Two cutters stationed at Key West, the Raleigh and the Norfolk, set out to intercept the Three Friends, but she eluded them. On Christmas Eve she put in at Key West, and was promptly seized. But no Cubans, no correspondents, no munitions were on board;8 they had all been landed on No Name Key. The ship headed for home with the Key West Collector of Customs on board,9 and arrived about one o'clock on the afternoon of December 31. None of the crew would talk. An officer of the Boutwell was put in charge.10

The Commodore, accordingly, was the only filibuster in port on Wednesday morning, the thirtieth, when Washington wired permission for the Dauntless to take a cargo to Cuba. But the Dauntless was gone. Paul Rojo, acting for the owners, immediately telegraphed for permission to send the Commodore to Cienfuegos, Cuba; and again the reply was prompt, reaching Jacksonville later in the afternoon of the thirtieth.11 The Secretary of the Treasury granted the permission for a cargo destined for a foreign port, the same kind of routine clearance given for any shipment of goods abroad, and left it to the Customs men in Jacksonville to decide whether neutrality regulations were properly observed. The promptness of the reply may suggest a momentary shift in government thinking, but there is no mystery about the basis of the favorable answer: it reflects an opinion of Attorney-General Harmon, given on December 10, 1895, that mere sale or shipment of munitions was not a violation of international law.12 This opinion had recently been reaffirmed by Harmon, under pressure from Florida's Senator Call, who in turn was under pressure from a politically influential co-owner of the Three Friends. A fine distinction was drawn between the landing of “porters” to carry arms inland and the landing of men who would both deliver and use the arms.13 The Junta, preoccupied heretofore with full-scale expeditions, had simply never until then applied for permission to send arms only.

On the afternoon of December 30, therefore, the Junta found itself in the novel position of having a vessel of its own,14 a cargo it wished to deliver to Cuba at the earliest possible moment, and official permission for the voyage. The one thing lacking was a full complement of officers and crew. Mate Frank Grain and the quartermaster had been with the ship for some time, but neither the chief engineer, Redigan, nor the second engineer, Ed Ritter, had an intimate knowledge of her machinery. Captain Thomas Morton, the white-haired veteran of thirty-four years of sea duty, including blockade-running during the Civil War, had commanded the Commodore on many of her expeditions, but he was busy just then trying to locate a dispatch boat for the New York World. He had brought down the fast steam yacht “No. 83,” but Sylvester Scovel, the World correspondent, had decided it would not do for the Key West-Cuba run, and Morton left again for New York, the evening of December 30, to see what else might be available.15 Earlier plans of the World to charter the Commodore for this purpose had been abandoned.16 But another captain was readily found—Edward Murphy, a man with prior filibustering experience aboard the Laurada and the Bermuda and with both British and American sailing master's licenses.17 The crew was hastily assembled from the large number of Cubans always eager to help the rebellion and the smaller number of Americans, Stephen Crane among them, who had come to Jacksonville just for such a chance. The total signed aboard, officers and crew, was twenty-eight.18

One name on the list was that of Murray Nobles, but Murray Nobles did not go at the very last minute, and it was not known who if anyone took his place.19 A fortnight later it was reported that Nobles, a colored hack driver, had been arrested for stealing a watch from a white man whom he had taken to and from a disorderly house; the newspaper identified him as the man who had left the Commodore just before it got under way.20 If he was not replaced and only twenty-seven were aboard, we need worry no longer about a twenty-eighth man. The twenty-seven without Nobles were all accounted for: twelve Cubans in one lifeboat, four Cubans in another, seven men who went down with the Commodore or were lost from the raft, and four men in the captain's dinghy. Five in the dinghy would have brought the total back to twenty-eight; but only one survivor mentioned five. Why did he?

It was this man, the cook or steward Charles Montgomery, who on January 3 sent a telegram from Daytona to August Blom in Jacksonville charging that a traitor had caused the leak on the Commodore.21 It was this man who told of the pilot coming to him before they were out of the river and, with tears in his eyes, confiding to him that someone had tampered with the steering gear.22 And this same man was responsible for the Florida Times-Union headline on January 4: “Twelve Men Lost Through Treachery / Sinking of the Commodore Caused by a Traitor, Says Montgomery / Steam Pumps Tampered With, Is the Suspicion.” A leak caused by a traitor, the steering gear tampered with, the steam pumps tampered with—three different stories within as many days. Yet after making all these charges, he did not stay in Jacksonville for the investigation. It was announced on January 6 that C. B. Montgomery, the steward of the Commodore, had left town the night before under sealed orders, as he expressed it to a reporter, to join his brother on board the New York Journal's dispatch boat, bound for Cuba. He had been born in Matanzas, Cuba, he said; and he added that his father had died for the cause of Cuban freedom. In a short time he expected to be inside the insurgent lines to deliver certain papers to General Gomez. He intimated that he was a member of the general's private staff.23

The inquiry into the sinking of the Commodore was privately conducted by Horatio Rubens, a lawyer who served as the Junta's general counsel. Reporters were barred, but it was somehow learned that the statements Montgomery had published were all refuted.24 He was back in town early in February, as liberal as ever with his personal news releases, like this one printed on the eighth: “Charleston Montgomery, the newspaper correspondent who was on the steamer Commodore when that vessel foundered off the Florida coast on January 1, and who reached the shore in safety with Captain Murphy and Stephen Crane, arrived in the city Saturday night. He says that his brother is to assume command of the New York Journal's steam yacht Vamoose, which is now at Miami.”25 He said nothing further about his dealings with General Gomez, but the next day he furnished the material for an article, “Cubans Are the Conquerors.” He gave as his source two friends who had just returned from Cuba. The chief point he made was that an attack on Havana could be expected at any time.26

In printing all these statements by Montgomery, the Florida Times-Union betrayed a patience close to gullibility; but finally it had had enough. On February 19 it printed, with a discernibly malicious pleasure, a story of how he had been taken in by one Julio Leopold Matz, who had convinced him that he was a personal emissary of General Gomez to the Cubans in Jacksonville. Matz's first move, on arriving in the city, had been to locate the last cook of the Commodore, who, “being inclined to sift any peculiar stories for his own pecuniary benefit, has night and day kept on the track of the pseudo-Cuban patriot.” Six newspaper men in a body questioned Matz closely and found that his story was false; they also learned that friends of “Cuba Libre” had no use for him.27

The conflicting stories told by Montgomery, the repudiation of his charges by the Junta's inquiry into the sinking, and his exposure as the dupe of a “pseudo-Cuban patriot” add up to an invisible index of reliability. Since he alone said there were five men in the dinghy, while all other reports specified four, it does not seem unreasonable to throw out his testimony. He does not measure up to the criteria of one of the world's great liars, but his ignoble inventions have caused trouble enough.


  1. Scribner's Magazine, XXI, 728-740 (June, 1897).

  2. Daily Florida Citizen, Dec. 30, 1896.

  3. Ibid., Dec. 31, 1896.

  4. Florida Times-Union, Dec. 31, 1896.

  5. Ibid., Jan. 7, 1897.

  6. Ibid., Dec. 4, 1896.

  7. Ibid., Dec. 14, 1896, and Ralph D. Paine, Roads of Adventure (Boston, 1922), pp. 86 ff.

  8. Florida Times-Union, Dec. 25, 1896.

  9. Ibid., Dec. 29, 1896.

  10. Ibid., Jan. 1, 1897.

  11. Ibid., Dec. 31, 1896.

  12. John Bassett Moore, A Digest of International Law (Washington, 1906), VII, 965.

  13. Daily Florida Citizen, Dec. 13, 1896.

  14. Horatio S. Rubens, Liberty: The Story of Cuba (New York, 1932), p. 181, asserts that the Junta had bought the Commodore. Rubens was the Junta's general counsel.

  15. Daily Florida Citizen, Dec. 27, 28, 31, 1896; Florida Times-Union, Jan. 1, 1897.

  16. Florida Times-Union, Dec. 5, 1896.

  17. Rubens, p. 151.

  18. Florida Times-Union, Jan. 1, 1897, lists the men and describes some of them; the issue of Jan. 8 gives further identifying information.

  19. Ibid., Jan. 4, 1897.

  20. Ibid., Jan. 16, 1897.

  21. Ibid., Jan. 4, 1897.

  22. Ibid., Jan. 5, 1897.

  23. Ibid., Jan. 6, 1897.

  24. Ibid., Jan. 9, 1897.

  25. Ibid., Feb. 8, 1897.

  26. Ibid., Feb. 9, 1897.

  27. Ibid., Feb. 19, 1897.

William T. Going (essay date winter 1963)

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SOURCE: Going, William T. “William Higgins and Crane's ‘The Open Boat’: A Note about Fact and Fiction.” Papers on English Language & Literature 1, no. 1 (winter 1963): 79-82.

[In the following essay, Going traces the treatment of William Higgins's death in newspaper accounts and in “The Open Boat.”]

Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” is, according to its subtitle, “A Tale Intended to Be after the Fact. Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer ‘Commodore.’” The story begins at the very point where Crane ends his journalistic account for the New York Press (January 7, 1897): “The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here now.” The next year, however, Crane did publish that “history.” And since the references in the story like “seven turned faces, and later a stump of a top-most mast with a white ball on it that slashed to and fro at the waves” cannot be understood fully without reading his newspaper version of the actual sinking of the Commodore, Crane probably intended his factual and fictional accounts to be complementary.

The death of William Higgins, the oiler, however, is strangely obscured in both fiction and fact if we believe with Robert W. Stallman that the “whole meaning of ‘The Open Boat’ is focused in the death of the oiler.”1 The two sentences in the story about the death of Billie seem almost huddled: “In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea. … The welcome of the land to the [other] men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land's welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave.” Crane's own account in the Press is likewise lacking in facts even though the dispatch gives emphasis to the death of Higgins by stating in its last two sentences: “He [John Kitchell of Daytona] dashed into the water and grabbed the cook. Then he went after the captain, but the captain sent him to me, and then it was that he saw Billy Higgins lying with his forehead on sand that was clear of water, and he was dead.”

Yet the significant point seems to be that because Crane did not know the actual cause of the death of Higgins, good reporter that he was he does not venture an opinion in his newspaper release, and in “The Open Boat” itself he focuses the fiction so that it achieves an artistic reality that is as true as truth and as valid as the actual facts could have been.

The newspaper accounts of William Higgins' tragic fate are in general, like Crane's, more detailed than those in “The Open Boat,” but they are also different and contradictory. The Florida Times-Union quotes Captain Murphy: “‘Higgins tried to swim, but sank. I tried to encourage him, and he made another attempt. The boat went over again, and I saw no more of him until his corpse came up on the beach. … I then saw Higgins' body on the wet sand. We rolled him and made every effort to bring him to life. Poor fellow, he was brave and did his duty faithfully. … The people of Daytona buried poor Higgins at their own expense.’”

According to the New York Press Captain Murphy told a slightly different story: “‘When we went over I called to him [Crane] to see that his life preserver was on all right and he replied in his usual tones, saying that he would obey orders. He was under the boat once, but got out in some way. He held up Higgins when the latter got so terribly tired and endeavored to bring him in, but the sailor was so far gone that he could hardly help himself.’”

The cook, C. B. Montgomery, is even more explicit: “‘Captain Murphy, Stephen Crane, the novelist and correspondent; Higgins, myself and one other sailor [making five instead of four in the other accounts] took to the ten-foot dinghy at the last moment. … Higgins was struck on the head by floating timbers and he died soon after landing. He was a good sailor and a brave man. He worked to save his comrades.’”

Other New York newspapers besides the Press, where Crane's own Bacheller-syndicated pieces appeared, also mentioned Higgins' death. The World, quoting Captain Murphy, states: “‘Higgins had to be dragged from the water. He was in a terrible condition, worn out, and he had swallowed a quantity of water. He was too far gone to be resuscitated and he died soon after.’” The Tribune merely states the “boat turned over in the surf, and Higgins received a wound which caused his death soon after getting ashore.” The Herald reports, “William Higgins … was drowned in the surf when the captain's boat was overturned.” And the Times succinctly records: “Higgins was killed by the overturnng of the boat.”2

Two biographers of Crane also describe Higgins' death in different ways, but neither biography is documented. Beer states that a “wave smashed the spine of the oiler, Higgins”; Berryman, apparently following the cook's testimony, records that Higgins' “head had been crushed by a timber loose in the surf.”3

According to what historians like to call “primary sources,” it becomes evident in the case of Higgins' death that the most elementary facts are hard to come by, as they often are in moments of crises. The exact circumstances of the death of William Higgins are unknown.

A few months later, when he began writing “The Open Boat,” Crane found a solution to the problem of fact as he knew it. Since he did not know the actual cause of Higgins' death, Crane did not record, in his fiction “after the fact,” more than the momentary confusion of their exhausting swim for the shore and the realization of the death of “one.” Where Crane seems at first glance most inept, he is actually most valid, because the “central intelligence” of the correspondent sees only with his own limited vision, yet comprehends with a wider understanding of all who have finally become “interpreters” of the story and of life itself. The lack of fact has become dwarfed in its fictional meaning.

To make the mystery of the death of Higgins the central symbol of the significance of the story, Crane has ordered much of the material around the oiler. Not only is Billie symbolized, as Mr. Stallman suggests, by “the thin little oar … ready to snap,” but in the argument between the cook and the correspondent about the differences between houses of refuge and lifesaving stations, Billie is the peacemaker. He has in the first section of the story already begun to separate himself from mortal life. He is, for example, the only character called by name. While it is true that as the common sailor aboard, he might naturally be referred to as Billie instead of cook or captain, Crane seems to be underlining the point that captain, cook, and correspondent still have functions to perform—they are alliterative, incomplete circles. Billie, on the other hand, is more than the oiler, the completed circle: memorialized in approaching death he is the individual named Billie. As with the jobs of soldiering in The Red Badge of Courage, Crane has made the job of the oiler realistic, at the same time suggesting undeniably a meaningful symbolism. Billie's death is the crowning evidence that Nature is “indifferent, flatly indifferent.” It is Billie who, with the correspondent, does the rowing; it is Billie who starts out “ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly.” It is Billie who has no life preserver and about whom the captain is least worried.

Thus the seemingly huddled sentence at the end of the story about the “still and dripping shape” not only is architecturally right for the correspondent's momentarily limited visual point of view; it emphasizes by its brevity the indifference of life and death of which the others “could then be interpreters.” The famous first sentence—“None of them knew the colour of the sky”—is rescored for full orchestra in the final iteration of the major theme in the last sentence: “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 the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.” For this unifying theme Crane has used one of his favorite ideas: an understanding of the indifference of Nature that comes to men through the comradeship of suffering, through the meaningless confusion of death. In “The Open Boat: A Tale Intended to Be After the Fact,” Crane has made artistic mockery of the contradictory journalistic evidence and elusive facts concerning the actual circumstances of the death of one William Higgins of Rhode Island. The limited view of each individual's knowledge of the facts causing death is transmuted by the greater truth of fiction into a knowledge of the significance of that death.


  1. Stephen Crane: An Omnibus, ed. Robert Wooster Stallman (New York, 1952), p. 419.

  2. Quotations from the New York Press and the Florida Times-Union can be found in Stallman, pp. 476, 462, 464, 452; the other quotations are cited from their original sources: New York World, January 5, 1897; New York Tribune, January 4, 1897; New York Herald, January 5, 1897; New York Times, January 4, 1897.

  3. Thomas Beer, Stephen Crane (New York, 1923), p. 146; John Berryman, Stephen Crane (New York, 1950), p. 164.

Robert Meyers (essay date April 1963)

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SOURCE: Meyers, Robert. “Crane's ‘The Open Boat’.” The Explicator 21, no. 8 (April 1963): 60

[In the following essay, Meyers argues that critical studies of “The Open Boat” have overlooked “the degree to which the tale seems to invert conventional Christian motifs and rituals while it traces the development of a new religion.”]

It is common to interpret Stephen Crane's short story “The Open Boat” as a naturalistic reading of life, as the author's “apostrophe to the new Darwinian cosmos of blind forces—of chance and cosmic indifference” (Maxwell Geismar, Rebels and Ancestors, p. 99). Few will quarrel with this judgment. What may have been overlooked is the degree to which the tale seems to invert conventional Christian motifs and rituals while it traces the development of a new religion.

There would be nothing in this to occasion surprise. Crane toys with inversions of Christian themes in his novel The Red Badge of Courage and in his short religious poems. But “The Open Boat” may be read in such a way that mockery of traditional Christianity, although never explicit, is woven into almost every event.

The ship's survivors, who will later become priests of Crane's new religion, are at first too busy with survival problems to care about the “color of the sky” above them. They ponder larger issues later; until then, the narrator muses upon the ludicrous smallness of their habitable world, saying that “many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea.” Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin had shrunk the world of traditional Christianity; it is from a cramped dinghy that the men must make whatever discoveries they can.

They argue over the precise difference between life-saving stations and houses of refuge, much as religionists debate differences between sects, but the argument is fruitless because it turns out that neither organization is able to save them. The station at New Smyrna, in fact, has been abandoned and no longer functions at all. The city's name evokes memory of the seven churches of Asia and of early, effective Christianity. The other city named in the story (St. Augustine) has even stronger Christian connotations. But help comes from neither place; the four “waifs” are orphaned from the ancient religion and its father god and must find salvation elsewhere.

A strong sense of brotherhood arises among them, sanctifying their struggles. They spell one another without quarreling; no one tries to cheat. A fellowship like that idealized in Christianity is present, but it is not cheapened by incessant talk about it. “No one said that it was so,” we are twice told. Neither enjoined, nor cheapened by praise, it is a natural koinonia.

They find a litany appropriate for their developing religion. “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?” The Biblical number of completeness makes their irreverent protest all-inclusive. The gods are all “mad” and man's destiny is determined by nothing logical. Their prayer is really addressed to themselves and is fitting for their new view of life, which will stop with mankind in its search for meaning.

Accounts of Crane's actual shipwreck, including his own, document almost every detail included in the short story. But the man in black who so incenses the four men and who gets considerable attention in the tale is nowhere mentioned in the reports. He has puzzled readers because he seems significant in some way that is not apparent. Can he be a parody of the black-frocked clergyman, looked to for directions but incapable of giving them? As this man waves madly, his coat revolving like a wheel, it seems to the men that he must be trying to tell them to “go north,” that there is a life-saving station up there somewhere. They wish he would say plainly whether they should go into the surf, or to sea, or north, or south, or even to hell. One man, in “impious” mood, vents his annoyance by saying, “Holy smoke!” Another wants to strike the man and when asked why, since the man had not harmed him, he says that it is because the person on land “seemed so damned cheerful.” Desperate men have often responded similarly to the combination of clerical good cheer and directional vagueness.

In the story's climax, the men learn that nothing is outside them except the projection of themselves and their needs. Their plea to the universe is lost in remote and indifferent space. From the answer of a “high cold star on a winter's night” they know at last the truth about the mechanistic cosmos in which they live.

They are saved finally, but not by a man in a black coat. Their savior is unadorned, divested of anything that could show office, dignity, or status. He is “naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint.” He is surrounded on shore by people who have “all the remedies sacred to their minds.” It is right that these should take the form of clothing, blankets, and coffee-pots—ritual requirements in the religion which finds nothing important beyond man.

A new religion requires new apostles. The three men left alive have learned that the world is indifferent and that men must supply their own needs. But they have also learned that brotherhood and courage make life endurable. They are ready now to be the hierophants of a new religion, and its true interpreters.

Eric Solomon (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: Solomon, Eric. “The Destructive Element.” In Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism, pp. 145-76. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, Solomon notes the lack of parodic elements in “The Open Boat” and situates it within the context of Crane's other sea pieces.]

To the maiden
The sea was blue meadow,
Alive with little froth-people
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.

—Crane, War Is Kind, III

“The Open Boat” is one of the great sea tales of world literature, and the story has the power and tragic import attained by only a few of the vast number of writers—particularly in the nineteenth century—who have told of man's struggles against the wind and waves. Only in the works of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad are there passages that surpass Crane's achievement in this particular kind of short story, although novelists from Defoe through Scott and Cooper to Stevenson and Kipling used the sea as a setting for accounts of man's voyage through life. Contrary to the practice of his war fiction, however, Crane limited his writing about the sea to a very few pieces, most of which were journalistic. “The Open Boat” is a sport in the Crane canon, not only because the short story has a setting that Crane rarely employed, but also because the tale is not, in the fullest sense of the term as we have applied it to Crane's other work, essentially parodic.

It is instructive to seek an understanding of why, in this particular work of fiction, the parodic effects are very faint. Most of Crane's sea writing, small in bulk though it is, seems to be parodic, heavily so. These parodies, however, were all youthful jeux d'esprit. After Crane's own shattering experience in an open boat, he seemed unable to jest about the hackneyed—so far as literature is concerned—convention of men in open boats or on rafts struggling for survival. For the first time in his life he had been a participant in such a struggle, not a voluntary and temporary observer, and in the two stories that followed his newspaper report of his own toil against the sea (“Stephen Crane's Own Story” [1897]) the experience led Crane far beyond the parodic principle. Although both “The Open Boat” and “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” scoff at some traditions of sea fiction, the humor is sporadic and strained.

It seems clear that the sea provided a superb objective correlative for Crane's vision of life. Here was nature's force, violent and indifferent, laid against man's endeavors, puny and tragicomic. The parodic tone became muted partly because of the excessive shaping power of his own awesome experience at sea and partly because of the tensions that were as natural to life at sea (and in battle) as to his literary technique. In The Red Badge of Courage Crane chose to destroy romantic visions by the realities of war, and the parody in that novel is indirect; “The Open Boat,” like Conrad's Lord Jim, opposes to the familiar heroic picture of the sailor a realistic view of the awful yet petty war with the huge ocean.1

There were a number of traditional patterns in nineteenth-century sea fiction, some as old as Homer, others more recent. Writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Richard Henry Dana, as well as the Herman Melville of White-Jacket, concentrated on the idea, popularized by Smollett, of the ship as a microcosm of society. Thus Captain Marryatt was primarily interested in naval institutions, Dana in naval reforms, Cooper in naval battles. The sea was usually sublime, free, challenging, limitless—a frontier. For these authors, as for later writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, the ship provided, in Thomas Philbrick's formula, either “an escape from the corrupting distortions and oppressive restrictions of civilized society or … an epic weapon … with which the seaman could do battle with his elemental antagonist.”2 To be sure, Melville and Conrad reverted to an older tradition of wonder at the power not of men and ships, but of nature and waves. In his later fiction Cooper also envisioned the voyage as an ordeal that put men “in confrontation with the ultimate realities of life, realities that at once display man's capacity for nobility and lay bare his essential frailty.”3 I think that Stephen Crane, for a brief moment a sailor like Cooper, Melville, and Conrad, shared this view. As the sea serves Melville (and the river provides a symbolic reference for Twain and Hemingway), for Crane the great waters both destroy and revivify.

Most sea fiction, however, was not particularly serious. Seamen were usually drawn as clear-eyed, simple, and supremely strong. The general run of sea fiction was luridly melodramatic, concentrating on battles with pirates, wild sea chases,4 the salvation of fair maidens from the clutches of villainous captains (even such a naturalist as Jack London swallowed this convention whole), terrible storms, and miraculous rescues. Characters were stereotypes: gentleman sailors, Byronic outcasts, wise old salts (Melville rang changes on all these types), innocent cabin boys. The titles of the spate of dime novels that appeared during the latter decades of the nineteenth century reveal something of the flavor of popular sea stories: The Sea Siren; or, The Fugitive Privateer: A Romance of Ocean Trails (1886); The Fleet Scourge; or, The Sea Wings of Salem: A Romance of Whalers and Sea Rovers (1889). As for the convention that “The Open Boat” most nearly approaches, that of the wreck and the subsequent ordeal in the ship's boats—a tradition of survival harking back to Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson—such works as A. F. Holt's The Ocean Drift; or, The Fight for Two Lives: A Sea and Shore Romance (1889) or Mayne Reid's The Ocean Waifs (1864) indicate that whatever ordeals men suffered on the sea, they triumphed over nature, usually by incredible fortitude and virtue. William Clark Russell's The Wreck of the Grosvener (1877) is explicit in assigning the rescue of the beautiful heroine to the individual bravery and nobility of her paramour, who single-handed defeats the sea.5 In general, nineteenth-century sea fiction stressed adventure, battle, or criticism of naval customs. Melville and Conrad, and in one story Stephen Crane, raised the level of this genre from the specialized to the universal.

One of Stephen Crane's sketches (date unknown), “Dan Emmonds,” is a wild spoof of many aspects of sea fiction. Crane called the piece “strong in satire, but rather easy writing.”6 Dan Emmonds reverses every characteristic of the ordinary seafaring hero. The drunken son of an Irish saloonkeeper, Dan is such a failure that his father finally sends him to sea—on the ship Susan L. Terwilleger. Crane's narrative is fashioned out of clichés. “I discovered that I was afloat on what has always been called the deep blue sea.”7 Dan and the captain drink and philosophize while the ship goes to ruin; naturally they run into a terrible storm, the worst “since Robinson Crusoe's ships used to sail up and down mountains” (p. 62). The antihero remains near the captain's rum and prays for land. Crane hits at the literary tradition of sea yarns in his portraits of the frightened officers and crew who “could only console themselves with thinking of what they might tell of it afterward” (p. 62).

Crane undercuts all views of naval heroics. The officers drink themselves into a stupor; the second mate, as the ship nears destruction, speaks civilly to some of the men—and, Crane adds with heavy irony, since the mate is an old naval officer, this civility must mean that death is near. So much for the kind of editorializing about discipline that marks Two Years Before the Mast. Next Crane laughs at the shipwreck tradition, using both exaggeration and travesty. The ship flies into a thousand pieces, the hero sinks “over two hundred feet in the sea” (p. 63). He manages to seize that omnipresent prop in wrecks, a hencoop, and to last out the storm. To make the survival myth seem more ridiculous, the author adds another bit of flotsam to the hencoop, a dead pig named Bartholomew. The remainder of the sketch deals with the customs of rescue, a lovely South Sea island, fierce natives. Having read Mayne Reid or his followers, Dan is quite able to treat with the natives. “First of all, I pay my respects to your old venerable king if you have one; if not, to your beautiful maiden queen and to the aged high priest with the long whiskers …,” (p. 64).

While Crane's other early sea pieces are not as directly parodic as “Dan Emmonds,” they are equally light-hearted. In “The Captain” (1892), a mocking profile of an excursion boat pilot on Long Island Sound, Crane burlesques nautical language. “His wit just runs slowly before the wind, comes into collision with you in a dull, heavy fashion, swings clear and drifts away until the sails fill again. … You have to take in sail generally to meet it. …”8 The sea here is sparkling, clear, and refreshing, and in “The Reluctant Voyagers” (1893), a humorous anecdote of two men in bathing suits whose raft drifts out to sea, the ocean is also benign. The only somber note in Crane's early sea writing sounds in a couple of newspaper columns dealing with renowned New Jersey ghost stories. “Ghosts on the Jersey Coast” (1894), retelling a legend of pirates who would lure ships close to the rocky shore in order to plunder them, describes a shipwreck in grim tones that would be echoed in Stephen Crane's own adventure two years later. In this story, men cling to the rigging and look yearningly toward the shore. “They clung in bunches, lines, irregular groups, reminding one of some kind of insects. Sometimes a monstrous white wave would thunder over the ship, bearing off perhaps two or three sailors whose grasp it had torn away and tumbling the bodies into the wide swirl of foam that covered the sea.”9 Just as Crane's war novel anticipated the actualities he would discover in Greece and Cuba, so these sea sketches set the scene for the climax of “The Open Boat.” In “The Ghostly Sphinx of Metedeconck” (1895), during a night of tremendous breakers, bodies from the foam arrive on the beach. “No boat could live in such a sea. … Bodies began to wash up and the fishermen … devoted their attention to trying to recall the life in these limp, pale things that the sea cast up one by one.”10

“Stephen Crane's Own Story,” the news report he filed about his personal adventure, appeared on the front page of the New York Press on January 7, 1897. Crane gives a clear report of his filibustering expedition, from the first moments aboard the Commodore—the ship that is to take Cuban insurrectionists and ammunition from Jacksonville to the island of Cuba—until the ship finally sinks in a storm and the crew take to the boats and eventually reach shore. A sense of personal excitement keeps breaking through the unadorned, measured prose of the newspaper story. Crane seems to be exulting in the details of an event in which he has actually participated; no longer the imagination, but the memory, informs the violent events.

The news story describes the Commodore only vaguely. At first the ship seems powerful and placid, but the sound of its whistle is a sad wail. For the reporter, however, there is a feeling of exhilaration because of the danger, even though custom insists that he hide his emotions. Crane allows the unromantic facts to stand out; the ship rams into a mud bank, and they “were men on a ship stuck in the mud. A certain mental somersault was made once more necessary.”11 The characters who reappear in “The Open Boat” are first described in the newspaper article—the portly cook, the tough captain, and a “certain young oiler named Billy Higgins” (p. 238), who leads the engine-room bailers. The reporter and these three end up in a boat together after the ship goes down. The emphasis of Crane's report is on the first moments of the wreck—the attempts at towing rafts, the seemingly gratuitous death of the first mate, who hurls himself into the sea with a look that shows “it was rage, rage, rage unspeakable that was in his heart at the time” (p. 241).

Crane is tight-lipped throughout the whole open boat part of the report, as if he had already conceived the fiction to be formed from these facts and wished to reserve his essential story. “The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here and now” (p. 242). Crane the reporter insists that he would like to tell this story at once in order to make evident the “splendid manhood” of Captain Edward Murphy, who gave orders in the wild waves as if he were on a battleship, and of Billy Higgins, who, according to the dispatch's closing lines, was found “lying with his forehead on sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead” (p. 243). Crane the artist, however, reserved the story of Captain Murphy for “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” (published in August 1897); in “The Open Boat” (published in June 1897) Crane told the story of Billy Higgins, and of the correspondent—and of man versus the sea. The profundity of Crane's personal experience obviously is important to the fiction, for, as he says in the news story, “Here was death, but here also was a most singular and indefinable kind of fortitude” (p. 241). The documentary article sticks to the facts that can be related without the distortion or heightening that marks the distinction between reportage and art—even realistic art. And Crane's sea fiction also probes the meaning of death by water as well as the nature of life in a small boat. For the rendering of these complex events—as disturbing, intellectually, to Crane as was the death of the nuns at sea to Gerard Manley Hopkins—Crane's own sense of involvement as a participant insists upon a mood of irony charged with compassion.12 “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” and even “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure,” might have been the work of the traditional cynical newsman; “The Open Boat” towers above these works largely because of its urgency and pain. One is reminded of Malcolm Cowley's defense of American naturalists: “The sense of moral fitness is strong in them; they believe in their hearts that nature should be kind, that virtue should be rewarded on earth, that men should control their own destinies. More than other writers, they are wounded by ugliness and injustice, but they will not close their eyes to either …”13 Crane's fiction adds details and rhetoric to his true story, adornments that an early realist aesthetician has described as permissible if these accessories are effective in “making the characters harmonize more with the events in which they take part.”14 It is noteworthy that Crane concentrates in his sea fiction on materials that he held out of a news story.

Although “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” is not one of Stephen Crane's finest stories, it is of interest as a version of the events that take place before the men find themselves in the open boat, and as a different and more diffuse reworking of the author's sea experience. The story has much more breadth than “The Open Boat” and much less depth.

“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” starts slowly with a disquisition on filibustering and the type of man most fit for the occupation. Men of silence are better than men of mere bravery, for the filibustering industry characteristically involves smuggling. After these generalizations about the technique and history of using ships to transfer men and arms illegally to Cuba, Crane focuses on an interview between a shrewd lawyer (“who knew one side of a fence from the other side when he looked sharply”) and an inarticulate captain who cannot answer the overwhelming question, “Why do you want to go?” (XII, 181). Like Crane's later military heroes, the captain is silent about his motives. Neither glory, nor pay, nor the prospect of a land grant attracts the captain; he will go just for fun. And this reason, according to the filibustering ethic, is sufficient.

The story is not, however, really about filibustering. It is about the eternal triangle made up of a man, his ship, and the sea—three parts of an impossible affair. The captain, Flanagan, is a different man once aboard his ship. “His shore meekness and uncertainty were gone. He was clear-eyed and strong, aroused like a mastiff at night” (p. 182). The object of his devotion, his steamer, is but a parody of a ship, a seaworthy icehouse that splashes through the water “as genially as an old wooden clock” (p. 182). Flanagan's love for the sea surpasses any love for a woman and makes the vessel that enables him to be at sea a worthy love object, no matter how ridiculous in appearance. Although Flanagan had in the past been captain of (or, in Crane's term, had for a sweetheart) a great tanker, Thunder Voice, he is happier on the tiny Foundling, which can cater to his “ant of desire-to-see-what-it's-like” (p. 182).

The crew of frank, bold men share a delight in the prospect of danger and in their recognition of the risks involved in a ship whose gleaming engine is as whimsical as a gas meter. When the engine fails, the crew become conscious of the third point of the triangle, the sea. The ocean is wide, and a ship provides little room for one's feet. When the men grow sullen over their predicament, the captain proves his authority by dealing a broken jaw to a recalcitrant stoker. Crane's prose grows fairly arch over this incident, and his report of fate's ironies is equally coy: “The first mate was a fine officer, and so a wave crashed him into the deck-house and broke his arm. The cook was a good cook, and so the heave of the ship flung him heels over head with a pot of boiling water and caused him to lose interest in everything save his legs” (p. 185).

Despite engine trouble and a surly and injured crew, the filibustering work advances. The ship connects with the gunrunners (in a scene that reminds one of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not) and Flanagan, chomping on his cigar, loads on the guns, ammunition, and thirty-nine seasick Cubans. Once again the stokers fail to live up to the austere requirements of the captain's love affair with his ship; they get drunk on Cuban whiskey and are battered in the ensuing brawl. And since the captain has himself battered one of them, they are all responsible for the precarious situation of sailing with the “crew in a sling” (p. 189).

Nevertheless, matters seem to go well; Flanagan feels pride in the ease with which he unloads the cargo, and his clever seamanship averts the threat of a warship that is speeding to arrest them. Despite the greater power of his adversary, Flanagan brilliantly maneuvers his little craft around the great guns, rams the Spanish gunboat, and comfortably steams away. His victory seems complete. He has overcome the weaknesses of his engines and of his own crew, and he has outfoxed the enemy. But these antagonists were men or man-made, and therefore conquerable. Flanagan congratulates himself: “We've had a great deal of a time, and we've come through it all right, and thank Heaven it is all over” (p. 195). The irony of the captain's hubris is underlined by the author's juxtaposition of “thank Heaven” to “The sky in the north-east was of a dull brick-red in tone, shaded here and there by black masses that billowed out in some fashion from the flat heavens” (p. 195). The heavens—nature—can do to the Foundling what neither men's own weak natures nor the enemy's malevolence have accomplished. The battered ship rises to meet another and yet another wave, and the crew prepare to launch the boats. The events follow the outline of Crane's newspaper report. The old chief engineer tearfully announces the ultimate failure of his engine, and the jealous mistress, the sea, wrecks the love affair between Flanagan and his ship. Despite his years of service to the sea, the captain sees in the engine-room a novel sight: water strangles the machinery, the fires are dying, the stokers moodily lie around as if dying themselves. In an effective moralizing passage, Crane supplies the rationale for the sea tragedy. “Now the way of a good ship on the sea is finer than swordplay; but this is when she is alive. If a time comes that the ship dies, then her way is the way of a floating old glove … a corpse” (p. 197). The ship, in accordance with Crane's customary way of handling inanimate objects, is personified; it groans and struggles. Flanagan remains in control of himself, if not of the sea, and counters its force with the strength of his commanding personality; and the men, “precisely as they had submitted to the sea … submitted to Flanagan” (p. 198). In these last moments, the captain grows in stature as the men diminish. They are stunned, while Flanagan begins to understand some of the great questions posed by the sea—“doom and its weight and complexion” (p. 198). Yet he is only too human. When the Foundling sinks to a quiet death like an animal curling down in the grass, the captain rages at his fate, whirls, and knocks his head against the gunwhale of the small boat. Crane narrates no more of the sea adventure, and the tale ends, faithful to the facts of the news report, with the men in the boats, the captain sobbing and cursing. Here, however, Crane diverges from fact and appends a version of subsequent events that differs both from actuality and from the fictional account given in “The Open Boat.”

In “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” Crane chooses to stress the vapid stupidity of those on the shore, those untempered by a sea journey. While the more famous story hints at the foolishness and ineffectuality of those not in the open boat, the point of view remains essentially that of the angrily despairing men, and is thus suspect—hardly objective—and subject to revision when help does come from the shore. But in the earlier narrative the author's heavy irony directs the quite detailed description of a dance at the Imperial Inn, a “charming dance” where the revelers refuse to believe any report of trouble at sea. Crane displays the fountain in the courtyard softly splashing, couples promenading through isles of palms, a band playing sleepy waltzes, a mockingbird singing; and when the dancers finally believe that there has been a shipwreck, they are delighted to have an object to awaken their jaded interest. A tone of levity prevails, for, although the women seem about to sympathize, the men are sure that no drowning at sea can take place while they are at a dance. Crane sounds a note of parody here as he looks askance at the tradition of the brave women awaiting the news from the sea. His female watcher complains querulously of the damp sand. Crane's narrative strategy is sure. By satirizing the shore-bound inanities, he indirectly sympathizes with the undescribed terrors of the shipwrecked. The two worlds—of the shore with its lawyers, hotels, dances, and women, and of the sea with its sailors, ships, wrecks, and men—can never meet. Which world is actually dead and which is alive, Crane does not testify. Perhaps, in Matthew Arnold's phrase, the sea world is dead, once having lived, having found the vitality of the strenuous life, while the shore world is powerless to be born, being trivial. And Flanagan? “Save for the white glare of the breakers, the sea was a great wind-crossed void. From the throng of charming women floated the perfume of many flowers. Later there floated to them a body with a calm face of an Irish type” (p. 200).15 As in “Dover Beach,” the waves bring only a message of human misery, an eternal note of sadness. Stephen Crane ends his story with a disclaimer, “The expedition of the Foundling will never be historic” (p. 200). Still, Crane created in “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” a short story that for all its uncertainty of tone and looseness of plot and language is an interesting paragraph in the literature of the sea. “The Open Boat,” on the other hand, is a fascinating chapter in American sea literature.

“The Open Boat” is a story of human behavior under extreme pressure, of the eternal conflict between man and nature, of the individual's night sea journey to self-knowledge. The setting is incidental; Crane is not interested in nautical details, the exotic color of sea life. Yet the sea and the actions of four men in an open boat do provide a metaphorical framework for Crane's story. The boat, throughout Western literature, has been a key symbol. According to W. H. Auden, there are two views of a ship: as a vessel isolated in the ocean—thus a microcosm of society—and as a vehicle of escape from the shore—thus an image of freedom. The boat in which the correspondent comes to some kind of terms with external nature and with his own nature fits simultaneously both of Auden's categories. “If thought of as isolated in the midst of the ocean, a ship can stand for mankind and human society moving through time and struggling with its destiny. If thought of as leaving the land for the ocean, it stands for a particular kind of man and society as contrasted with the average land dwelling kind.”16 The correspondent's ordeal at sea will be at once an escape from and an immersion in society. The impact of Crane's sea story on the reader comes from the sense of human engagement that permeates the traditional apparatus of sea fiction and transforms the tightly wrought prose into a richly symbolic narrative.

Characters, events, scene, dialogue, plot, extension of time, all the elements of the short story are selected with care in “The Open Boat,” selected from the diffuse observation that went into Crane's two other treatments of his shipwreck experience. In “The Open Boat,” as in The Red Badge of Courage and “The Monster,” Crane simplifies his material and attempts to reduce his setting to the barest essentials, in order to approach the ultimate meaning and value implicit in the events. While the philosophy behind this tale may seem naturalistic, even nihilistic, and Crane's view of nature is undoubtedly harsh, the technique is realistic, although at times it borders on the surrealistic. Selection, individuation, analysis, stylizing, sardonic humor, and immense control mark the substance of “The Open Boat,” just as spareness and ruggedness characterize a prose that often in the past was almost too rich. Indeed, if one were to make a case for “The Open Boat” as parody, one might argue that Crane is ridiculing the excesses of an absolutist, naturalistic prose and a rigid, deterministic philosophy. For the fittest does not survive here; yet human effort does, for most of the men, defeat nature, albeit quixotically. I think that the force of Crane's own involvement in these events extends his realistic range further than anywhere else in his fiction. Since the action at sea was his best and truest (and last) engagement with the elemental forces that always amazed him, he must set the record straight, as a realist. Whatever parodic elements are present in “The Open Boat” are there in passing. Crane's commitment was too subjective to allow for the full exercise of wit that marks the openings of most of his works of parodic realism; the burlesque element is eliminated. For “The Open Boat” is itself the story of Stephen Crane's short life, a constant battle with the stormy elements that led to both victory (his permanent art) and defeat (his early death). And in his deathbed hallucinations, it is reported, Crane was still trying to change places in the boat.17

In his subtitle to “The Open Boat” Crane calls it “A Tale Intended to be After the Fact” (XII, 27), an ambiguous statement perhaps referring to the idea that factual events control the fiction; or that the “Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore” takes place after the fact of the sinking itself, treated elsewhere; or, indeed, that fiction must be written after the occurrence of the factual happenings and is inevitably after—at a remove from—the fact. Even before the story proper begins, Crane's prose has its uncertainties. The story is paradoxical in form and idea, and ends as it begins—in doubt. The polarities set up by the struggle of four men to guide an open boat through a wild sea to land are threefold: man is helpless, yet the individual ego is all-engrossing; nature is indifferent, yet its opposition is overwhelming; the shore (safety, life) is within sight, yet the sea (danger, death) makes the land seem far away. In spare prose and terse dialogue “The Open Boat” treats the existential dilemma of the absurdity of man's immersion in the destructive element.

The story's opening sentence seemed to many of Crane's contemporaries to be one of the great lines in English prose fiction. “None of them knew the colour of the sky.” The simple phrase is packed with meaning. The reader infers the isolation of the men, their unity in the ordeal, the indifference—colorlessness—of nature, the men's limited viewpoint, the monotony and boredom of their lot. Crane will use the phrase as a leitmotiv to emphasize these concepts, and the emphasis seems all the heavier to the reader accustomed to Crane's full, often too full, splashing of color. Here is language coming through the narrator, not the narrator expressing himself through language.18 This opening line indicates the enigmatic quality of nature and life, as well as the narrowness of men's understanding. For even in a dark coal mine, men know the color of the sky: “Overhead stretched a sky of imperial blue, incredibly far away from the sombre land.”19 And even in the crew's extremity in “The Ancient Mariner,” the sun “right up above the mast,/Had fixed her to the ocean.”20 Often in sea fiction the degree of visibility is an emblem for the degree of conscious knowledge, and fog often stands for self-delusion.21 Therefore the opening line suggests the limits of man's self-knowledge and understanding of heaven and earth. Some knowledge, however, they do have, for “all of the men knew the colours of the sea” (p. 29); they do comprehend their immediate situation.

The four characters in the boat are, in some ways, caricatures of conventional shipwreck survivors. The correspondent, through whose consciousness most of the narration passes, is at the start pretentious, querulous, filled with self-irony—hardly a heroic figure. His language is mocking, turning the boat into a bathtub and the waves into wrongful and barbaric heights. He watches the waves and wonders why he is there, like all uncommitted, born observers, or correspondents. The cook, as in the previous tale, is fat and comic. The injured captain is morose and indifferent—a realistic characterization but, again, the reverse of heroic. At this point Crane analyzes the captain's feelings more fully than those of the others. Even the bravest and most enduring must mourn when “the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down” (p. 30). The captain recalls seven upturned faces (three remain), the stump of the ship's topmast. He is the man of responsibility who at sea, in war, in business—in the world, in other words—must bear the burden of failure, a pang “beyond oration or tears” (p. 30). He rarely comments on their situation, only issues brief orders when necessary. The oiler, the fourth man in the open boat, is scarcely individualized. Our knowledge of him accrues gradually throughout the story, as if Crane were deliberately underplaying the description so that the reader may come to know the oiler by his actions, for he is the man who does, not contemplates. Although his end is, therefore, all the less expected, Crane does prepare us for it in this first section, as many readers have noticed. The oiler, physically in charge as usual, is steering with one oar. “It was a thin little oar, and it seemed often ready to snap” (p. 29). Although, like Conrad's Singleton in The Nigger of theNarcissus,” the oiler steers with care, his hold on life is also thin and ready to snap—the human condition.

This first section sets the scene for their test. As in The Red Badge of Courage, but much earlier in the game, the men must ascertain a fundamental fact about life, that a danger passed only means that another danger is on its way. For Henry Fleming, another enemy attack was an indignity; for the men in the boat, scrambling over the walls of water like bucking bronchos, the “next menace” (p. 30) already seems inevitable. In his irony Crane terms this need to surmount another wave a singular disadvantage of the sea, but there is nothing singular about it, and the sea, like war, represents life. What the men learn about the resources of the sea and its waves seems unique, of course, and “not probable to the average experience which is never at sea in a dinghy” (p. 31); but as Crane insists throughout his tale, and throughout his fiction, we are all at sea. (Life, said Melville, is a ship on a passage out.) The waves display the “terrible grace” of life itself.

A parodic hint comes from Crane's understanding of the mechanics of point of view in fiction. The author, and the reader, can see the absurdity of these weak, futile men. “Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque” (p. 31); most nineteenth-century sea fiction is seen from afar and is shown to be picturesque. Crane's comment reveals remarkable insight into the problems of narration, for the concrete situation of men in a wave-surrounded boat in contrast to the position of author and reader—above and beyond—can be abstracted into the familiar fictional difficulty where the characters must not know as much as the author and his listener. We know the colors, but the characters cannot. They must infer, by light reflecting from the sky to the surface of the ocean, the time of day, while we, on our balcony, see daybreak. “They were aware only of this effect upon the colour of the waves that rolled toward them” (p. 31).

The introductory section closes on a note of hope. The cook is sure that they are nearing a house of refuge or a lifesaving station; this hope fascinates the correspondent. The oiler, in the stern, facing the shore and in a position to see, is realistic and repeats, “We're not there yet” (p. 32).

The second of the seven sections explains the tensions of sea against land and man against nature that dominate the tale. The sea, as in Moby Dick, is both splendid and treacherous. Gulls exist complacently in this ocean that poses a threat to human existence. To them, “the wrath of the sea was no more … than it was to a covery of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland” (p. 33). Nature's benignity or malevolence is not absolute; it all depends on the viewpoint. To the men, the birds resemble Coleridgean albatrosses, “uncanny and sinister,” ugly, gruesome, ominous—and free.

Crane employs a familiar ballad technique, incremental repetition, throughout this story to stress the dull redundancy of life at sea. This iteration is ironic in its overemphasis. “In the meantime the oiler and the correspondent rowed. And also they rowed. They sat together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. … They rowed and they rowed” (p. 34). A lighthouse is sighted, tiny, as puny as all man's creations, and the captain is sardonic on the question of free will. “‘Think we'll make it, Captain?’ ‘If this wind holds and the boat don't swamp, we can't do much else’” (p. 35).

The third section is crucial to an understanding of the story's conclusion. The men are optimistic, hopeful that rescue is near, that their existential ordeal (“Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing” [p. 37]) is drawing to close. They no longer have to “slave” at the oars, the sky has “almost assumed colour.” These sea creatures that once were men are nearly human again. Nature itself starts to serve them when they manage to rig a sail from the captain's overcoat. Whatever torment their situation has involved, it has been the same for all of them. Although we gain our understanding of this experience through the correspondent's thoughts, there is here no division between his statements and the beliefs of the author. Crane is lyrical in telling of the “subtle brotherhood of man” established at sea. Too subtle for analysis—“No one mentioned it”—the relationship is simply there. “But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him” (p. 36). They were friends, in a “curiously iron-bound degree.” The correspondent, or we may dare the biographical fallacy in this case to say the Stephen Crane who had finally experienced what he sought in battle and life, comprehends the personal quality of comradeship, what Henry Fleming, by the end of the war novel, had ascertained for himself. The correspondent, “who had been taught to be cynical of men,” knows at once that his devotion to his fellows in the boat will make up “the best experience of his life” (p. 36). He has learned, in the sea (where better?), that no man is an island.

As the boat draws ever nearer the shore, the men consider their situations, the correspondent's weariness, the oiler's tired muscles—for he had worked a double watch in the engine room before the ship sank. But the sea is not yet ready to give up its victims. There is no response from the lighthouse, and the men infer that the other boats have not reached land. The men are proud of themselves, almost cocky in their certainty that salvation impends, despite the force of the surf. Crane returns the point of view to the balcony as the men light four cigars; “the four waifs rode impudently in their little boat and, with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars, and judged well and ill of all men” (p. 39). A dash of hubris here, certainly, yet the tone is light, reminiscent of “The Reluctant Voyagers.” They are puny but confident. “Everybody took a drink of water” (p. 39).22

The fourth section, the story's longest, is the most emotional. The men rail at the inconsiderate shore and its myopic denizens, groan at their exhaustion, revolt against fate or life or whatever controls their destinies. Crane draws out the section to indicate the sense of anticlimax that the weary, shore-hungry men feel. Their limited viewpoint makes them frustrated, and they are bitter toward the land and its people, because the men do not share the knowledge the author imparts to the reader—in one of the rare passages where Crane's shift to an overview is awkward and obtrusive—that no populated lifesaving station exists near their position.

At this juncture the consciousness of the correspondent becomes more crucial and, as Crane makes explicit, the narrator's ruminations represent the thoughts of the other three men as well. Five times in “The Open Boat” these thoughts recur; each subsequent articulation is progressively shortened, as the tempo of the narration speeds up. Here, in the most languid part, man's tense rage gets its fullest formulation.

“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.” At this stage of the castaway's complaint, a sort of humility compounds with the rage. The gods may be mad, but man exists only in his inglorious rathood, seeking to nibble life's cheese. The complainer goes on to ask why life should tempt man with any visions of happiness. “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 antihero concludes that “The whole affair is absurd” (p. 41). Once again a whiff of parody is noticeable. How unlike traditional seafarers' complaints this passage is! Usually the hero is either stoic in his acceptance or devout in his prayers. Here man's egoistic reason attacks the perversity of nature and fate. Trapped in the human situation—too far out to swim, too near to live in the surf—the boat must be steered by the “quick miracles” of the oiler, a “wily surfman,” and returned to sea. After much more rowing, the men finally bring the boat within sight of an inhabited beach, but they cannot understand the frantic signals of the man on the shore, just as he is unable to hear their shouts. In the human predicament, communication fails.

Now a new misery must be endured, a night sea journey in the open boat. Again the correspondent poses the overwhelming question: “Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away … ?” (p. 47). The fourth section melts into the fifth. In their isolation—“A night on the sea in an open boat is a long night” (p. 47)—the sense of fellowship grows even stronger. The men huddle together for warmth; even the rower shoves his legs under the bodies of his companions. And the oiler and the correspondent, prime movers, men of action, draw particularly close as they alternately row and sleep. Out of a sense of honor they are careful to spell each other without shirking. The comic cook sleeps, clumsy in his life preserver, yet he too fulfills a function since he is “almost stove-like” when an exhausted and chilled rower drops down to sleep. The captain, this “iron man,” remains awake. As the correspondent rows, he realizes both the beauty of their fellowship and the grotesqueness of this parody of sea adventure. “The cook's arm was around the oiler's shoulders, and, with their fragmentary clothing and haggard faces, they were the babes of the sea—a grotesque rendering of the old babes in the wood” (p. 49).

Despite the presence of his three companions, the correspondent is morbidly aware of man's essential loneliness as, in a phrase from “Dover Beach,” the breath of the night wind comes “down the vast edges drear/and naked shingles of the world.” In Crane's terms, “The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end” (p. 50). Nature bestows not only isolation but also fear. The swishing sound and sparkling streak of a shark's fin are monstrous. Still, a man in extremis can withstand such terrors; his emotions dulled, he merely swears and, as section six opens, repeats a clipped version of the query to the seven mad gods. At this juncture Crane makes explicit that the reader must no longer fully accept the correspondent's views. He is callow, egocentric. The author casts a cool eye on the correspondent's realization that other people had drowned at sea since the time men sailed in galleys, but … Any strictly naturalistic interpretation of the story is qualified by the irony of Crane's rather pitiless, if wryly humorous, analysis of the correspondent's romantic ego. He becomes childish in his self-pity. “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples” (p. 51). Like the mocked protagonist of many of Crane's poems, the correspondent wants to confront some personage, some god, and explain, “Yes, but I love myself” (p. 51).

One aspect of the knowledge that slowly comes to him during the silent, hopeless, long night makes up the philosophical core of “The Open Boat.” Man is not important. Nevertheless, while the correspondent realizes the dehumanizing pathos of his situation, he also learns that in his wretched isolation he becomes a part of mankind. If each member of the open boat must, according to Crane, reflect upon these matters as the individual mind leads, then the correspondent—the writer, the intellectual, the reader-surrogate—ponders the imponderable by referring to a poem learned long ago in school:

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.”

(p. 52)

One readily sees the aptness of the poem, which, incidentally, the correspondent misquotes.23 The youthful memory returns when the immediate concrete situation makes relevant what had seemed mere poetic abstraction. Although he and his classmates had memorized the verse, he had been indifferent to the soldier's plight; lonely death and the need for comradeship had been unimportant. “He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point” (p. 52; the image is an apt one for a schoolboy and might also refer to the approaching death of the oiler, whose thin little oar seemed ready to snap). While the correspondent is alone and embittered by nature's indifference, he is also developing, growing through his ordeal to an understanding of other men's sorrows, lives, and deaths. Matured, he can now feel the impact of the poem to which as a schoolboy he was impervious. The inclusion of the poem in Crane's story typifies the parodic approach used more pervasively elsewhere in his work; the conventional verse is bathetic and worth mocking, but when the convention comes under the pressure of terribly real events, it releases its underlying truth.

Now because of his extended range of experience, the correspondent can envision the soldier, stretched out on the sand, blood seeping through his fingers. The correspondent is moved by “perfectly impersonal comprehension” and is sorry for the dying soldier. This is why the experience is the finest of the correspondent's life. In “The Open Boat” he does suffer a sea change that makes him at once a better and a more sensitive man, capable of understanding his isolation in the face of nature and of reading, in the faces of men, the signs of comradeship.

Having realized that he is not spiritually alone, he comprehends that he has not actually been alone, for the captain has been awake all along and has also seen the shark. The oiler and the correspondent, welded together by their shared efforts at the oars, continue to help each other, and their comrades, to survive.

The seventh and final section gives the climax to their efforts. Action and idea coalesce in a conclusion that is powerful and ironic, but that fits both the form (the striving for land) and the theme (nature's indifference) of “The Open Boat.” At the start of this section Crane indicates that the experience in the open boat has taught the men something. Now they know the color of the sky, “a sky of pure blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves” (p. 55). One bit of new knowledge is the perception of nature's serenity amid the individual's struggles. A long-standing belief of Crane, this view has mellowed since his early works. In 1894 he characterized the war between man and nature thus: “Sometimes their enemy becomes exasperated and snuffs out ten, twenty, thirty lives. Usually she remains calm, and takes one at a time with method and precision. … Man is in the implacable grasp of nature.”24 In “The Open Boat” nature is neither cruel nor treacherous, beneficent nor wise. Crane no longer retains any trace of the naturalistic fallacy. “But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (p. 56).

The real danger of their situation heightens the men's perceptions. The captain warns that when the boat swamps, they must be calm. The oiler, still the most capable, suggests that he bring the boat about and back it in—thus he is the only one who sees where they are going, who contemplates their fate. They show no fear, but there is some shrouded meaning in their glances. It is just this shrouded meaning that supplies the final part of wisdom. There is no more time for rhetoric, and the correspondent's motto is stripped of all superfluous words; no more seven mad gods or cheese of life. He is exhausted in body, and his phrase gives a measure of this fatigue. “It merely occurred to him that if he should drown it would be a shame” (p. 57).

When the boat finally swamps, the correspondent, shocked by the water's coldness, considers the situation sad and “tragic.” This egocentric view of what constitutes tragedy dissipates when he comes to the surface. Then he is most conscious of his companions. And this is the fundamental lesson of the open boat—comradeship, fellowship; his rebirth after immersion has made him cast off the last vestiges of his crippling ego. The disposition of the four men in the sea is crucial. “Afterward he saw his companions in the sea. The oiler was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly” (p. 58). The cook comically floats in his life jacket, lying on his back, and at the captain's order paddles himself as if he were a canoe. The captain hangs on to the overturned boat with his one good arm. And the correspondent holds on to a piece of life belt he had seized as he went overboard. Each of these three, the captain, cook, and correspondent, has, grasped tightly to his person, a part of the boat, a relic of their fellowship (just as Melville's Ishmael finds salvation through hanging on to the symbol of his friendship—and a part of the Pequod—Queequeg's coffin). Only the oiler goes it alone, secure in his own strength. This is not to say that man in a group loses all self-interest; the correspondent does not forgo his coda, “Can it be possible?” Can man die—is such a phenomenon of nature possible? Now, however, the correspondent himself can shift his point of view from his immediate situation, as the author had done previously, and look down upon himself from a balcony. His balcony, his angle of vision, reflects what he has learned about human solidarity since his days of youthful poetry reading. “… he was impressed as one who, in a gallery, looks at a scene from Brittany or Algiers” (p. 59). His captain, a true leader, reinforces this truth. Calling the correspondent by name, the captain literally turns his face from the shore, toward his comrade, and reminds him of their experience and their best hope. “Come to the boat! Come to the boat!” (p. 60). Rejoin us (come back to the raft, Huck), trust not yourself but your fellows. Only at this stage of the story does Crane indulge in any openly religious diction. In his return to the group, the correspondent receives help from the sea; a wave flings him toward the shore, and “this little marvel of the voyage” is “a true miracle of the sea” (p. 60). The man from the beach who drags the cook ashore is a saint with a halo—an exaggeration to express the correspondent's relief at their salvation. And the captain once more stresses self-abnegation and care for the group by waving off this savior and sending him after the correspondent.

Only the oiler, the proud, the strong, the man alone, is drowned. For the others, those who retained solidarity and trusted in each other rather than in themselves, “The welcome of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous; but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land's welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave” (p. 61). Ironic? Certainly. The oiler seems to be the best, and he comes off the worst. Nature is indifferent to virtue. The desperately sought land is found, but the hopefully anticipated earth is that of the grave. Yet I read this story positively—not negatively, not ironically. The oiler dies because he did not retain the lesson of the sea that he learned while in the boat—the value of group action—and because, obeying his own hubris, he deserted the group at the end. Auden has described this prideful hero who thinks “that his superior qualities are not given him by the gods [the seven mad gods], or fate, or nature, but earned by him …”25

Nor do I believe that this ending calls for interpretation in religious terms, although such an interpretation is possible. The land is a haven (heaven) that man seeks through his struggle on the surface of the water (life) filled with sharks (devils) in the depths (death); land is reached by following the captain's (prophet's) directions about the brotherhood of man, and the savior complete with halo drags one ashore, while the prodigal is lost. But we should not insist upon the oiler as any kind of Christ figure, even though it could be argued that by his exertions he has sacrificed himself, that by his death the truth has been revealed to the survivors, and that he can perform miracles with the oars—although he cannot walk on water. As in the case of the profane Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage, who also has a few similarities to Christ, the reader cannot identify the whole man by a number of Christ echoes; the oiler is no Christ figure. Is the conclusion of the story paradoxical? He who fights hardest is killed, but nature is indifferent to such virtue; this indifference would seem to be the basic argument of the tale, if the oiler's self-imposed isolation is ignored.

What the correspondent learns is, to be sure, that man's ambitions are limited. There is no such conclusion as total victory over environment. Three out of four is pretty fair success. Although the correspondent is no hero, he can learn from the dead hero's error. The oiler showed the correspondent how to row, but the latter realizes the importance of men, not just a man. The oiler, if we may borrow one of W. H. Auden's formulations again, succumbs to the “inner danger to treat the situation as an aesthetic relation between them [here, the art of getting to the shore] and forget or deny their relation to the truth [that men must help each other, all through the long voyage home] which is the important thing.”26 Therefore, there is no irony in the fact that the oiler is the only one to die; the ending is imaginatively appropriate. Unlike the Ancient Mariner who learned to repent and thus survived the crew, unlike Ishmael who gave up his love of self by loving Queequeg and was alone saved, the oiler, in his self-trusting refusal to stick with the boat, loses his life. That, I think, is the message sounded by “the great sea's voice to the men on the shore”; that is why they finally feel “they could then be interpreters” (p. 61). Some of Crane's skepticism breaks through here, for they can only interpret nothingness—perhaps a note of parody of traditional endings that stress the deep understanding attained by survivors. Now they truly know the color of the sky, some truth about the interdependence of men—and nature. The youthful Marlow in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” also learned this lesson, in the book written by Stephen Crane's friend in the same year as “The Open Boat.” “Haven't we,” asks the narrator, “together and upon the immortal sea, wrung out a meaning from our sinful lives?”27


  1. Conrad and Crane admired each other's sea writing; Conrad praised “The Open Boat” highly, and Crane originally sought Conrad's friendship because of an admiration for The Nigger of the “Narcissus.” One of Crane's rare literary pronouncements refers to this story. Conrad, said Crane, came nearer to an ownership of the mysterious life on the ocean than anyone else who wrote during the nineteenth century. See “Concerning the English ‘Academy’” (1898), Stephen Crane: Uncollected Writings, ed. Olov W. Fryckstedt (Uppsala, 1963), p. 304.

  2. Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), p. 9.

  3. Philbrick, Cooper and American Sea Fiction, p. 20.

  4. Crane laughed at this tradition (and at himself) in an 1898 dispatch “Chased by a Big ‘Spanish—Man O'—War’” in which the “enemy” turns out to be an American ship. “A stern chase! Shades of Marryatt and Cooper.” Uncollected Writings, p. 332.

  5. All these stories end on the same note: “Finally, everybody perishes with the exception of the fortunate few, among whom is the hero, whose powers of resistance are abnormal.” Ernest C. Ross, The Development of the English Sea Novel (Ann Arbor, n.d.), p. 37.

  6. Stephen Crane, letter to Ripley Hitchcock, March 26, 1896, Stephen Crane: Letters, ed. R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes (New York, 1960), p. 121.

  7. The Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane, ed. Thomas A. Gullason (New York, 1963), p. 62. Subsequent references to this edition follow immediately in the text.

  8. Stephen Crane: Uncollected Writings, ed. Olov W. Fryckstedt (Uppsala, 1963), pp. 20-21.

  9. Uncollected Writings, p. 93.

  10. Uncollected Writings, p. 117.

  11. Uncollected Writings, p. 235. Page references for subsequent quotations from this piece are given in the text.

  12. According to W. H. Auden, writers such as Melville and Hopkins—and, I would add, Crane—have a more difficult time than authors who describe purely imaginary voyages, for with the former “there is the extra complication of the relation of objective reality to subjective meaning.” Auden, The Enchafèd Flood (New York, 1950), pp. 74-75.

  13. Malcolm Cowley, “A Natural History of American Naturalism,” in George F. Becker, ed., Documents of Modern Literary Realism (Princeton, 1963), p. 444.

  14. N. G. Chernishevsky, “Life and Aesthetics,” in Becker, ed., Documents, p. 54.

  15. I assume that this is Flanagan, according to the logic of the story, although the oiler, unmentioned here, is also Irish.

  16. W. H. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood (New York, 1950), p. 66.

  17. Lillian Gilkes, Cora Crane (Bloomington, 1960), p. 257.

  18. Donald Davie, “Mr. Eliot,” New Statesman, 66 (1963), 496.

  19. Stephen Crane, “In the Depths of a Coal Mine” (1894), Uncollected Writings, p. 65.

  20. Cf. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood, p. 14.

  21. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood, p. 77.

  22. Perhaps an eager symbol hunter could find importance in the fact that this is the first mention of anyone's drinking water. Could this act refer to more jousting with the gods, an attempt to show man's dominance over water?

  23. The lines come from “Bingen on the Rhine” by Lady Caroline Norton, a rather sentimental nineteenth-century lyric that recounts a dying soldier's memories of youth and love in Germany. He dies in a foreign land while the moon shines calmly down, as indifferent as is Crane's nature. The correspondent quotes correctly the first two lines and the first phrase of line three, then omits the remainder of that line, “while his life-blood ebbed away,” skips line four and the start of line five, “And bent, with pitying glances, to hear what he might say./The dying soldier faltered …,” then cuts into the rest of line five and then six. The poem must have represented for a generation of American schoolboys a set piece with reference to death. On his deathbed, John Jay Chapman kept murmuring, “A soldier lay dying, a soldier lay dying,” and he added just before he died, “But there is lack of nothing here.” Richard B. Hovey, John Jay Chapman—An American Mind (New York, 1959), p. 347. Chapman apparently took the poem at face value as a hymn to heroism. See his “A Soldier of the Legion,” Vanity Fair, December 1918, p. 23.

  24. Crane, “In the Depths of a Coal Mine,” Uncollected Writings, pp. 71-72. And see Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York, n.d.), p. 68: “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”

  25. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood, p. 94.

  26. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood, p. 96.

  27. Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of theNarcissus,” in The Viking Portable Conrad, ed. M. D. Zabel (New York, 1947), p. 453.

John T. Frederick (essay date April 1968)

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SOURCE: Frederick, John T. “The Fifth Man in ‘The Open Boat’.” The CEA Critic 30, no. 7 (April 1968): 1, 12-14.

[In the following essay, Frederick considers a few different critical approaches to “The Open Boat” and perceives the story to be “an intense paradigm of the human situation as a whole.”]

I often wonder what other professed teachers of literature think and feel when they are confronted by the collocation of a large class and a masterpiece, and the implicit obligation to bring the two into some measure of significant relationship. Within the last few days I have read Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” for perhaps the twentieth and twenty-first and twenty-second times; and with each reading I have been for half an hour a fifth man in the little craft: weightless, adding nothing to the load that almost swamps it; incorporeal, opposing no obstacle to the movements of the four already there; but intensely and ineluctably one with them: and each time as I laid the book down I have been strongly convinced that this is a great work of fiction.

But what can I do about it? How can I share my experience with a hundred other minds? Perhaps the simplest course is not to try: to avail myself of some one of the familiar alternatives to actual confrontation of a masterpiece.

I can have recourse, for example, to the dependable biographical ploy. I can readily talk for fifty minutes about the life of Stephen Crane: rather entertainingly, and not without a small fraction of relevance. I can tell about the distinguished clergyman who was his father, and the socially and intellectually active and ambitious mother. I can develop as vividly as I know how his storing up of materials for The Red Badge of Courage and the other Civil War stories as he listened as a boy to the yarns of veterans loafing in the village square, subsisting on their pensions and living in their memories. I can tell how young Crane studied grammar and theology at Pennington Seminary and how he played baseball at Syracuse University, how he left school without a degree to become a reporter on the Brooklyn newspaper edited by his brother, and I can recount some of his misadventures and malfeasances as a reporter. These can be counted on to be entertaining.

I can tell how after living in the slums he wrote Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, and how the brother advanced $500 to get it printed on cheap stock with a yellow paper binding, and how it didn't sell. And I can tell how Crane sent a copy to William Dean Howells, then at the highest point of his influence in American literary affairs: fearfully and with little hope of Howells' attention; and how Howells wrote an extended and positive review, and caused the review to be published on the front page of a prominent newspaper, and how thereafter publishers sought Crane out with offers of contracts. I can tell how late in 1896 Crane as a correspondent joined a filibustering expedition to Cuba, and how the ship was sunk and Crane with a handful of other men spent fifty hours in an open boat in stormy waters, and how thereafter he responded instantly to the magnetism of war anywhere in the world—in Cuba, in Greece—and made journalistic history. And I can tell how back in New York Crane wrote too fast and lived too fast, and the tongues of the jealous and the envious grew agile and venomous, and he went into voluntary exile in England. I can tell how in England he was neighbor and friend of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford and W. H. Hudson; and I can tell how the lying and venomous tongues followed him to England, and how he fled to Germany and died there at the age of twenty-nine.

Yes, I can make an entertaining and mildly relevant lecture of it; and perhaps as many as ninety of the hundred students will listen, and only the young man who works nights as a bartender will go to sleep, and I will feel pleased with myself: until I meet the eyes of that fifth man in the boat—myself as reader—and see the reproach there.

Perhaps I'd better try the scholarly ploy instead. It is fashionable and eminently respectable, and there are graduate students in the class eager to fill capacious notebooks. By recourse to bibliographies and a few hours in the library I can assemble an adequate summary of what critics have said about “The Open Boat”—its provenance, its structure, its vocabulary—and by stretching these a bit I can fill an hour. And this time twenty of the hundred will listen and add crowded pages to their notebooks, and the rest will occupy their minds in more attractive ways for the fifty long minutes. And the eyes of the fifth man in the boat will be more sternly reproachful.

Ah, but there's an idea! The literature of “man against the sea!” I can contrive a real lecture there—starting with the Odyssey and the Book of Jonah and the Anglo-Saxons, and coming on down through The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe to Moby Dick and Conrad. I can get a lot of mileage out of Conrad—especially The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon.

But the man who has spent forty-eight hours as the fifth in the open boat looks at me now with eyes that are hard to meet, that ask “What are you here for?”

And I turn to the text at last, to the shopworn shibboleths of style and structure and characterization and suspense and resolution: knowing that I have no real answers, only observations and reflections of one reader among millions; knowing that in all probability there are those in the class who are equipped by past experience to read “The Open Boat” more adequately than I can, knowing too that there are almost certainly one or two or more in the class who are more richly endowed than I am in native capacity as readers.

“None of them knew the color of the sky.” Let me read the sentence a second time, and a third: “None of them knew the color of the sky. … None of them knew the color of the sky”: hoping that the muted resonance of the simple statement will fill our minds.

Then I can read the whole paragraph—slowly, with a measure of real reverence for its achievement—knowing that the quality of a great style is actually grasped and felt and realized through the ear as well as the eye:

None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.

I may venture to note the integrating power of the partially parallel phrasings—“none of the men knew … all the men knew,” “the color of the sky … the colors of the sea,” and to suggest the kinesthetic effect of these partial repetitions coupled with the phrases “narrowed and widened,” “dipped and rose,” making for a sense of dizziness; and the suggestion of tactual imagery, as of hardness and sharpness, in the words “jagged” and “points like rocks.” I can observe too the characteristic Crane qualities of integrated concreteness and abstractness in the second paragraph:

Many a man ought to have a bathtub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.

But if I am wise I shall not dwell long on style as style. I shall remember that appreciation of style is a personal matter resting ultimately on individual sensory endowment, that for some members of the class it is a matter recondite and unattractive and that others in the class unquestionably have greater powers of discrimination and sensitive perception than mine.

I shall reflect, too, that for the whole experience afforded by “The Open Boat” there are certainly some in the class who have richer preparation of actual experience than my own. I have rowed a boat, of course, and on occasion have rowed long enough to feel the first anticipatory twinges of the painful fatigue of arms and shoulders and back that the men feel in the story; but always on a river or a land-locked lake, never on a stormy sea. And I have seen waves, as high and black and massive as those pictured in this story—and in an adjacent area of the ocean where the brown masses of seaweed floated smoothly and lazily over them; but the sturdy old liner on which I rode crashed through them steadily without a tremor, and I looked down on them, not up. But there may be a man in the class who has served a hitch in the navy; and though probably he has never been at sea in a boat as small as the one in which we are imaginatively riding, he has probably seen waves from a comparable angle, and felt their weight and power more acutely than I possibly could.

Let me leave the essential sensory basis of the experience offered by the story, then, to note the gradual emergence into individuality of the four characters: the cook first, then the oiler, then most briefly the correspondent, and last of all the captain. And we note here in our brief glimpse into the captain's mind the fragmentary, incomplete and yet conclusive background of the situation: our minds are teased by the vision of “a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces,” and we wonder whether these were men who elected to remain on a doomed ship, whether the ship had no boats but this tiny one in which we are riding, and if it did what happened to them and indeed to the ship itself. If we have read the newspapers of the past few days we know that ships still are wrecked in waters adjacent to those of this story, and that men are drowned. But our speculations are swiftly erased by an imperative return to our present situation.

As we read the second page we continue to note the Crane signatures—the images and phrasings which are his trademarks: “A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking bronco, and by the same token a bronco is not much smaller.” War and the West were Crane's favorite fields of reference, and imagery drawn from both is constantly employed in his work. He had spent little actual time on the western frontier of his day; but he had ridden broncos as a tenderfoot, and he had watched others ride them or try to.

We may note in the following passage an excellent example of Crane's recourse to abstract terms and phrases in the midst of a highly concrete rendering of experience: a method markedly characteristic and individualizing in his style, and one which often gives an added dimension of impact:

A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after surmounting one wave, you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats

The personification of the sea in this passage is foreshadowing of the major thematic statements of the story later on. It is followed by an outstanding illustration of the use of mild understatement—here couched in essentially abstract language in harmony with the preceding observation on the sea and with an extension of its irony, as Crane observes:

In a ten-foot dinghy one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves that is not probable to the average experience which is never at sea in a dinghy.

We can note as we progress in the story the intensifying concreteness of specification of the experience we are undergoing, as the focus slowly shifts to the minds of the men in the boat:

As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut off all else from the view of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible grace in the movement of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests … the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald green streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow.

Initiated by the glimpse into the captain's mind on the second page, we come now to specific acquaintance with two others of the men in the boat, the cook and the correspondent, through their desultory conversation about the putative life-saving station or house of refuge which is the implicit goal of the journey.

With the beginning of the second section of the story, and in consistency with the partial entrance just made into the minds of the characters, Crane shifts the weight of his imagery from the visual to the tactual, to the impact of bodily sensations, with such words as “bounced,” “tore,” “plopped,” “slashed.” We share the irritation of the visit of the gulls and the common sense of their evil omen felt by the men in the boat. Progressively individuation of the four men is accomplished, along with the heavily stressed reiteration of their rowing; and the end of the section is marked by the great event of the sighting of the lighthouse.

The chief contribution of the third section is signaled by the phrase in its first sentence, “the subtle brotherhood of men.” This has meaning for all of us. Though we have never been literally at sea in a small boat, we have nearly all of us encountered grave trouble; and most of us have been fortunate enough to know the response of sympathy and help of other human beings—perhaps strangers to us, whom we may not have seen before or ever seen again. This is one of the major themes of the story, which Crane does not hesitate to state explicitly in the sentence just quoted. Even the correspondent, “who had been taught to be cynical of men,” recognizes it. Technically, this brief entrance into the correspondent's mind signals the increasing focus on him as the story progresses.

A quality noted briefly before is powerfully illustrated in this section: the emphasis of understatement. This is a resource very dear and important to Stephen Crane, a characteristic mark of his writing, illustrated here by the quiet remarks that “in the excitement of clambering about the deck of a foundering ship they had also forgotten to eat heartily,” and that “neither the oiler nor the correspondent was fond of rowing at this time.” Also there is one detail which is relevant to the election of the oiler as the one to die at the end of the story: “Previously to the foundering, by the way, the oiler had worked a double watch in the engine room of the ship.” This tells us that his fatigue is greater, if possible, than that of the others.

Also, near the end of the third section we get a partial resolution of the question raised in the first section by the apparition of the seven turned faces. There were other boats, we learn from the comment of the oiler “in a low voice: None of those other boats could have got ashore to give word of this wreck … else the lifeboat would be out hunting us.” Were the seven turned faces those of the men in the other, presumably larger and more seaworthy boats? Or those of men who refused to leave the sinking vessel in the mad seas? We don't know, and by this time we are so deeply involved in the fate of the four in the dinghy that it doesn't matter.

The section ends with the temporary relief which we and the four men find: in the hope held out by the sighting of the lighthouse and the nearness to land signalled by the sound of surf, and in the relaxing luxury of the cigars.

In the fourth section the development of the characters of all four of the men in the open boat is advanced impartially in their speculations about the lighthouse and the shore—often with speakers unspecified. The passage “If I'm to be drowned—if I'm going to be drowned—” is introduced as a composite feeling of all four of the men. It is twice repeated—once near the end of section four, with no individual ascription, and again in the beginning of the sixth section after the point of view of the correspondent has been distinctly focused.

In the intensity of identification with the men and their plight which he has thus far achieved, Crane permits himself in the fifth section a greater freedom of style, a sharper intensity: they feel the stinging spray “like men who were being branded. … Gray-faced and bowed forward, they mechanically, turn by turn, plied the leaden oars. … The streaked saffron in the west passed before the all-merging blackness, and the sea to the east was black.”

In the beginning of the fifth section the point of view is still distributed, common; but it is distinctly shifted to the mind of the correspondent with his question to the captain about the course. We see through the correspondent's eyes the cook swaddled in a lifebelt, and the reflection about “babes in the woods” places us definitely in his mind. It is he who feels as the others sleep that he “is the one man afloat on all the ocean,” and it is through his ears that we know that “The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end.” It is with the correspondent that we see the gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like blue flame, furrowed on the black water. With him we undergo the recurring shock and tension of the swift visits of the great shark; and if we have read another great story, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, we recognize a kinship.

With the sixth section we are still in the correspondent's point of view so far as the immediate situation is concerned. But his thoughts are temporarily generalized to those of “a man”—no doubt he himself thinks in these terms—to enunciate tentatively and partially a theme of the story:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.

Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot, he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying, “Yes, but I love myself.”

A high, cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

Though this observation is in general terms, its source is identified with the mind of the correspondent by the phrase “his emotion” just below; and the definite entrance into his mind with his recalling of the verse about “A soldier of the Legion” is firmly justified. This focusing of the angle of narration in the mind of the correspondent—though coming late in the action and not maintained with total consistency—seems to me one of the sources of the story's strength. We are identified with the correspondent with the opening words of the final section, and through his eyes witness the coming of the morning light and search the deserted beach. It is in his mind that Crane states again and more briefly and emphatically the partial theme of the story noted above: “… 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.”

The reader's intense participation in the final action is enforced by the suspense—the captain's “we won't get in very close”—by the weight of the correspondent's fatigue which limits his apprehension to the feeling that “if he should drown it would be a shame,” by his absurd resentment of the water's coldness. There is a meaningful suspension of progress in his conflict with the current, and what seems to me a convincing reversal of attitude expressive of his reaction from the close approach to death, in his struggle to respond to the captain's command. “Come to the boat,” and then the naked rescuer, the swift final action, and the sharp reversal in the death of the oiler. Crane uses only four lines for summing up:

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 the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.

I have twice referred to a voicing in the correspondent's thoughts of what I have called a “partial” expression of the story's theme. To my mind, what this story says is something more than a recognition of man's conflict with nature in the concrete terms of an open boat and the waves and extremity of exhaustion and a death by drowning at the verge of rescue. It seems to me to be something larger than its concrete terms: an intense paradigm of the human situation as a whole, not only of man's ultimate relation to the planet which he inhabits and affects to govern and subdue, but of his relation to other men as well, and thus of the total fact of life itself.

Donna Gerstenberger (essay date 1971-1972)

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SOURCE: Gerstenberger, Donna. “‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective.” Modern Fiction Studies 17 (1971-1972): 557-61.

[In the following essay, Gerstenberger views “The Open Boat” as “a story with an emphasis on the epistemological aspect of the existential crisis.”]

Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” is generally acknowledged to be among the masterpieces of the modern short story. The question of the story's excellence has never been debated; the only questions have been the proper means of defining the story's modernity and of accounting for what appear to be certain awkwardnesses of style, tone, and point of view.

“The Open Boat” has been hailed as an example of naturalistic fiction at its best until recent years, when the automatic and somewhat naive tendency to equate naturalism and modernity has been called into question in all the arts. Thus Peter Buitenhuis asserts in a recent study, “‘The Open Boat’ is not a naturalistic story,” and he confronts the story as “existentialist fiction,” concentrating on Crane's ironic presentation and the story's demonstration of the absurdity of the human condition.1 While Mr. Buitenhuis does not address himself to the question of “The Open Boat” as a modern short story, the implicit assumption is that use of the term existential automatically confers the status of modernity, as well it may. Yet such a reading leaves its author troubled by the same kinds of questions that troubled those who saw the story as naturalistic fiction—questions about Crane's style and about the story's protagonist. The answers to such questions come into focus when “The Open Boat” is viewed as a story with an emphasis on the epistemological aspect of the existential crisis.

The epistemological question about the problems of knowing and the limitations of man's ability to see and to know has become both subject and style in modern art from Conrad to Joyce, Picasso to Faulkner, Pirandello to Beckett. So persistent and pervasive has been the preoccupation with epistemological questions in modern art that it might almost be said to constitute a way of defining one aspect of modernity. Conversely, it might be said that the somewhat naive and programmatic view of reality held by the naturalists gives their work a certain old-fashioned quality, which Crane's story, demonstrably, does not share. “The Open Boat” calls equally into question the assumptions of photographic reality as well as those of idealized, romantic views of the universe.

With his opening sentence, “None of them knew the colour of the sky,”2 Crane makes clear a major concern of “The Open Boat.” The word knew in this famous first sentence is the key word, for the story which follows is about man's limited capacities for knowing reality. This opening sentence leads the reader toward the concluding line of the story, “… and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters”—a conclusion which, when the special emphasis of the story is acknowledged, is a good deal more complex than has generally been thought.

Crane's irony in “The Open Boat” grows out of the epistemological direction of the story. It is invested in the language and in the authorial point of view as well as in tone. This irony, based on Crane's perception of the disparity between man's vision of a just and meaningful universe and a world totally indifferent to such unrealistic notions, acknowledges the absurdity at the heart of the existentialist vision. Yet Crane, through his ironic treatment of his material, moves one step further: the implication of “The Open Boat” is that the vision of any human being must, of necessity, be false, even if that vision be a knowledge of the absurdity of the universe.

This extension of the epistemological question makes it clear that Crane intentionally divides his points of view among the various characters, and it is difficult to accept Peter Buitenhuis's conclusion that

Unfortunately, instead of confining these attitudes to a single character, the protagonist, Crane shifts at times to the points of view of the oiler, the cook, and the captain as well. He was probably trying to emphasize through this device that the experience was deeply shared by the four men, a point essential to the story's conclusion. However, in attributing to the four not only similar emotions but also similar formulations about the nature of existence, he presumes too much on the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Crane also unnecessarily seeks to make his point by using the omniscient point of view.3

To conclude, as Buitenhuis has, that Crane is mistaken in his failure to present his story from a single point of view, is to assert that Crane intended his story to be something other than it is, to assume that the sole aim of the story is a demonstration of the absurdity of the universe. I would suggest, on the contrary, that while the shared experience of absurdity is an aspect of the story, Crane's intention includes a demonstration of the impossibility of knowing anything with objective certainty, given the subjective, human instrument for perception.

The kind of authorial intrusion represented by the famous passage, “Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque,” can be accepted within the framework of Crane's intention when it is understood that, although the man on the balcony would have a distancing perspective not available to the men in the boat, he would be wrong about what he would be seeing. The human need to translate the open boat into the landscape terms of “picturesque” immediately falsifies at the same time that it represents a truth of human perception. The reader is reminded once again, by a passage like this, that a part of the injustice, the absurdity of the universe, is man's inability ever to know anything about the complex whole of experience.

In a similar kind of response, the correspondent, looking shoreward, contemplates the tall white windmill amidst the deserted cottages, which, in an echo of Goldsmith's formalized landscape, “might have formed a deserted village” and picturesquely sees it as “a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants.” To see the wind tower is to translate it into something else, into a reality invested with subjective meaning, even though that meaning be a statement about the objectivity of nature. For the tower “represented in 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 man.”

In much of modern literature, there is a sense in which existential man sometimes seems to achieve a modicum of heroic stature when he apprehends and accepts the absurd universe, for he has done what man can do, and insofar as he has done what all men are not able to do, he stands apart from the common run of men. Crane, however, is not willing to grant to his correspondent an heroic moment as a result of the “right” kind of perception (which in itself, in existential terms, often becomes a kind of absolute), for as the correspondent contemplates the flat indifference of nature, “a distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction or at tea.”

One might expect Crane to speak of the man's “new knowledge of the grave-edge,” but his insistence upon ignorance denies the correspondent the absolute sanction so often bestowed as a result of confronting hard reality. Further, the conclusion of the passage, “he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea” has the same kind of anti-heroic effect worked so neatly upon Eliot's Prufrock, who can hardly be expected to force any moment to its crisis within the context of “tea and cakes and ices.” Crane refuses to permit his reader comfort of the kind involved in the equation that when the man who suffers becomes the man who knows, something of absolute value, however depressing, has been achieved.

Crane's practice of using apparently inappropriate or consciously awkward metaphors, analogies, or descriptive adjectives, which appear to devalue or overvalue in specific passages, challenges the reader's too-easy assumptions about what may be defined as heroic within the context of experiential stress. Several examples from the opening pages of the story may suggest the achievement of this general technique: “By the very last star of truth, it is easier to steal eggs from under a hen than it was to change seats in the dinghy.” The linking of absolute abstraction (“the very last star of truth”) with the homely, agrarian observation about the difficulty of stealing eggs from under a hen seems as inappropriate to the act of changing rowers as do the parts to each other. But the purpose of heroic deflation, of irony, is served, as it is in the serviceable awkwardness of the following: “In a ten-foot dinghy one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves that is not probable to the average experience, which is never at sea in a dinghy.” Crane refuses to romanticize the absurdity of experience, and the reader is constantly reminded that experience, like perception, is betrayed by the language by which it is conceptualized.

Not only does Crane constantly deny by stylistic devices the heroism of action or even of enduring necessity, but he also denies the heroism of knowledge in the context discussed above. Crane's extensive use of the subjunctive mood is a part of his statement that even a tough-minded view of the universe involves man in an uncertain questioning of the conditions within which his responses, even to absurdity, must be framed.

Examples of this kind all bear on the claim that “The Open Boat” may best be viewed as a story with an epistemological emphasis, one which constantly reminds its reader of the impossibility of man's knowing anything, even that which he experiences. The reaction of the correspondent, near the close of the story, to his fight for life against a hostile current is of interest because of its reminders of earlier passages central to an understanding of the story. He sees the shore, the white beach, and “green bluff topped with little silent cottages … spread like a picture before him.” The shore, in fact, is very close at this point, but “he was impressed as one who, in a gallery, looks at a scene from Brittany or Algiers.” The immanence of death, the difficulty of achieving the shore, formalizes experience once again into landscape, reminding the reader of the necessarily false perception of the earlier hypothetical view of the open boat from a balcony. (The use of the word gallery, a term also meaning balcony, reinforces the relationship of the two passages.) The locating of the landscape in “Brittany or Algiers” inevitably calls up a vision of the soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers, both in the romanticized picture of Lady Carolyn Bingen's lines and also in terms of the moment of understanding and fellow feeling that the correspondent experiences as he pictures the soldier lying “on the sand with his feet out straight and still.” “It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine.”

It has generally been assumed that the soldier dying in Algiers is important to Crane's intentions in “The Open Boat” because he provides the opportunity for a clear example of the kind of understanding, of human sympathy, of the valuable kind of knowledge which comes from experiential stress. In this respect, “The Open Boat” has been viewed as an “initiation” story, pre-figuring Hemingway's use of experiential stress as a key to knowledge. But it is important to bear in mind that the correspondent's new attitude toward the soldier falsifies, as do all the “pictures” or “landscapes” by which man seeks a delineated context for knowledge. The story in its totality makes it perfectly clear (as do Crane's other tales) that there is nothing “stern, mournful, and fine” in death, and this incident, which has generally been read as indicative of the correspondent's growth in knowing, may well serve as an example of the impossibility of untainted knowledge. To know the soldier in Algiers without a self-pitying desire to find something “stern, mournful, and fine” in death is not possible. The death of Billie, the oiler, contrasts with the picture of the soldier's death, and it certainly is indicative of the indifference of nature, for the arbitrary absurdity of his death is underlined by the fact that he is the strongest and the most realistic of the men aboard the dinghy. Crane's description of his death is presented more starkly than anything else in the story: “In the shallows, face down ward lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea.” No pictures, no objectifying landscapes, no stylistic ironies. The question of human perception is no longer a problem that applies to the oiler.

Within the epistemological context discussed in this paper, it would seem necessary, finally, to raise a question about the concluding lines of Crane's story: “the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.” The story has clearly shown the final absurdity to be the falsification of man's attempts to “interpret,” an act in which he is betrayed by the very language he must use to conceptualize, by the narrowness of vision, and by the further limitation of his need to frame, to formalize his apprehensions in a landscape, a poem, an irony, or a subjunctive statement of conditions that never were on land or sea. To “interpret” is not to be equated with knowing, and perhaps the final irony is in the community of shared experience which these final lines seem to suggest, for however communal the interpretation of the “great sea's voice,” nothing in the story suggests that any one of the three men remaining can conceptualize the death of the oiler without, perhaps, falsely transfiguring him into a figure like the soldier of the Legion, whose death was “an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine.”


  1. “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existentialist Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 3 (1959), 243-250.

  2. “The Essentials of Life,” p. 246.

  3. Buitenhuis, p. 246.

George Monteiro (essay date fall 1972)

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SOURCE: Monteiro, George. “The Logic Beneath ‘The Open Boat’.” The Georgia Review 25, no. 3 (fall 1972): 326-35.

[In the following essay, Monteiro argues that “The Open Boat” is an exploration of the fragility of human existence and the fickle nature of fate.]

Coming at last to the conclusion that man's freedom lies somewhere between Fate and, as he termed it, a “Beautiful Necessity,” Ralph Waldo Emerson turned to the figure of shipwrecks and castaways to convey his sense of the individual human being's precarious hold upon life within the province of Nature. “I seemed in the height of a tempest to see men overboard struggling in the waves, and driven about here and there,” he wrote. “They glanced intelligently at each other, but 'twas little they could do for one another; 'twas much if each could keep afloat alone. Well, they had a right to their eye-beams, and all the rest was Fate.”

For Emerson the metaphor of shipwreck remained a personal metaphor, though when he first put together his lecture on “Fate” he had just experienced something of its awesome literalness in the shipwreck off Fire Island which took Margaret Fuller's life. For Stephen Crane, however, shipwreck was to become a literal reality when the Commodore, an American ship carrying arms to the Cuban insurrectionists, sank off the Florida coast on New Year's Day 1897. Cast in the dual roles of reporter and author, the survivor made two attempts at transmitting his personal sense of the experience: “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” which appeared within the week in the New York Press, and “The Open Boat,” published in the June, 1897, issue of Scribner's Magazine. The story, of course, continues to evoke engaged critical response.

Probably because it is based on Crane's own experience, readers of “The Open Boat” generally minimize the richness of its archetypal quality. That the story has resonance beyond the experience depicted is readily acknowledged for the most part, but that that meaning bodies forth in a type for the human being in extremis goes unattended. When the reader moves back from the close focus on details of rowing and bailing and away from the bone-weariness of those who battle an endless series of waves so that he can take a more panoramic view of the entrapped boat, he begins to see that that detailed representation of life is actually the sketching in of the archetypal image of man sheltered from natural forces by the “egg-shell” of a life-boat.

Crane makes convincingly real to us just how precarious and tentative man's hold upon life actually is. What wastes away in the course of events is the unexamining man's sense of his own self-assurance, comfort, and safety. Drawing upon Schopenhauer, Nietzsche describes the ordinary human situation: “Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it.”

The concept of principium individuationis helps us to understand how man so orders his portion of experience that he can believe he controls it. The logical categories that he ordinarily lives by—a linear sense of time, meaningful sequences of cause and effect, the measurement of possibilities and probabilities—these, and others, enable him to keep on an even keel for most of his waking hours. Seldom does he acknowledge the fragility of these distinctions and categories. Useful as they usually are, these props are the first things to fail him in his crises. “Shipwrecks,” decides Crane's narrator, “are apropos of nothing.” “The ship goes down” and it is like “when, willy-nilly, the firm fails, the army loses.” In a shipwreck little survives of what a man formerly believed he could accomplish under those circumstances. Reason thwarted and expectations repeatedly frustrated, he soon discovers that his efforts go, not merely unrewarded, but, it sometimes seems, actually punished. What such men have learned to expect of experience can be largely discounted. Human activity, reduced to rowing and bailing, turns out to be Sisyphean:

A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats. In a ten-foot dinghy one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves that is not probable to the average experience, which is never at sea in a dinghy. As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all else from the view of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.

Each wave appears to be “the final outburst of the ocean,” but the brutal fact that they learn and relearn is that the store of such apocalyptic waves is endless.

At every point knowledge hinders perception. The cook and the correspondent argue about ways of differentiating between a life-saving station and a house of refuge, but the reality, though they do not then know it, is that in the vicinity neither exists, just as there is no lighthouse within miles when the men convince themselves that they have seen one. The men, experiencing the effect that the breaking day has upon the waves that come toward them, know not the “color of the sky,” but only the “colors of the sea”; while the “process of the breaking day was unknown to them.” Indeed their knowing the process would have been a way of reaffirming the idea that, in some measure at least, the principium individuationis is related to human efficacy, but even that consolation is withheld from them. Their moment of elation is quickly punctured. Having “seen” a house of refuge, “the four waifs rode impudently in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water.” But their sense of well-being arises from a collective misreading of reality, and when they realize that this is so, Crane writes: “They then briefly exchanged some addresses and admonitions,” just in case, the captain cautions, they “don't all get ashore.” “As for the reflections of the men, there was a great deal of rage in them”—

“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. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.” Afterward the man might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds. “Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!”

Ordinarily man views Fate, destructive though it might be, as a sober thing. Fate which tantalizes and taunts, however, is rather nasty. It wears on the collective sense of that propriety with which it should guide the cosmos in its conduct of human affairs.

Knowing only the caprices of Fate, the captain decides ruefully that the men must brave the surf individually before they become too weak “to do anything” for themselves. One assumption underlying his order is, of course, that human physical strength has some relation to survival of the individual, that logically the chances for survival are greatest for those who are strong and skillful. The strongest and most skillful of the four occupants of the boat, “a wily surfman,” is the oiler. Just as he is the source of the few useful suggestions for survival in the ten-foot dinghy, so too is he the one who is physically best prepared to battle the unpredictabilities of the surf. Shortly after having tumbled out of the boat into the sea, the correspondent notices without surprise that “the oiler was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly.” But it is exactly when each of the four swimmers has struck out for himself that the last shred of the correspondent's understanding of his experience disappears. He is sucked up in the “grip” of a “strange new enemy—a current,” and recognizing that he is helpless in the matter of his own survival, he gives himself up to his fate. Yet death is not to be his portion—not this time, anyway. “Later a wave perhaps whirled him out of this small deadly current, for he found suddenly that he could again make progress toward the shore.” The waves which had brought the “babes of the sea” so much sustained fear now inexplicably become agents of salvation. But the boat, which was the means of their surviving the sinking of the ship, now is a thing of danger. “An overturned boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man,” the narrator warns us. When the correspondent unwillingly moves perilously close to the bouncing dinghy, however, it is a wave that flings him “with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it.” Weak and weary beyond measure, the correspondent has his life given back to him twice.

Yet, the waves which spare the correspondent take their ransom in the person of the strong swimmer who was well “ahead in the race.” That the oiler dies while the others survive is as inexplicable as the passage in Ecclesiastes which his death recalls. To the survivors the only reality is that four of them have nibbled at the “sacred cheese of life,” but the “old hen” who is Fate has turned on one of them. Crane's tale startles us into recognizing the high degree of optimism built into those Darwinian ideals of natural selection and the survival of the fittest.

Stripping his account to the aftermath of shipwreck, Crane tells us almost nothing of the past lives of the men in the boat. Apart from the “subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas” and the fact that for the correspondent who “knew even at the time [this comradeship] was the best experience of his life,” we simply do not know how this experience relates to the past. For Crane himself, however, we can speculate on the matter with some assurance. In this experience Crane found new cause for his rigorous and somewhat systematic repudiation of an unquestioning faith in a protective Christ. To see this in a story whose only apparent references to religion come in a repeated complaint addressed to the “seven mad gods who rule the sea” and in threats levelled at a “temple” that does not exist, may be, at least at first, somewhat surprising. But Crane's practice in “The Open Boat” anticipates Ernest Hemingway's discovery that in writing fiction “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” What Crane omitted from this story, I would suggest, was his explicit answer to a Christian's interpretation of the meaning of what, he would agree, was a most emblematic experience: that in adversity Christ is the believer's certain protector. Crane's details in “The Open Boat” were drawn from actual experience, of course, but they are details resonant with meaning, especially when they are viewed against the background of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity.

In working out the emblematic nature of “The Open Boat,” it is instructive to take into account the fact that in the nineteenth-century there was a way, a late manifestation of a centuries-old tradition, of seeing the allegorical import of “The Life-Boat,” the title given to one segment of a popular book, Religious Allegories: Being a Series of Emblematic Engravings, published in 1854. Compiled by the Reverend William Holmes in conjunction with John W. Barber, this sequel to Religious Emblems, published nine years earlier, was intended to present the reader with emblems and allegories “designed to illustrate Divine Truth, in accordance with the Cardinal Principles of Christianity.” The full import of the emblem of the life-boat is given succinctly:

O what is this but a picture of the goodness of our God in Christ, in establishing his Church on the earth. The tempestuous sea is this world, the wreck is man; the life-boat is the Church, and the multitudes on shore may represent the heavenly host who look with interest into the affairs of man's redemption.

Testing it at every turn, Crane's story literalizes this emblematic figure, even in particulars. Although there is nothing explicitly Christian about him, the naked man who rushes into the surf (representing “the multitudes on shore,” who “may represent the heavenly host”) is described: “He was naked, naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint.” The overall result is a demythologizing of those “Cardinal Principles of Christianity.”

There is no explicit evidence that Crane knew Holmes and Barber's Religious Allegories. But he could have found the same figure, the Life-Boat, in the evangelical hymns popular in his day. The Sunday-school hymnals used during Crane's childhood constitute an unexamined source for several poems and stories. Hymnals were generously salted with celebrations of Christianity's protective power, a buoyant message that Crane rejected time and again. George's Mother, for example, can be read as a reply to the sentiments of Isaac Watts' hymn, “The Warfare,” whose primary message is that life's trials enable the Christian to grow strong in faith. That Crane's use of Watts' hymn, known also as “Holy Fortitude; or the Christian Soldier,” is deeply and explicitly ironic becomes evident when he has the mother sing it to herself even as her own faith is threatened and gradually weakened:

“Should I be car-reed tew th' skies
          O-on flow'ry be-eds of ee-ease,
While others fought tew win th' prize
          An' sailed through blood-ee seas?”

Take, as a second example of a Stephen Crane reply to a widely-known hymn, the castaway poem beginning “A man adrift on a slim spar.” Although the entire poem is paradigmatic to the concerns of this essay and has an obvious affinity at every point with “The Open Boat,” I shall quote only its third and central stanza:

The seas are in the hollow of The Hand;
Oceans may be turned to a spray
Raining down through the stars
Because of a gesture of pity toward a babe.
Oceans may become grey ashes.
Die with a long moan and a roar
Amid the tumult of the fishes
And the cries of the ships.
Because The Hand beckons the mice.

Crane's conceit in the line, “The seas are in the hollow of The Hand,” though ultimately deriving from Isaiah, came to him, I suspect, from the Wesleyan hymn which begins: “Lord, whom winds and seas obey,/ Guide us through the watery way;/ In the hollow of thy hand/ Hide, and bring us safe to land.” But just as the poem obviously recalls William Cowper's “The Cast-Away,” so too is it that the poem offers a reply to hymns of full affirmation like Cowper's own “Light Shining Out of Darkness”:

God moves in a mysterious way
          His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
          And rides upon the storm. …
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
          And scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter,
          And he will make it plain.

That “God is his own interpreter” recalls, of course, the final sentence of “The Open Boat,” which tells us that the survivors “felt that they could then be interpreters.” And both Cowper's poem and Crane's story, different as they are in sentiment, can be seen as responses to Elihu's advice to Job: “If there be a messenger with him, an interpreter, one among a thousand, to show unto man his uprightness: Then he is gracious unto him, and saith, Deliver him from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom.”

Nineteenth-century Protestant hymns regularly employed the familiar metaphor of Christianity as the life-boat of salvation, and a surprisingly large number of those hymns were favorites of those who compiled evangelical hymnals. Favorites among the favored were hymns such as P. P. Bliss's two treatments of the metaphor, “Sailing Into Port” (“Sailor, though the darkness gathers,/ Though the cold waves surge and moan,/ Trust thy bark to God's great mercy,/ Falter not, sail on, sail on.”) and “The Life-Boat,” known also as “Pull for the Shore.” For the moment let us defer consideration of the latter hymn.

Bliss himself, a great success on the evangelical circuit, compiled several exceedingly popular Sunday-school collections. If it were necessary to choose one of them as the one that the young Crane, child of late nineteenth-century Methodism, would most likely have encountered during his formative years, the prime candidate would have to be Bliss's Sunshine for Sunday-schools, first published in 1873 and frequently reprinted. Besides Watts's “Holy Fortitude” and Bliss's own “Pull for the Shore,” it contains Root and Rexford's “Your Father's at the Helm,” the uplifting lines of which Crane probably knew and sang:

In the night when storm and tempest
Howls about your little bark,
And no ray of light to guide you
Glimmers faintly thro' the dark,
Then remember, tho' the billows
Threaten all to overwhelm,
That the beacon star is shining,
And your Father's at the helm.
.....Never yet was vessel stranded
On the rocks and shifting sands,
If its course was wholly trusted
To the heavenly Pilot's hands;
He will guide you thro' the tempest
To his own delightful realm,
So be calm amid the danger,
For your Father's at the helm.

Although it is no more than probable that Crane knew this hymn, there can be no doubt that he knew Bliss's “The Life-Boat,” the hymn (referred to in Crane's story, “A Little Pilgrimmage,” as “Pull for the Shore,” its alternate title) that Whilomville's children are made to sing in Sunday-school.1 Here is something of Bliss's text:

Light in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand!
See o'er the foaming billows fair Haven's land.
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o'er;
Safe within the life-boat, sailor, pull for the shore.
Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar;
Safe in the life-boat, sailor, cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck and pull for the shore.
Trust in the life-boat, sailor, all else will fail
Stronger the surges dash and fiercer the gale,
Heed not the stormy winds, tho' loudly they roar;
Watch the “bright and morning star,” and pull for the shore.

Crane might have known that the ultimate source for Bliss's shipwreck-salvation metaphor was Paul's account of his three survivals of shipwreck, but Paul's evidence was to him as unconvincing as the assertions of Bliss's hymn. “I know what Saint Paul says,” Crane is reputed to have said on one occasion, “but I disagree with Saint Paul.”

In “The Open Boat” Crane successfully fulfilled the dictum that he had found in Emerson and had quoted with approval: “There should be a long logic beneath the story, but it should be kept carefully out of sight.” He matched his personal experiences of shipwreck against the essentialist, allegorical teachings of nineteenth-century Protestantism as he knew them, and he found their optimism decidedly wrong-headed. While the hymns talk of Christianity as the life-boat which in itself provides safety and salvation, Crane's story tells of a dinghy which at the last becomes as dangerous to human life as the sea itself.

“Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing,” Crane had written. That was not really true. What was apropos to Crane's experience was his astonished recognition, like Nietzsche's, that while an immense sea assails man at every instant, the illusory nature of ordinary existence—the detail of everyday life—seduces man away, with depressing ease, from facing that piece of bone-chilling knowledge.


  1. “The Life-Boat,” I would suggest, was also Crane's metrical and syntactical model for his fine anti-war poem, “War Is Kind” (1896).

E. R. Hagemann (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Hagemann, E. R. “‘Sadder than the End’: Another Look at ‘The Open Boat’.” In Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays, edited by Joseph Katz, pp. 66-85. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Hagemann provides an interpretation of the epigraph to “The Open Boat” and analyzes the ways in which the characters in the story perceive their situation.]


Toward the end of “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” a newspaper account of the sinking of the filibustering S. S. Commodore, the newspaperman says:

The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be 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, but let it suffice at this time to say that when we were swamped in the surf and making the best of our way toward the shore the captain gave orders amid the wildness of the breakers as clearly as if he had been on the quarter deck of a battleship.1

Undoubtedly, Crane was already planning his fictional version—he says he “would prefer to tell the story at once.” Furthermore, he included the title within the first sentence, i.e., “The Open Boat.” He also knew enough not to put too much into a story for the papers; knew enough not to waste what he had to say, or wanted to say, on that most uncomprehending of all readers, the reader of the newspaper. What was “instructive” would be the focus of the story, for after thirty hours in a small boat in the open Atlantic, he was an interpreter of many things. So were his two surviving companions, but Crane was the artist among them; and although he may have wanted to tell the story at once, it takes time to become an interpreter in an artistic or creative sense. Obviously it is significant that Crane did not attempt “at once” to write of and publish his open boat experiences.2

In the epigraph to “The Open Boat,” laid out like subheads in a news column, there is an important idea—“A Tale Intended to be after the Fact.”—in which Crane established the tie between the New York Press story and the finished short story. This tie cannot be stressed too strongly, and its importance will emerge in this analysis. Questions arise from these cryptic words, “A Tale Intended to be after the Fact.” The “Tale” is “The Open Boat.” “Intended” indicates that Crane proposed or designed. But why the quasi-legal language, “after the Fact”? What in fact is the “Fact”? Is it the adventure of the open boat, a ten-foot dinghy? Or is it the sinking of the Commodore in the early morning hours of 2 January 1897? Then “after” offers ambiguities. Does this suggest “later” or “afterward”; i.e., subsequent to the thirty-hour ordeal at sea; “in search of”; “in pursuit of”; “in the manner of”; “in honor of”; “concerning”? All are dictionary definitions, but as questions they are central to the meaning of “The Open Boat.”

I do not wish to appear bizarre by saying that one possible aid here is a legal dictionary. So close in terminology are “a Tale … after the Fact” and “accessory after the fact” that one wonders. In common law, states Ballentine's Law Dictionary, an accessory is “a person who, knowing a felony to have been committed, receives, relieves, comforts, or assists the felon, or in any manner aids him to escape arrest.”3 Contemporary accounts and recent scholarship on the problem of the Commodore's sinking do not indicate treachery from the Spanish (or Cuban) passengers. There was a leak, but the tiny Commodore had twice run aground (once in a fog on the St. Johns River, thereby damaging her seams) before setting out to sea under the aegis of the decrepit tub, the revenue cutter George S. Boutwell.4 No apparent felony therefore, not in the matter of the leak; and no accessory, per se, according to accepted standards. However, there had been professional misconduct. The pumps failed to work properly because the coal had been washed down and the sediment choked them. Asked directly if there had been treachery, Captain William Murphy said, “No, I don't think so. It was neglect, more than anything else.”5 Such an allegation cannot be lightly tossed aside. Negligence on the part of an officer in the maritime service is a serious offense, and can be a felony. Simply put, what had occurred on board the Commodore was culpable negligence on the part of Chief Engineer James Redigan, who drowned. Had Redigan survived, there may have been grounds for a trial in courts of admiralty.6 Crane was faced, as we are faced, with an aberration—namely Redigan's negligence, however drily Crane tells the story in the newspaper—and aberration is the center of any culpable act, any act of criminality. Seven men had drowned when the Commodore went down, an injustice in an unjust world.7

The sinking of the Commodore is the fact to commence with. The “Tale” that is “The Open Boat” is after the fact in point of time, i.e., post factum, after the event. The tale “after the Fact” does not in any manner relieve, comfort, or assist the felon in any legal sense; however, it does relieve, comfort, and assist the reader (after the reader understands it) in an artistic sense—and that most disturbingly so. There is also a sense of ex post facto (ignoring the various legal complexities for the moment), specifically and adjectively: “done or made after a thing but retroacting upon it; retroactive, as, an ex post facto argument.”8 And “argument” suggests, by its Latin root, evidence or proof; thus, the story written by Crane as he looks back (retrospection). In his unfolding of the tale, Crane reveals other facts—the drowning of Billy Higgins, the oiler, in the surf near Daytona Beach; the survival of Crane, Murphy, and Montgomery (the cook)—and, in the true function of the artist, maneuvers the reader into position post these facts and prompts his (the reader's) retrospection.9

Finally, to close this discussion of the epigraph to the story, there are the words: “Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore,” emphasizing the newspaper-like tone and the notion that the fact is the sinking of the ship. Naturally, one's attention is directed to the word “experience,” and rightly so, for it is the formative principle of the tale; that is, if this word is understood, then form and character (a necessity in art) can be arrived at. So: Crane has gained “direct personal knowledge” and is one of a company of “interpreters,” to quote the last word of “The Open Boat.” But an interpreter of what? To answer this is the purpose of the remainder of this essay.


Precisely mid-point in the story (in section 4), there occurs among the four occupants of the ten-foot dinghy a spirited conversation concerning a dimly apprehended man on the beach.

“Look at the fellow with the flag. Maybe he ain't waving it!”

“That ain't a flag, is it? That's his coat. Why, certainly, that's his coat.”

“So it is; it's his coat. He's taken it off and is waving it around his head. But would you look at him swing it!”

(p. 372)

Metaphorically, the man has a message for the four men, incomprehensible to them at that moment, although it should not have been for, after all, they had been previously forced to take the boat back out to sea. The signalman also has a message for the reader, incomprehensible as it is at this moment despite the foreshadowings given by Crane.

The appearance of the signalman mid-way in the story indicates its careful construction. His frantic, if not demonic, waving is the climax. Before sighting him, the four men—pained by the rowing, discomfited by the waves, and chilled by the cold—were confident, despite an unsuccessful attempt to run through the surf, that they would ultimately make it without undue difficulty. They should not have been; their circumstances warranted no such confidence.

Three times in the first paragraph, fourteen times in all in section 1, Crane mentions or alludes to the waves, beyond and through which these men must go to gain the shore—that beautiful, macadam-hard, gently-inclined stretch of sand just south of Daytona. Looking out from the boat, there are always the waves; the horizon narrows and widens, dips and rises; “at all times its edge … jagged with waves that [seem] thrust up in points like rocks”; each wave-top is “a problem in small boat navigation.” Nature, at her most unpleasant, allows the men a glimpse of the shore, reminds them of her indifferent strength as if they needed to be reminded. For they have escaped, in the “greys of dawn,” the fate of seven of their shipmates as “a stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it” slashed at the waves and then went “low and lower, and down.”

As already stated, the sinking of the luckless S. S. Commodore is the fact, and I suggest that Crane indicates this by alluding to it so soon in the story. Now these four men are after the fact, on one level of meaning, and they must get to shore before they are bested by “these problems in white water” and “the snarling of the crests.” The correspondent and the cook argue about the difference between a life-saving station and house of refuge. The cook insists that a crew from the house of refuge will pick them up as soon as they are sighted.10 The correspondent insists that a house of refuge does not have a crew. He is correct.11

Abruptly, Billy Higgins, the oiler, says, “Well, we're not there yet, anyhow.” Indeed they are not; the cook shifts his argument; the oiler repeats, “We're not there yet” (p. 362). What the oiler says is true in several ways: they have not gained the shore—far from it; nor have they garnered the “direct personal knowledge” to be able to say, “I've been there,” which implies experience and thereby allows them to become interpreters. Billy's words foreshadow his own end and make all the more ironic a third level of meaning—not one of them has met Death. They had seen Him in the “greys of dawn,” though, and seen His attribute, “the white ball” on the mast, in that carefully arranged canvas Crane paints for the reader.

In section 2, the occupants in the “freighted” boat (figuratively laden with death and violence) oscillate between hope and despair with Crane carefully introducing each element. The cook mentions the on-shore wind—they wouldn't have a “show” without it; the oiler and the correspondent heartily agree. Captain Murphy laughs away their optimism; his “crew” is silent: “the ethics of their condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of hopelessness.” Then Murphy soothes them, saying, “Oh well, … we'll get ashore all right.” Immediately, the oiler agrees, but only if the wind holds; the cook agrees, but only if they don't catch “hell in the surf” (p. 363).

Nature is toying with them; Crane is toying with the reader. “Canton-flannel” gulls, ordinarily a welcome sight to the sailor, fly about the men or ride the waves. The gulls come close and stare “with black, bead-like eyes … uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny” (p. 363). One gull perches on the captain's head! Seated in the bow of the dinghy, that smallest of all boats that puts to sea, the Captain with the gull atop him is a perfect duplication of the image seen when the Commodore went down: “a stump of a topmast with a white ball on it” (p. 361). In this masterful bit of ambiguous foreshadowing, Murphy is the mast and the gull is the ball; the men in the “freighted” craft sense Death because the sea bird strikes them somehow as “gruesome and ominous.” They breathe easier when the Captain waves it away, and they set to rowing and rowing and rowing and oscillate to a feeling of optimism, as adjacent “brown mats” of seaweed inform them they are “making progress slowly toward the land.”

Their optimism increases when the Mosquito Inlet lighthouse appears like “a small still thing on the edge of the swaying horizon,” having the dimensions and forcefulness of “the point of a pin.” That they could see the light, 159 feet above mean high water, was cause for hope: probably they were no more than fifteen or sixteen nautical miles from shore.12 Will they make it, is the question. “If this wind [an on-shore wind] holds and the boat don't swamp [in the surf], we can't do much else” says the Captain (p. 365). Crane skillfully balances the wind and the surf against the lighthouse. Hope is strong aboard the “wee thing” wallowing “at the mercy of five oceans.”

“Bail her, cook,” said the captain, serenely.

“All right, Captain,” said the cheerful cook.

(p. 365)

They have overlooked the gull. They have been gulled!

Captain Murphy wishes for a sail (section 3), and almost magically his overcoat is rigged to an oar and the little boat makes “good way” as the oiler steers and sculls with the other oar, such good way that the lighthouse becomes “an upright shadow on the sky” and the land seems “a long black shadow on the sea,” adumbrations of the ultimate tragedy. This stretch of shore is not a welcoming and verdant shore. Crane renders this ironically apparent when the cook suggests that they should be opposite New Smyrna, Florida. Surely the sounding of this New World name (almost a cognomen for a town of about 500 souls) conjurs a vision of the flourishing seaport of the old Ottoman Empire.13 Even the life-saving station seems to have been recently abandoned, and the cook so informs the Captain who merely says, “Did they?” The wind slowly dies, Crane briefly alludes to the foundering of the Commodore, and the crew take to the oars. They make good progress; they cannot be concerned with irony. They make out a house on the shore—the house of refuge for the homeless and destitute of the sea. The lighthouse rears high; “slowly and beautifully” the land looms out of the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, there are discords: the sound of the surf and the veering of the wind to the southeast. They cannot make the lighthouse now. They are not discouraged—far from it. They swing the dinghy “a little more north” and watch the shore grow. They are quietly cheerful. “In an hour, perhaps, they would be ashore.” That simple! A relatively easy matter of a few hours at sea! The correspondent passes out cigars, and the “four waifs” puff away and ride “impudently” in their little boat, forgetful of the earlier argument over a life-saving station and a house of refuge. They willingly pin their hopes on the latter; forgetful, if they in fact knew, that they are “waifs”; blown by the wind, wanderers, discarded human goods from a sunk ship, owner unknown.

Captain Murphy reminds them, remarking to the cook that “there don't seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge” (p. 368). The surf's roar is plain to hear; everyone is suddenly positive they will swamp. In what amounts to a parenthetical aside, Crane says that “there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction.”14 Understandably, their “light-heartedness of a former time” has “completely faded.” No boat is seen pulling to succor them. They had better make a run through the surf; the oiler turns the boat “straight for the shore,” amidst some “admonitions” and “reflections” with a “good deal of rage” in them.

“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!”

(p. 369)

It is, no one will deny, seemingly preposterous to be so close. But they are not there yet, to recall the oiler's words; and to have made it through the surf on the first run was not to be their lot. Fate, Clotho, Lachesis (I cannot suppress the thought that Crane has constructed a pun with “sacred cheese”), and Atropos have other plans, namely, interpretation. Aware now that they wouldn't last three minutes in such a surf, they take the dinghy to sea again. Wind, wave, and tide fight for possession of the craft; it gains a little northward.

They spot a man, a “little black figure,” running on the shore. He waves; they tie a bath towel to a stick and wave back. Another man appears; he, too, waves. A resort hotel omnibus appears, and yet another man stands on the steps and waves. And we are brought to mid-point of the story, the signaling episode, the climax, told by Crane from the point of view of the four “waifs” in the dinghy in two full pages of dialogue, without tag lines, description, or exposition, to point up the irony.

“What's that idiot with the coat mean? What's he signaling, anyhow?” demands one waif (p. 372). A perfectly marvelous question. The answers are various: he is telling them to go north; he thinks the waifs are fishing and is giving them “a merry hand.” Another waif says, “He don't mean anything. He's just playing.” That, most assuredly, he is not doing. As I interpret it, what he is telling them is this: you can't come in yet; you can't get through so easily; you stay outside there and suffer; when your time comes, you can come through; sorry, but that is the way it is. In the growing dusk, the four men helplessly sit in the boat. When the spray hits them, they swear “like men who were being branded” (p. 373). They row and they row and they row. The lighthouse disappears from the southern horizon. And again the “if I am going to be drowned” motif enters this section (p. 374), stressing the structure within the section and within the story and stressing the meaning. In this reappearance of “if I am going to be drowned,” Crane pointedly, yet subtly, omits the statement “It is preposterous” and all that follows relative to Fate. Their situation is no longer preposterous in the “freighted” dinghy, and they see a glimmer of what is in store for them. A different mood is among them, and Crane employs appropriate language: the captain is “patient” when he issues orders; the crew's voices are “weary” and “low” in reply; the evening is “quiet”—a prelude to the morning to come; and all but the oarsman lie “heavily and listlessly” in the dinghy.

[The above description] schematizes the arch-like construction in the story—the action and mood in section 5 simultaneously balances and offsets the action and mood in section 3. What was buoyant optimism and hope in the earlier part is now a long night “on the sea in an open boat.” Two lights, one to the north (one is tempted to think it is the St. Augustine Lighthouse) and the other to the south (Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse), are “the furniture of the world” and remind us of the argument about the house of refuge and the life-saving station.15 Only the man at the oars is awake; the others are sleeping, a word that Crane used, naturally enough, time and again with variations in this passage; for now, having attained a dim perception of what is in store for them, they need the preparatory sleep.

The correspondent keeps the boat headed and regards the sleeping oiler and cook, arms wrapped about each other, there in the bottom: “babes of the sea.” This womb image, shortly to be repeated, wryly recalls the jauntily oblivious “waifs” in section 3 as they “impudently” rode the waves. Such a difference now. Writes Crane: “The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end” (p. 376). Nothing could be more felicitous at this point in the story. The end, of course, is Death for all of us (and them, too), and this is sad; sadder yet is to remember what we did not know we knew, as Robert Frost says; sadder yet is to become “interpreters” before Death and to carry this burden and tell of its meaning to the uninitiated. This sentence also sums up the ordeal of the correspondent and the oiler as they meekly and steadily spell each other at the oars throughout the night. No arguments or petulant comments; rather compassion and contriteness if a wave but splashes into the boat. Dim as their perception of the ways of existence may be, “the subtle brotherhood” of men at sea, spoken of by Crane in section 3, indicates obedience and grace of conduct as they approach what is “sadder than the end.”

Suddenly there appears the predatory shark, the largest fish of all, swishing through the water “like blue flame,” speeding “like a shadow” ahead or astern, port or starboard. Its fin, knifing the water, leaving “a gleaming trail of phosphorescence,” literally draws a magic circle around the dinghy. The waifs must stay in the boat, perform, carry on. This particular shark is not a predator—it will not plunder; it is, Crane says, a “biding thing,” and the correspondent, without horror, simply looks “dully” at the sea and swears “in an undertone.” He is not vindictive; he merely wishes he were not alone “with the thing.” But his companions are sleeping their preparatory sleep (pp. 376-77).

The final iteration of the “if I am going to be drowned” motif opens section 6 (p. 377). This seems a normal thought on the part of the lonely correspondent and directs the reader to compare this third repetition with the previous two. The first expressed the collective emotions of the four waifs; the second (more a refrain than anything else and assigned to no one waif) expressed the mood of the moment; the third expresses the meditations of the correspondent and expands them into a fear of drowning, “an abominable injustice” to a man who has worked “so hard, so hard.” He wants so to live, to survive. To drown would be “a crime most unnatural.” To this point in his life, apparently, the correspondent, unlike his creator and his counterpart, has not given time and effort to wrestling with the idea of an unjust, i.e., unlawful universe. Only in the physical realms, in the sciences (for example, astronomy), is the universe lawful; here lies what Thomas Paine once called the “true theology” of man.

Injustice is not for the correspondent. He wishes for recognition of himself as an entity. But:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.

(p. 377)

Crane at last has tentatively stated the theme of the story: the indifference of nature to man's struggles. If there be “no tangible thing to hoot,” muses the correspondent, at least he wishes to confront “a personification” and plead, “Yes, but I love myself.” The reply is the symbolic “high cold star,” and the correspondent knows “the pathos of his situation”: to be faced by an indifferent but ever-watchful Nature. A vagrant ditty from his childhood about “A soldier of the Legion” who is dying in Algiers—where there are also sand and trees (to recall the motif)—enters the correspondent's memory and enforces the delineation of the theme. As a child, he had never regarded this death as important, notwithstanding that it was dinned into his boyish mind by “myriads of his school-fellows” (p. 378). He had been indifferent to such a death; it was something less important to him than “the breaking of a pencil's point.” Now, at the oars with the “cold star” above him, he is very sorry “for the soldier of the Legion.” Crane's irony is subtle: the correspondent's dinning in the presence of Nature has produced indifference; the schoolboys' dinning the song in his presence had produced indifference. However, in his desert ordeal the soldier had had a comrade to hold his hand; of this small boon the correspondent on the morrow cannot be sure.

Captain Murphy and the correspondent briefly discuss the shark, who has departed the vicinity, evidently “bored at the delay.” The oiler and the correspondent spell each other at the oars; the cook lends a hand and works the dinghy farther out to sea, only to be driven back. The shark returns. The correspondent assumes the thwart and works the dinghy outward. Then this cogent close to the section:

At last there was a short conversation.

“Billie! … Billie, will you spell me?”

“Sure,” said the oiler.

(pp. 380-81)

There is much more here than a simple question-and-answer; present are foreshadowing and irony and a signpost planted by Crane to direct the reader to the violent finish of the story. What the correspondent (who “loves” himself and feels “sorry” for the dying soldier) has really asked the oiler is for Billie to serve in his place, to replace him, when the dinghy makes its ultimate run through the surf and when “the old ninny-woman Fate” (in three persons) decides finally the destiny of these four humans who have been wallowing in the sea under the “cold star.” There is something disconcerting about the oiler's prompt affirmative.

It is time for the final journey through the combers, after which they will be there. The preparations are over. Crane opens the section with the same gray cast that was present in the first paragraph of the story. On the dunes appear “many little black cottages” and “a tall white windmill” which rears above them as they plunge for the beach; these provide the focus for Crane's specific statement of the theme of “The Open Boat.”

This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in 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. It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life. …

(p. 381)

The Captain orders, “don't jump until she swamps sure” (p. 382); the oiler (as he had in section 1) has the oars, and he backs in toward “the lonely and indifferent shore.” The correspondent's thoughts touch briefly on the drowning motif (what “a shame” it would be) just before the first comber smashes them; they survive this as they do the second crest. The third wave, “huge, furious, implacable … fairly swallows” them, and the men go into the icy water: the oiler swimming strongly in the lead, the cook using the life-belt, the Captain clinging to the overturned dinghy. Three times Crane describes the shore, the representational there to these waifs—representational to them as having “a certain immovable quality,” as being set before them like “a bit of scenery on a stage,” and as “a picture” in “a gallery,” a scene from Algiers perhaps (pp. 383-84). The thought of the dying legionnaire haunts the correspondent as does the thought of drowning. “Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?” echo and balance his previous cadence, “If I am going to be drowned.” A perverse observation adds, “perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.”

The four waifs struggle mightily there in the surf. Finally an actor appears on the stage-like shore: a man running, undressing rapidly as he runs. Miraculously the surf flings the correspondent over the dangerous, overturned boat and into shallow water. He is not safely there yet; now he fights the undertow. The naked man-actor comes into the water, rescues the cook, and wades toward the correspondent who sees “a halo about his head.” He shines “like a saint.” There is something suggestively comic about the rescue here as the man heaves and tugs at the correspondent, but the comedy fades when the man points “a swift finger” and runs at the correspondent's command. “In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea” (p. 385).

Billy Higgins, oiler aboard the S. S. Commodore, who had earlier implacably said, “We're not there yet,” has arrived there, not as an interpreter, but as “a still and dripping shape” being carried to the grave in the midst of “the welcome of the land” (the people with restoratives and blankets). The survivors are there; indifferent Nature is transformed into benevolent Nature, and now “the old ninny-woman Fate” has extracted her toll.

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.

(p. 386)


The “voice” here—a coda surely—sounds the notes of the other wind (in section 5) which was “sadder than the end.” And we are brought to the final word, “interpreters.” Of what are these men, no longer waifs, interpreters? The necessity was to struggle against an indifferent nature. But also much more than that, for this seems almost absurd in its simplicity. We must return to the epigraph, “A TALE INTENDED TO BE AFTER THE FACT: BEING THE / EXPERIENCE OF FOUR MEN FROM THE SUNK STEAMER / COMMODORE,” and to the discussion early in this paper to glean the many complexities involved.16 Crane in this story is seeking the universal fact of existence subsequent to the particular fact of the sinking of the Commodore. “The Open Boat” is his retrospection (ex post facto) and, as I have said, the reader's, too. From this retrospection emerges his (and the reader's) personal knowledge which makes plain the ultimate meaning of experience. Made plain, too, is the form or structure. Significantly, Crane in the epigraph speaks of the experience of four men; so Billy Higgins is included. To sum up, the totality of experience for the living and the dead is: existence. These three men have become brothers to Henry Fleming whose journey to the other side is so brilliantly explicated in the final paragraphs of The Red Badge of Courage. Captain Murphy, the cook, and the correspondent, in their journey from “the greys of dawn” to the “welcome of the land,” went on yet another journey—a private one to another land of There. The length of that journey, the time consumed is of little import. Within its duration, they learned a little bit, gained an “accidental education” (to use Henry Adams's doctrine, which in the final analysis is a goodly amount) in and about courage. Not heroism and all its ritualistically empty gestures, but courage. They have returned to the same unjust but nevertheless welcome world that so outrageously allowed the S. S. Commodore to sink, but now they view it with a “fresh pair of eyes.”

Indeed, to be an “interpreter” is “sadder than the end.” Another allusion to Henry Adams is fitting: the correspondent's education began and ended in the open boat; what he has learned and communicated in “The Open Boat” is no doubt “instructive for the young.”


  1. Joseph Katz, The Portable Stephen Crane (New York: Viking Press, 1969), p. 342; reprinted from the New York Press, 7 January 1897, p. 1. At this point, I wish to express my appreciation to Prof. R. W. Stallman for his remarks on “The Open Boat” (Stephen Crane: An Omnibus [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952], pp. 415-20); they are very suggestive. In some ways, but certainly not all, my essay is a commentary on those remarks.

  2. “The Open Boat” was originally published in Scribner's Magazine 21 (June 1897): 728-40. Quotations are cited from Katz, The Portable Stephen Crane, pp. 360-86.

  3. Rochester, N.Y., 1948 ed.

  4. Built in 1873, the 151-ton cutter was named for the feckless Secretary of the Treasury (1869-1873), during Grant's first administration.

    S. S. Commodore was built in 1882 in Philadelphia; she had a gross tonnage of 178.25; net, 99.25; length 122.5 feet; breadth, 21 feet; depth, 9 feet (cf. Twenty-Eighth Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States …, 54th Cong., 2d Sess., H. R. Doc. 38. [Washington, 1896], p. 228). These data are deduced from the fact that this ship, Official Number 126017, does not appear in the Twenty-Ninth Annual List (Washington, 1897). Commodore's estimated value was $20,000 (see Report of the Chief of Division of Revenue Cutter Service, 1897, Treasury Department Document No. 1993 [Washington, 1897], p. 49).

    Some of the technical information herein is also to be found in Cyrus Day, “Stephen Crane and the Ten-Foot Dinghy,” Boston University Studies in English 3 (Winter 1957): 193-213; but I preferred to seek and to find my own.

  5. Stallman, Omnibus, p. 460. Professor William Randel, “The Cook in ‘The Open Boat,’” American Literature 34 (November 1962): 406, states that “almost all the crew, including the captain, were recruited and given their instructions in less than thirty hours. …” Randel further states that “neither the chief engineer … nor the second engineer … had an intimate knowledge of her machinery” (p. 408).

  6. In the United States, initial jurisdiction is vested in the federal courts. Sr. Paul Rojo, one of the Cuban leaders aboard the Commodore, openly charged Redigan with being drunk on duty. There were also various charges hurled about by the steward (cook), Charles R. Montgomery; each one of which was examined by Randel in his article and dismissed as untrue. One Horatio Rubens, a lawyer, conducted a private inquiry into the sinking; reporters were barred.

    My interpretation of the cause of the tragedy differs from Prof. Day; he places much of the blame on Captain Murphy and just barely refrains from convicting the skipper of dereliction of duty. Day also has some unpleasant things to say about Crane himself (see Day, “Stephen Crane and the Ten-Foot Dinghy,” pp. 204-8).

  7. The ship was apparently engaged in illegal business, running guns and ammunition to Cuba; in this instance the cargo had an estimated value of $5,000. This was in seeming violation of United States neutrality laws. I say “apparently” and “seeming” deliberately, for Secretary of the Treasury John G. Carlisle, on 30 December 1896, “granted permission for a cargo [Commodore] destined for a foreign port [Cienfuegos, Cuba], the same kind of routine clearance given for any shipment of goods abroad, and left it to the Customs men in Jacksonville to decide whether neutrality regulations were properly observed” (Randel, “The Cook in ‘The Open Boat,’” p. 408).

    It is still not clear why the Boutwell did not apprehend the Commodore. Prof. Randel believes that Treasury's clearance reflects an opinion from Attorney-General Judson Harmon, 10 December 1895, in response to a request from Secretary of State Richard Olney on the matter of international law and the Cuban insurrection. Three of Harmon's major points can be summarized: (1) “International law takes no account of a mere insurrection … which has not been protracted or successful enough to secure for those engaged in it recognition as belligerents by their own government [Spain] or by foreign governments [e.g., the United States]. … No state of war is acknowledged by Spain and … no blockade has been declared. … It follows, therefore, that the rules of international law with respect to belligerent and neutral rights do not apply to the present case.” (2) “The mere sale or shipment of arms and munitions of war by persons in the United States to persons in Cuba is not a violation of international law, however strong a suspicion there may be that they are to be used in an insurrection against the Spanish government.” (3) “If, however, the persons supplying or carrying arms and munitions from a place in the United States are in any wise parties to a design that force shall be employed against the Spanish authorities … the enterprise is not commercial, but military, and is in violation of international law and of our own statutes.” See Official Opinions of The Attorneys-General of the United States 21 (Washington, 1898): 269-71.

    Attorney-General Harmon's views may account for a somewhat cryptic statement in the Report of the Chief of Division of Revenue Cutter Service, 1897, p. 22: “Some question having arisen as to the validity of seizures made by vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service in enforcing the neutrality laws, a duty performed by this Service in strict accordance with law upon numerous occasions running through the more than one hundred years of its existence, two of them [cutters], the Boutwell and Colfax, were placed in cooperation with the Navy by the President, under the provisions of Section 2757, Revised Statutes [Revenue officers to co-operate with the Navy], and so remained from April 8 until May 31, 1897.”

  8. Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1934).

  9. Ballentine's Law Dictionary defines ex post facto as “after the thing is done; after the act is committed”; post facto as “after the fact; after the commission of the crime.” Of course, such definitions urge the reader into even more complexities, but this is not the place for them.

  10. Maintained by the United States Life-Saving Service, this house of refuge is on the beach outside Mosquito Lagoon, just north of Mosquito Inlet Light (known as Ponce de Leon Light on present-day charts). In 1897, this house was in the 7th District, United States Life-Saving Service.

  11. The Life-Saving Service then maintained three types of installations: life-saving stations, which had a crew and life-saving appliances of all kinds; houses of refuge, supplied with boats, provisions, etc., in the charge of keepers but without crews; and life-boat stations.

  12. The light at Mosquito Inlet was fixed white, used oil as an illuminant, and was visible at night to a maximum of 18[frac34] nautical miles. The tower was red brick and conical in shape; there were three brick dwellings near it. Established in 1887 and given Number 1059, the tower was about one mile to the north and west of the entrance to Mosquito Inlet and 52 miles SSE from the St. Augustine Lighthouse (List of Lights and Fog Signals on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts … to … March 1, 1907 [Washington, 1907], pp. 206-7).

  13. About 13 miles SSE of Daytona Beach; the name was changed to New Smyrna Beach in 1937.

  14. As a matter of fact, there was no life-saving station in the area at all. The next house of refuge north was at Smiths Creek, 20 miles south of Matanzas Inlet; south, at Chester Shoal, 11 miles north of Cape Kennedy. See Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for … 1897, Treasury Department Document No. 1996 (Washington, 1898), p. 369.

  15. It is unlikely that the correspondent saw the St. Augustine Light; what he saw was probably a light in Daytona Beach or possibly north of the town. The tower of the St. Augustine Light was 161 feet high with a fixed white light, varied by a white flash every three minutes. It was visible for 18[frac34] nautical miles.

  16. As originally printed in Scribner's Magazine in 1897.

James Nagel (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Nagel, James. “The Narrative Method of ‘The Open Boat’.” Revue des Langues Vivantes (1973): 409-17.

[In the following essay, Nagel explores Crane's narrative method in “The Open Boat,” particularly the shifting perspective of the story.]

Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat”1 is one of the most frequently read and discussed stories in American literature. But despite the enormous interest in the story, it has tended to evoke far more praise than understanding, particularly with regard to its narrative technique. This admiration has not been restrained: R. W. Stallman has called it a “flawless construct of paradox and symbol,”2 and Andrew Lytle regards it as “one of the finest works of its kind in the language.”3 To Daniel Hoffman the story illustrates Crane's growth as a writer “from a brilliant youth with an undisciplined gift for literary impressionism to a mature master of symbolism and style.”4 Joseph Conrad once wrote to Crane to tell him that he found the story “immensely interesting” and to express his envy: “I want to swear at you, to bless you—perhaps to shoot you—but I prefer to be your friend.”5 Crane has left no personal evaluation of his story, but Professor Stallman records that on his death-bed, as he slipped from consciousness to delirium, he was talking aloud about changing places in an open boat.6

The story of Crane's actual experience in the sinking of the Commodore and his perilous adventure in a ten-foot dinghy has been admirably explored by Stallman,7 Cyrus Day,8 and others, as has the relationship between the newspaper account of the episode and the fictionalization which occurred a good while later. The first was a literal account of a thrilling physical adventure; the second transformed the action into a unified drama of irony and poignancy with a psychological dimension which gave the story depth and thematic movement. As the sub-title “A Tale Intended to be After the Fact” indicated, the story was not to be the adventure only but a rendering of it drawn with the benefit of subsequent reflections and an assessment of implications.9 “The Open Boat” became a story of initiation, a “sea journey to self-knowledge,” as Eric Solomon called it,10 one which portrays a development in the moral insight of its main character, the correspondent, in terms of his sense of his relationship to nature and his consequent regard for his companions.11 This theme of changing perspective is manifested artistically by frequent shifts in narrative point of view so that the vision of all the characters is represented, including that of a detached narrator. One implication of this technique is to underscore the motif of the limited accessibility to data of any one human mind. For example, the story is told largely through the eyes of the correspondent, but even he does not know that there is no lifesaving station nearby nor does he know in another instance that someone other than himself has observed a shark.12 His limitations are revealed through the presentation of information from an outside source, from the captain or from the more objective perspective of the narrator. Another result is to increase the dramatic intensity of the suspense of the dangers of the sea by allowing the reader to “sense” the tension of the situation as it is viewed through the eyes of more than one man.

The theme of the correspondent's changing attitude is directly linked to his developing view of the attitude of nature toward him. As Mordecai Marcus has shown, the men “see nature first as malevolently hostile, then as thoughtlessly hostile, and finally as wholly indifferent.”13 The “general” conception of nature parallels the correspondent's shifting view of himself: at first he is presumptive about his role in the cosmos; through his experience he attains both compassion and an awareness of his vast insignificance in an indifferent universe.14 The story is structured thematically around this transformation. On the surface, the adventure plot is broken into seven sections, each of which moves the open boat a bit further on its journey from its original position out of sight of land to its capsizing in the surf when the men finally reach shore. But within this action is a subtle alteration in perception which can be perceived and understood only through close attention to fluctuations in narrative point of view, to the role of nature, and to the attitudes of the men toward each other.15

The story begins with one of the most famous first lines in American literature: “None of them knew the color of the sky” (p. 68). The line denotes a preoccupation with something other than the sky and signifies that one of the major concerns of the story is perception, in this instance, the limited perception of the four men as a group. Joseph Conrad thought that this line was a masterful touch; he called it “a phrase that anybody could have uttered but which, in relation to what is to follow, acquires the poignancy of a meaning almost universal.”16 As the paragraph continues it becomes clear that the men's focus is on the waves that threaten them and that the sea restricts their vision.

The paragraphs which follow present a look at the scene from the perspective of each character, as well as the narrator, and in a manner which suggests his role in the story. The narrator's view is first:

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.

(p. 68)

His stance is at a distance from the scene, far enough at least so that he can make objective evaluative comments which are not attributed to the feelings of the men. There are only a few instances in the story when the narrator has this impartiality; most of the time his mind is closely identified with one or more of the characters, and as the story progresses, almost exclusively with the correspondent.

The cook sees only the gunwale holding back the ocean and the broken sea to the east. He does not act, other than to bail out the boat, and he exerts no control over it. He is characteristically passive and absorbed in the immediate. In contrast, the oiler is active and dynamic: he steers the craft, asserting a direct physical control of his condition, and devotes his attention and anxieties to the fragile steering oar, which seems ever ready to snap. “The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there” (p. 69). As this passage indicates, the correspondent plays a dual role: he actively participates and yet at the same time he speculates philosophically about the meaning of it all. It is logical, therefore, that his views should most provide the development of the story, and although in the first four sections the attention is given largely to the reflections of the group, in the final three the narrative perspective is identified almost entirely with his.17 The captain, who is injured and thus physically inactive, is preoccupied with his own guilt at the loss of his ship and he is haunted by the faces of seven men who went down with it (p. 69). His mood is that of dejection and indifference, yet in the continuing performance of his duty he commands this small vessel with skill and wisdom.

The remainder of the first section further clarifies the peril of the situation, establishes the essential ironies of the story, and foreshadows its conclusion. For example, the boat itself is consistently referred to in patently “land” imagery, in this instance to a “bucking broncho” (p. 69). In contrast, throughout the first four sections the sea is imagistically portrayed as a vicious and hostile animal, and the men are aware of the “snarling of the crests” (p. 69). The view of the men is decidedly limited: “As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all else from the view of the men in the boat …” (p. 69). The perspective of the narrator, however, continues to be withdrawn and detached; he “guesses” that the faces of the men “must have” been gray and he amuses himself with remote speculations: “Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque” (p. 69). The juxtaposition of the scope between these two points of view is significant: to the men, the universe has shrunk to include only their boat and a malignant nature; from a detached perspective, however, it becomes clear that they occupy no special significance in the scheme of things and that nature, rather than being hostile, cares nothing for them whatever and is flatly indifferent. At the end of the section, and in the first of several foreshadowings, the men are arguing about whether they can expect to find a “life-saving station” or a “house of refuge,” while the oiler repeats his comment that they are not on land yet (p. 70). Appropriately, it is he who will die in the surf.

Sections II, III, and IV extend the themes already introduced into the context of the adventure drama. In these sections the men spot a lighthouse, first hear the thunder of the heavy surf, and head back out to sea to search along the coast for a safer point of landing. Throughout these events the role of nature is still seen as essentially hostile as the waves “swoop” at the boat which struggles “woundily” against them (p. 74). The boat continues to be described in terms of a horse, which has now become a “wild colt” (p. 75) continually threatened by the “growl of a crest” (p. 81). The gulls flying overhead are metaphorically referred to as “prairie chickens” (p. 71), sustaining the pattern of ironic land images, as does the reference that it is as easy to change seats in the dinghy as it is to “steal eggs from under a hen” (p. 72).

Throughout these sections the narrative perspective is almost consistently identified with the group, although this stance is abandoned for brief periods. In one of these the narrator draws back from the scene once again to comment that “shipwrecks are apropos of nothing” (p. 74), but even then by the end of the paragraph the point of view has merged with the group again. In a second passage the narrator becomes objectified and relays the information that despite the hopes of the men there was no life-saving station within twenty miles (p. 76), the general effect of which is to make their aspirations futile and grimly ironic. But eventually their difficulties become literally those of “seeing” as they begin to see tiny black figures moving about on the remote beach (p. 79). Some of the men think they see a boat, others call it a wagon, and finally they see that it is an omnibus; each of these interpretations results from an improved ability to see, and yet ironically each is of diminishing use to them in their plight. And there is further irony in the suggestion that the man on shore waving his coat is simply signalling a greeting and assuming that they are fishing. As a result of this understanding the men first realize that there is no help coming and that there will be none; their fate now rests in their own hands, and not in the efforts of some external rescue party.

Thematically there are several developments of importance in these three sections. The first is the appearance of the gulls, which the men interpret as being “grewsome and ominous” (p. 72). In reality, of course, the presence of gulls that far out from land is taken by experienced sailors as a sign of good weather (gulls stay on land during storms) and should have been welcomed by the men.18 The implication is that the men err in their judgment because of their preoccupation with their own condition. There is nothing hostile in the presence of the gulls other than a human projection of values to them.

Another major development is the origination of a common bond of humanity among the men, one which remains unvoiced but strongly felt throughout their ordeal:

It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here 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.

(p. 73)

This sense of brotherhood is especially significant for the correspondent, “who had been taught to be cynical of men” (p. 73), and it marks the first step in his progression from indifference toward compassion. However, this step is momentarily overshadowed by the introduction in section IV of a refrain which gives form to the subjective mood of the collective body of men:

“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?”

(p. 77)

It is clear that this is not the sentiment of the correspondent alone, as Andrew Lytle assumes,19 but that of the consciousness of the combined “man” with whom the narrative focus has been identified.20 It is also evident that the thesis of the refrain implies hostility on the part of nature and a controlling fate. These views next become juxtaposed to a “star” which appears in the sky and in the following section becomes a symbol not of nature's hostility but of her indifference.

In section V two major changes take place: the narrative perspective becomes more closely aligned with the correspondent, and there is an indication that the “hostility” of the sea is moving toward indifference. Night falls and the men begin to sleep, leaving the correspondent at the oars. Now the role of nature seems to be changing: “The particular violence of the sea had ceased. The waves came without snarling” (p. 82). At times the water still “growls” (p. 83) and a shark appears to menace the boat, but the correspondent's musings have turned from the hostility of the sea to a concern for his own thoughts and emotions:

The correspondent thought that he was the one man afloat on all the oceans. The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end,

(p. 83)

At this point the story becomes inner directed and there is much more attention paid to psychological transformation than to physical action.

Section VI contains the most important psychological development of the story. It begins with the refrain, “If I am going to be drowned …”, and the realization of the collective “man” that “nature does not regard him as important” (p. 84). The star, a symbol of nature's detachment and indifference, now becomes pathetically meaningful to the men:

A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he [the collective “man”] feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

(p. 85)

The personal manifestation of these sentiments is expressed in the thinking of the correspondent, the most introspective and philosophical of the men in the boat. In the context of his awakening sense of nature's indifference, a verse he had known as a child suddenly comes to him:

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.”

(p. 85)

This poem is a freely edited version of the opening of “Bingen on the Rhine” by Caroline E. S. Norton.21 The structural movement of the verse from the indifference of the woman to the compassion and brotherhood of the comrade parallels exactly the direction of the correspondent's thinking. When as a child he had thought of the soldier in Algiers,

he had never regarded it as important. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. … Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing …, it was an actuality-stern, mournful, and fine. … The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.

(pp. 85-86)

Along with the correspondent's realization that nature bears no special regard, be it hostile or otherwise, for him as an individual and is flatly indifferent to his fate, there is a concomitant growth to compassion which allows him to experience the full meaning of this brotherhood on the seas. The transformation from solipsism to solicitude for another's condition establishes a psychologically poignant base for the re-emphasis of the physical adventure in the final section22.

The last section begins with a paragraph meaningfully different from the one which opened the story: the correspondent is now aware of the color of the sky, and this literal transformation of perception is only the physical representation of a deeper psychological change (p. 87).23 As the boat heads for a dangerous run through the surf, the correspondent focuses his attention on a tower, which, like the star, signifies to him the indifference of nature:

This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in 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.

(p. 88)

It is in this thematic context that the men turn the boat to shore. This scene contains the most dramatic physical action in the story although the sheer “adventure” of it is overshadowed by the thematic implications. The oiler, capable as always, swims off strongly when the boat finally capsizes, while the other men remain behind struggling against the waves (p. 90). Ironically, when the episode is completed, it is the strong one, the oiler, who lies dead upon the beach (p. 92). As for Henry Fleming, intense danger gives the correspondent acute perception and he can both see and understand the details of the scene on the beach (p. 90). Nature behaves in her customary duplicity: a current holds him back, then a wave lifts him out of its grip (p. 91). Now, rather than regarding the man on the beach as an “ass” (p. 80), as he had before, the correspondent views him as a figure of salvation: “He was naked, naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint” (p. 92). The men are saved, except for the oiler, and in the conclusion the narrator again identifies with the group “mind”:

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 the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.

(p. 92)

In view of the data of the story, and of the process of the correspondent's development from indifference to compassion, as well as the related transformation of his view of nature as malignantly hostile to flatly indifferent, the final statement of the story needs to be understood in a qualified and limited sense. The dramatic experience has certainly altered, perhaps enlarged, the vision of these men, yet there is nothing in the story to suggest that proximity to death suddenly infuses a transcendent wisdom in the participants which lays bare to them the fundamental meaning of life itself. On the contrary, the emphasis throughout is on the limits of their point of view, and although the correspondent's ability to “see” especially improves, even he can not be regarded as having reached any final knowledge of the human condition.24 Rather, he has learned somewhat more limited lessons about his relationship to nature and other men, and these are instructions of primary value. He has overcome the limitations of a pride which allowed him to conceive of himself as the focal point of the hostility of the universe. In the remoteness of the star and the tower, he has sensed the indifference of the universe toward the fates of all men, and the resultant sense of isolation leads him to a new found compassion, illustrated by his feeling for a man in a poem. As James Colvert has pointed out, like Henry Fleming the correspondent finally realizes “that in a cold and indifferent cosmos, illusions of friendly or hostile Nature notwithstanding, the best values are realized in humble human performance.”25


  1. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” Tales of Adventure, Vol. V of The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1970), 68-92. All subsequent references will be made in the text.

  2. R. W. Stallman, “Introduction” to The Red Badge of Courage (New York: The Modern Library, 1951), p. xi.

  3. Andrew Lytle, “‘The Open Boat’: A Pagan Tale,” The Hero With the Private Parts (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1966), p. 60. Hereafter cited as Lytle.

  4. Daniel G. Hoffman, The Poetry of Stephen Crane (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), p. 21.

  5. “The Letters of Joseph Conrad to Stephen and Cora Crane,” ed. Carl Bohnenberg and Normal Mitchell Hill, Bookman, 69 (1929), 230.

  6. R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. 515. Hereafter cited as Biography.

  7. Biography, p. 257.

  8. Cyrus Day, “Stephen Crane and the Ten-Foot Dinghy,” Boston Univ. Studies in Eng., 3 (1957), 193-213. Hereafter cited as Day.

  9. Joseph X. Brennan, “Stephen Crane and the Limits of Irony,” Criticism, 11 (1969), 193. Hereafter cited as Brennan.

  10. Eric Solomon, Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 158-59.

  11. Peter Buitenhuis, “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existential Fiction,” MFS, 5 (1959), 243. Hereafter cited as Buitenhuis.

  12. Charles R. Metzger, “Realistic Devices in Stephen Crane's ‘The Open Boat’,” MQ, 4 (1962), 51.

  13. Mordecai Marcus, “The Three-Fold View of Nature in ‘The Open Boat’,” PQ, 41 (1962), 512.

  14. Brennan, pp. 190-91.

  15. Peter Buitenhuis has defined a structure for the story in somewhat the same terms, although his interpretation gives equal emphasis to all the men; mine puts much more stress on the role of the correspondent. See Buitenhuis, pp. 245-46.

  16. Joseph Conrad, “Introduction” to Thomas Beer, Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), p. 13.

  17. Brennan, p. 195.

  18. Day, p. 210.

  19. Lytle, p. 69.

  20. In a biographical sense, it would appear that the “seven mad gods” of this refrain can be related to the “seven turned faces” the captain of the Commodore remembered. As R. W. Stallman records, seven men went down with the ship and even as it was sinking they were calling to the nearby dinghy for help. The faces of these men apparently haunted Crane and he may well have projected them into the seven gods. See Biography, p. 250.

  21. Edward Stone, “Crane's ‘Soldier of the Legion’,” The Red Badge of Courage: An Annotated Text; Backgrounds and Sources; Essays in Criticism, ed. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1962), p. 179; rptd. from AL, 30 (1958), 242-44. See also Buitenhuis, p. 249.

  22. Brennan feels that this poem and psychological change are falsely sentimental and undermines what should be the most important theme. See Brennan, p. 200.

  23. In fact, the story is filled with over one hundred color images. See Richard P. Adams, “Naturalistic Fiction: ‘The Open Boat’,” TSE, 4 (1954), 145.

  24. Brennan, pp. 193-96.

  25. James B. Colvert, “Style and Meaning in Stephen Crane,” Univ. of Texas Studies in English, 37 (1958), 207-08.

James Nagel (essay date March 1975)

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SOURCE: Nagel, James. “Impressionism in ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘A Man and Some Others’.” Research Studies 43, no. 1 (March 1975): 27-37.

[In the following essay, Nagel elucidates impressionistic elements in “The Open Boat” and “A Man and Some Others.”]

Late in 1897, only two months after their first meeting, Joseph Conrad wrote a brief letter to Stephen Crane praising his short stories “A Man and Some Others” and “The Open Boat,” both of which had appeared earlier that year.1 After expressing his excitement, “I want to swear at you, to bless you—perhaps to shoot you—but I prefer to be your friend,” he went on to say:

You are an everlasting surprise to one. You shock—and the next moment you give the perfect artistic satisfaction. Your method is fascinating. You are a complete impressionist. The illusions of life come out of your hand without a flaw. It is not life—which nobody wants—it is art—art for which everyone—the abject and the great—hanker—mostly without knowing it.2

Four days later, in a letter to Edward Garnett, Conrad wrote somewhat more candidly of Crane:

The two stories are excellent. Of course, “A Man and Some Others” is the best of the two but the boat thing interested me more. His eye is very individual and his expression satisfies me artistically. He certainly is the impressionist and his temperament is curiously unique. His thought is concise, never very deep—yet often startling. He is the only impressionist and only an impressionist.3

Conrad's assessment would appear to have impressed Garnett a great deal, for a year later, in “Mr. Stephen Crane: An Appreciation,” Garnett himself took the view that Crane “is the chief impressionist of our day.”4

Unfortunately, neither Conrad nor Garnett was especially precise in explaining how the term “impressionism” applied to Crane's stories. Conrad's statements imply only that he regards Impressionism as a high order of art which can produce a satisfying illusion of life, an illusion associated with visual perception but one lacking philosophic depth. Garnett echoes Conrad's sentiments, stressing that Crane “makes the surface betray the depths,” comparing Crane to the great portrait painters, and praising his ability to “reproduce the episodic, fragmentary nature of life in such artistic sequence that it stands in place of the architectural masses and coordinated structures of the great artists.”5

Conrad's remarks are of interest today not only for his singular preference for “A Man and Some Others” over what has become one of the most celebrated stories in American literature, but also for his unequivocal description of Crane's fiction as impressionistic. Neither of these judgments has won the favor of literary historians, yet both deserve serious consideration, particularly with regard to determining if Crane's art justifies the attribution of “Impressionism.”6 Such a determination must, of course, be a matter of describing tendencies rather than absolutes, and is likely to be helpful only to the extent that the term can be defined with sufficient precision to surpass nominalism and to allow for distinctions between it and each of the other two modes of the time, Naturalism and Realism.

For such distinctions to function in a critical sense, it is also important that they be based not on chronology, one movement simply following another, nor on such elusive stratagems as the author's vision, probably the least reliable biographical conjecture, but rather on such discernible aesthetic matters as narrative method, characterization, imagery, and theme. On the basis of such matters, it is possible to postulate working models. For example, the tendency in Naturalism is for omniscient narration which “tells” rather than “shows” the story and which provides voluminous data about the backgrounds and motivations of the characters, their environment, and their ancestry; in Realism, the point of view is much more limited, functioning primarily in the present, often employing either first person or third person limited; in Impressionism, the narrative stance is either shifting or sharply restricted through identification of the narrator's mind with that of the characters. McTeague illustrates the technique of Naturalism, The Rise of Silas Lapham that of Realism, Maggie or The Red Badge of Courage that of Impressionism. In characterization, Naturalism stresses grotesque characters, simple derelicts from the lower classes, or monomaniacs of little intellect and much instinct, or people with psychological or physical defects. In Realism, the characters are often commonplace people beset with the ethical and social dilemmas of bourgeois life and manners. In Impressionism, the characters are generally initiates, such as Henry Fleming, or people still capable of growing and changing on the basis of new realizations. Often little is known about the past or the family of such a character; the emphasis is on the immediacy of his sensory experiences and the development of new perspectives.

The figurative language of Naturalism is often heavily symbolic, a huge gold tooth, perhaps, which signifies the many forms of the greed which impels the characters. Realism uses some symbolism but more metaphor: a particular house may become a symbol of worldly success, and war might become a metaphor for a life of struggle. Impressionism would seem to employ little if any symbolism, some metaphor, and a great deal of imagery, predominantly sensory imagery derived from the mind of the protagonist and projected through the narrative consciousness. The effect is a dramatic intensity of scene, especially in visual terms, and one which defines the data which limit the knowledge of the characters.

The themes of Naturalism are generally pessimistic, necessitarian, deterministic, often with Darwinian influences. The plot portrays essentially a pattern of causality for what happens to the characters, who are often sentimentally pictured, but who are usually deprived of volition and driven by powerful genetic or environmental forces beyond their control. Realism, on the other hand, tends to stress moral themes resulting from conflicts which require a choice by the protagonist, a choice open to the character who must be thought responsible for his decision, and who must determine his proper social, moral, or religious responsibilities. The choices presented to Silas Lapham or to Marcia Gaylord in A Modern Instance are representative instances. The themes of Impressionism, consistent with the restriction of data of its narrative mode, are essentially epistemological: problems of knowing, not choosing, of truth and illusion, of episodic, disorganized events and ideas which are not necessarily teleological. Here there are no carefully outlined causative forces, often no clearly understood choices to be made: rather, the stress is on problems of perception, on the interpretation of sensory data, on the delusions inherent in subjective experience, and on the development of understanding to a classical moment of recognition. Henry's development in The Red Badge of Courage to a point at which, in Chapter 18, it is said that “new eyes were given to him” is a model in both theme and imagery: the eye imagery underscores the figurative dimensions of cognition. What Henry's new eyes reveal to him, incidentally, is that he is of little significance, an insight closely related to the themes of both “A Man and Some Others” and “The Open Boat.”

Although all of these characteristics are rarely found together in pure form in a single work, a Naturalistic story such as Norris' “A Deal in Wheat” can evoke a profound pathos through its revelation of the lives of simple, common people who struggle hopelessly against economic forces beyond their comprehension or control. The omniscient point of view is essential to reveal the economic system, the particular case is emblematic of the general social condition, and the pessimistic tone underscores the deterministic theme. An effective work of Realism can objectively develop the personality of a character, revealing both limitations and virtues, and documenting the conflicts both external and internal which give rise to the fundamental themes, as is the case in Huckleberry Finn. An Impressionistic work shifts attention from such matters of determinism and conflict to deal with sensory experience, with problems of knowing, and with growth and realization. Here the narrative irony results from a multiplicity of perspectives, as in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” when the innocence of Jack Potter and his bride is set against the worldly wisdom of the porters and sophisticated travellers from the East. Such a device is related to the central Impressionistic theme that “the ‘truth of life’ is relative to the sensibility which perceives it.”7

Perception and realization, rather than moral choices or transcendent deterministic forces, become the main concerns of characters for whom “reality is ephemeral, evanescent, constantly shifting its meaning and hence continually defying precise definition.”8 Unlike Naturalism, Impressionism replaces theoretical assumptions of systems with the fragments of experience9 rendered, rather than told, and implying that reality is fundamentally sensational, that the views and observations of a character are necessarily tentative, always subject to new insight, and sometimes, as in Maggie, contradicted by the evidence of the very experiences and situations portrayed. Such generalizations do not, of course, account for the complexity of a major work of art, but they do provide an initial definition and methodology for describing the generic tendencies of a work of fiction and for understanding the art and meaning of the work itself.

These concerns are particularly important in establishing a context in which to assess Crane's stories and to judge the wisdom of Conrad's observations. It is curious that despite Conrad's praise, along with Crane's comment in a letter that “A Man and Some Others” “is one of the best stories that I have done,”10 and its obvious affinities to “The Open Boat,” the story has received almost no serious critical attention. It was written sometime during the early months of 1896 and, with the assistance of Paul Revere Reynolds, the first American literary agent, placed in Century for February of 1897.11 Thus it precedes Crane's filibustering adventure and the story based on it by only a few months, for “The Open Boat” was composed during January and February of 1897. Indeed, in many important ways, the western story anticipates “The Open Boat”: it deals with multiple protagonists, with a dual plot of both physical adventure and psychological growth, with a shifting narrative perspective, with a repeated philosophical refrain, and with the related themes of nature's indifference to man and with the development of compassion in a moment of stress.

In each story, the plot is deceptively simple: here a character named Bill, a sheepherder, is warned to leave the range by José, a Mexican, who vows that Bill will be killed by him and some others if he does not leave. Bill refuses. That night a stranger, apparently from the East, rides into camp and although humorously out of his element, becomes involved in the fight that follows in which Bill and several of the Mexicans are killed. Afterwards, the stranger views the devastation and slowly moves off through the wilderness. Beneath this simple action there is an important thematic transformation: as the story develops, the concern changes from Bill and his conflict to the stranger and his psychological development. Bill's story of pride and violence is replaced by a deeper tale of the stranger's innocence and realization. This shift in emphasis corresponds to a shift in point of view from a focus on Bill's actions to a focus on the workings of the stranger's mind.

As does “The Open Boat,” the story begins with an assertion of the limitations of human vision. Here the concern is not for the color of the sky but for the western plains as seen by a third-person narrator:

Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or crowd. The world was disclosed to be a desert and unpeopled.12

This last assertion is immediately revealed to be untrue, for the desert is not unpeopled as the arrival of José and the stranger soon establishes. The narrative voice must thus be regarded as restricted and unreliable, rather than omniscient, at least for all the sections of the story save for the flashback of Bill's background. The flashback device, of course, is a violation of the continuity of the basically Impressionistic point of view, as indeed it is in the first chapter of The Red Badge of Courage, but even so the stress in Bill's story, as in Henry's, is on the tension between the way he sees himself and the way others see him. And, for the rest of the story, the narrative mode is that of shifting identification with the perspectives of the various characters.

For example, when the stranger first rides into camp, he is described as seen by Bill:

Bill saw a type which did not belong in the mesquit. … Bill's eyes searched the outfit for some sign of craft, but there was none. … As Bill's eyes traveled over the stranger, they lighted suddenly upon the stirrups and the thrust feet, and immediately he smiled in a friendly way. No dark purpose could dwell in the innocent heart of a man who rode thus on the plains.

(pp. 58-59)

This passage is followed by one which provides an assessment of Bill through the eyes of the stranger:

As for the stranger, he saw a tattered individual with a tangle of hair and beard, and with a complexion turned brick-color from the sun and whisky. He saw a pair of eyes that at first looked at him as the wolf looks at the wolf, and then become childlike, almost timid, in their glance.

(p. 59)

As these passages indicate, the prevailing source of narrative data derives from the minds of the characters. Basically, it shifts from Bill to the stranger, but on one occasion, when the Mexicans ride into camp to shoot Bill, the point of view is theirs. They shoot into a gray blanket they believe to be Bill at sleep, and walk confidently into the light of the campfire:

Then suddenly a new laugh rang from some unknown spot in the darkness. It was a fearsome laugh of ridicule, hatred, ferocity. It might have been demoniac.

(p. 62)

That the location of the laugh is “unknown” indicates the limitations of narrative data, a device used again in “The Open Boat” in which a good deal of important information regarding the meaning of the activities on shore is unknown to the men in the boat.

An even closer and more unique similarity between the two stories, however, is the use of the refrain. In “The Open Boat,” the “if I am going to be drowned” refrain is projected as the collective thoughts of the men as formulated by the narrator. Its meaning involves the assumption of a controlling fate and the passivity of their position. Similarly, “A Man and Some Others” contains a recurrent “fire chorus” sung by the campfire, “an ancient melody which surely bears a message of the inconsequence of individual tragedy …” (p. 60). However, an obvious distinction between the two refrains is that one is directly presented and one indirectly, and, furthermore, in “The Open Boat” there is explicit cognition of the theme by the characters whereas in the western story there is no indication that such ideas are ever fully realized by anyone.

The underlying thematic distinction is also significant: the men in the boat are protesting against that “old ninny-woman, Fate,” who may decide to drown them, whereas the chorus here simply establishes the insignificance of human life and the indifference of nature to it. In fact, after Bill kills one of the Mexicans, the passage which follows reiterates this theme: “The silence returned to the wilderness. The tired flames faintly illumined the blanketed thing and the flung corpse of the marauder, and sang the fire chorus, the ancient melody which bears the message of the inconsequence of human tragedy” (p. 62). And, although the exact words of the refrain are repeated only twice, at the end of the story, when Bill and all but three of the Mexicans are dead, the concluding passage again suggests the insouciance of nature:

He [the stranger] had almost reached the thicket when he stopped, smitten with alarm. A body contorted, with one arm stiff in the air, lay in his path. Slowly and warily he moved around it and in a moment the bushes, nodding and whispering, their leaf-faces turned toward the scene behind him, swung and swung again into stillness and the peace of the wilderness.

(p. 67)

Here, incidentally, the anthropomorphic imagery of the bushes adumbrates the “snarling of the crests” of the waves in “The Open Boat.” In both stories, however, the thematic implications of the refrain do not fully account for the events and cannot be taken as a reliable thematic statement. There would seem to be at least three levels of concern: the adventure level, here concerned with Bill; the expository level of the refrain, which posits nature's attitude; and the initiation motif, focused in each case on a stranger from the East.

When the stranger in “A Man and Some Others” is first introduced he is essentially a comic figure, a tenderfoot in western dress with his feet sticking out through his English stirrups. He is incapable of understanding Bill's situation and suggests running for the sheriff. It is not until the first man is killed that he shows any depth, and then he says to Bill: “that man there takes the heart out of me” (p. 64). In the course of events, however, he quickly develops first concern and then compassion for his new comrade: “he suddenly felt for Bill, this grimy sheep-herder, some deep form of idolatry. Bill was dying, and the dignity of last defeat, the superiority of him who stands in his grave, was in the pose of the lost sheep-herder” (pp. 66-67). The conclusion of the story thus offers a counter-thesis to the theme of indifference: it suggests that although the universe may be indifferent to the fate of men, other men need not be. This is the lesson the stranger learns on the plains and the lesson of the correspondent in a ten-foot dinghy. Indeed, these themes, along with the shifting narrative perspective, and impressionistic descriptions, comprise the very core of “The Open Boat.”

“The Open Boat”13 is essentially a sophistication of the devices and themes of “A Man and Some Others,” albeit, despite Conrad's reaction, far greater in art and depth. Like the western story, it develops three basic levels: adventure ending in the death of a static character, again one named Bill; a refrain which postulates certain assumptions about fate correlated to indications of nature's indifference; and a psychological level in which a stranger grows from indifference to compassion. As in the earlier story, these matters are rendered through a shifting point of view, one here identified at various times with each of the four men in the boat, with them collectively as though they shared one center of consciousness, and which at times withdraws to view the scene from a distance.14 The effect of this device is to render the adventure dramatically in all its multiplicity of sensory experience and philosophical reflection.15

The story begins with one of the most famous lines in American literature: “none of them knew the color of the sky” (p. 68), a line which patently indicates the concern for the limitations of perception of the four men in the boat. Perception, of course, is a function of character, and the scene is quickly described as seen from each of the points of view, including that of an objective narrator. The cook sees only the gunwale and the broken sea to the east. Although he does bail from time to time, he basically exerts no control over his situation and is absorbed in the immediate. In contrast, the oiler is assertive and dynamic: he steers the craft and devotes his attention and anxieties to the fragile oar, which seems ever ready to snap. The captain, injured and physically inactive, is said to be buried in “profound dejection and indifference,” and he is preoccupied with the loss of his ship and haunted by the faces of the seven men who went down with it (p. 69). Nevertheless, with the steady performance of his duty, he commands the small boat with skill and dignity. Each of these perspectives is limited either to the past or to the immediate logistical problem. Only the correspondent speculates about the meaning of it all: “The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there” (p. 68). He is both a participant and a reflective commentator, and as the story progresses through its seven sections the point of view becomes increasingly identified with his mind, and as it does so, the theme becomes further a product of his sensitivity and growth.

In the early sections, however, the detached perspective forms an ironic contrast to the limited views of the four men. The narrator can speculate in abstract terms: “Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque” (p. 69). This reflection is set against the increasing restrictions on the vision of the men in the boat: “As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all else from the view of the men in the boat …” (p. 69). This perceptual antithesis develops further. The men, unable to see clearly, dispute whether there is a life-saving station or a house of refuge on the shore: “There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign” (p. 76). Juxtaposed to this comment is an observation from the narrator that “it is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction, but the men did not know this fact …” (p. 76). The result of such dramatic irony is a consistent perceptual theme inherent in the adventure, one which accents their restricted knowledge.

The thematic implications of this perceptual dichotomy are, as in “A Man and Some Others,” related to the ideas expressed in the recurrent refrain. The refrain begins, “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?” and goes on to assert the control of human destiny by an “old ninny-woman, Fate” and to protest her injustice: “She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work. … Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!” (p. 77). As this passage reveals, at the central point of the story the thinking of the men is cosmologically presumptive, assuming the malevolence of controlling agents in the universe. And the challenge in their thinking, like Bill's challenge to José and the others, is based more on pride than knowledge, as is made clear when Billy, the oiler, the most physically capable of all the men, is washed up dead on shore. In almost identical form, however, although somewhat shortened, the refrain is repeated twice more: once after it becomes clear that the man on shore waving his coat is not signalling the imminent appearance of a rescue mission, and again during the night when the correspondent sees the shark.

It is at this point, the beginning of section six, that the narrative point of view leaves the collective “man” to become associated almost exclusively with the mind of the correspondent, and as it does so the theme shifts from adventure to epistemology and the view of nature from hostility to indifference. The change in the correspondent's thinking develops from his protest to a new realization that “nature does not regard him as important” (p. 84), a view objectified by a distant star: “A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation” (p. 85). Later a similar realization follows the appearance of the tower on the beach:

This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the severity 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.

(p. 88)

Here, in this passage, are two of the most explicit impressionistic themes in all of Crane's works: the recognition of a distinction between reality and what man perceives as reality, between “nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men”; and the development of a new level of perception, the revision of thought to perceive nature now as indifferent. What in “A Man and Some Others” is sung by the “fire chorus” is here embodied in a star and a tower and interpreted not by the narrator but by the protagonist.

In “A Man and Some Others” the fire chorus sang of nature's indifference, and the stranger developed a new compassion. In “The Open Boat” a parallel development takes place in the correspondent, but it is revealed not on the occasion of the death of a compatriot but in his reflections on a poem about a soldier of the Legion. The poem in question is a freely edited version of the opening of “Bingen on the Rhine” by Caroline E. S. Norton,16 a poem he had known as a child but which he had never regarded as important:

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.”

(p. 85)

The structural movement of the verse from indifference to compassion suggests the direction of the correspondent's thinking. A moment before, when he saw the shark slicing through the water, he had felt “bereft of sympathy” (p. 84). And when as a child

myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight … he had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. … Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. … It was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine. The correspondent plainly saw the soldier. [He] was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.

(pp. 85-86)

Here, as in the earlier story, an adventure which makes clear that nature has no special regard for human life serves as a catalyst for a transformation from solipsism to compassion. And once again this insight is related to both literal and figurative developments in perception. Whereas at the beginning of the story “none of them knew the color of the sky,” by the opening of the final section, “when the correspondent again opened his eyes, the sea and the sky were each of the gray hue of the dawning” (p. 87). When the dinghy capsizes in the surf, and the men are struggling with the waves, the events are related through the correspondent's eyes: “The shore was set before him like a bit of scenery on a stage, and he looked at it and understood with his eyes each detail of it” (p. 90). This improvement in vision is essential for an understanding of the final line of the story: “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” (p. 92). Although there is nothing in the story to corroborate the suggestion that proximity to death infuses the participants with transcendent wisdom, the experience does seem to have fundamentally altered the vision of the correspondent who grows to a new sympathy and a new interpretation of his world.

Thus, even a brief comparison of these two stories reveals that there is a great deal of similarity between them and more than perfunctory reasons for regarding them as Impressionistic. In plot they tell much the same story, supported by the same kinds of subordinate motifs. Indeed, inasmuch as “A Man and Some Others” falls chronologically just before Crane's journalistic account of his boat adventure and his subsequent fictionalization of it, there is reason to suspect, at least, that in the western story he had developed the artistic vehicle and philosophic themes for “The Open Boat.” And even if it is allowed that the use of the refrain, a patently poetic device Crane used but seldom in his fiction, would not seem to be Impressionistic, it does link the two stories, as do its themes. On the other hand, the passages of sensory description, the focus on matters of perception, and the shifting narrative perspective would seem to provide ample justification for Conrad's description of them as Impressionistic.

Contrary to Conrad's judgment, however, “The Open Boat,” with its elimination of the flashback, its integration of physical and psychological action, and in its more graceful handling of the refrain, would seem to be the more aesthetically satisfying and, perhaps not incidentally, the more purely Impressionistic. Indeed, Conrad himself, writing some two decades later, reflected that “after all,” Stephen Crane

too like that story of his, of four men in a very small boat, which by the deep and simple humanity of presentation seems somehow to illustrate the essentials of life itself, like a symbolic tale. It opens with a phrase that anybody could have uttered but which, in relation to what is to follow, acquires the poignancy of a meaning almost universal.17


  1. “A Man and Some Others” appeared in Century, 53 (February, 1897), 601-607, and “The Open Boat” in Scribner's Magazine, 21 (June, 1897), 728-740.

  2. Stephen Crane: Letters, ed. R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes (New York: New York University Press, 1960), p. 154.

  3. Letters, p. 155.

  4. Edward Garnett, “Mr. Stephen Crane: An Appreciation,” Stephen Crane's Career: Perspectives & Evaluations, ed. Thomas A. Gullason (New York: New York University Press, 1972), p. 141. Reprinted from The Academy, 55 (December 17, 1898), 483-484.

  5. Garnett, pp. 140-141.

  6. The relationship of Crane to Impressionism has been studied in four previous essays. Sergio Perosa, in “Stephen Crane fra naturalismo e impressionismo,” Annali di Ca Foscari, 3 (1964), 119-142, argues that Crane developed a “symbiosis” of Impressionistic methods and Naturalistic premises. My assessment would make the two modes antithetical. Orm Overland's essay, “The Impressionism of Stephen Crane: A Study in Style and Technique,” Americana Norvegica, I (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 239-285, has been of considerable value to me, particularly with regard to viewing Impressionism as a way of perceiving reality. However, Overland does not go on to distinguish this perspective from those of Realism and Naturalism. Stanley Wertheim, in “Crane and Garland: The Education of an Impressionist,” NDQ, 35 (1967), 23-28, argues that Crane was influenced by Garland's concept of “veritism” and not by the Impressionistic painters. Rodney O. Rogers, in “Stephen Crane and Impressionism,” NCF, 24 (1969), 292-304, agrees with Wertheim on this point. He also goes on to develop an excellent discussion of point of view in Impressionistic fiction.

  7. Kenneth E. Bidle, “Impressionism in American Literature to the Year 1900,” Diss. Northern Illinois University, 1969, p. 68.

  8. Rogers, pp. 293-294.

  9. See Carl Van Doren, “Introduction,” Stephen Crane: Twenty Stories, ed. Carl Van Doren (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940), p. 241, and Wertheim, p. 24.

  10. Letters, p. 130.

  11. J. C. Levenson, “Introduction,” Tales of Adventure, Vol. V of The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1970), p. 1. This edition hereafter cited as Adventure.

  12. Stephen Crane, “A Man and Some Others,” Adventure, p. 53.

  13. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” Adventure, pp. 68-92.

  14. I have explored the implications of the point of view of this story in greater detail in “The Narrative Method of ‘The Open Boat,’” RLV, 39 (1973), 409-417.

  15. Levenson, p. lxvi.

  16. Edward Stone, “Crane's ‘Soldier of the Legion,’” The Red Badge of Courage: An Annotated Text: Backgrounds and Sources: Essays in Criticism, ed. Sculley Bradley, et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 179. Reprinted from AL, 30 (1958), 242-244.

  17. Joseph Conrad, “Introduction,” to Thomas Beer, Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), p. 13.

Herb Stappenbeck (essay date February 1976)

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SOURCE: Stappenbeck, Herb. “Crane's ‘The Open Boat’.” The Explicator 34, no. 1 (February 1976): 41.

[In the following essay, Stappenbeck explores the link between “The Open Boat” and Caroline Norton's poem “Bingen on the Rhine.”]

Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” has been the subject of numerous commentaries, many of which agree that the central theme concerns man's relation to nature and his relation to his fellow man. Some of these readers have seen as a major link between these two relationships Caroline E. S. Norton's “Bingen on the Rhine,” a poem that the correspondent had memorized as a child and that “mysteriously entered [his] head” immediately after his recognition of “the pathos of his situation” (The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970, V, 85). Only Marston LaFrance in A Reading of Stephen Crane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), however, has pointed out that “the correspondent identifies himself with … the dying soldier of the Legion” (p. 202), although LaFrance does not fully develop this identification. I suggest that the correspondent associates himself with the soldier of the Legion in such a way that his recollection of the poem links his discovery of man's pathetic situation in an indifferent universe to his subsequent awareness of a responsibility to sympathize with his fellow man.

The correspondent associates himself with the soldier in two different ways. In section IV the shore, which the four men yearn to reach and from which they discern only indifference, is described as a “broad stretch of lowly coast,” “of dunes” where a “tiny house was blocked out black upon the sky” (p. 76). Later, the men can make out “little dots which seemed to indicate a city on the shore” (p. 78). At dawn the next day, when the men are no nearer the shore than they had been the previous day, they see that on “the distant dunes were set many little black cottages” which “might have formed a deserted village” (p. 88). With just this set of images of the shore in his mind the correspondent imagines the “mournful” state of the soldier, who “lay on the sand,” while in “the far Algerian distance, a city of low square forms was set against a sky that was faint with the last sunset hues” (p. 86). Although the poem has supplied the correspondent no scenic details, he “plainly saw the soldier” (p. 86) in a setting remarkably like his own, despite the fact that he was at sea and the soldier was in the desert. The correspondent has projected himself into the soldier's situation in order to comprehend both himself and the soldier.

But what links the correspondent's recollection of the poem to his new understanding of man's relation to nature and to his fellow man and what justifies the narrator's assertion that the correspondent's sympathy for the soldier was caused “by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension” (p. 86) is the correspondent's awareness of another relationship he has with the soldier. The correspondent recalls that as a child “he had never regarded it as important” that the soldier was about to die and that he was, in fact, “perfectly indifferent” to the “soldier's plight” (p. 85). But the correspondent has also discovered that “nature does not regard him as important” (p. 84) and that she was as “flatly indifferent” to his situation as would be a giant to “the plight of the ants” (p. 88). In other words, the correspondent (as child) was to the soldier as nature is to the correspondent (as adult), or as the universe is to every man. Nature's indifference to the correspondent is comparable to his earlier indifference to the dying soldier.

Ultimately, more painful than death or than even the prospect of dying to both the soldier and the correspondent is indifference, a lack of sympathy, a dearth of nursing and tears. It is when the correspondent, believing that his companions are asleep, thinks of himself as “the one man afloat on all the oceans” (p. 83) that he feels most “bereft of sympathy” (p 84). The value of sympathy is measured by both the pain the men feel when they discern no compassion from the shore and the correspondent's canonization of the naked man who is not indifferent to his plight. In an indifferent universe man can expect sympathy from only his fellow man; likewise, his fellow man depends upon him for compassion. The correspondent's recollection of the poem takes him beyond brotherly feelings for three men who may save his life, through self-pity, to “a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension” of his obligation to suffer with his fellow man.

Robert Schulman (essay date November 1978)

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SOURCE: Schulman, Robert. “Community, Perception, and the Development of Stephen Crane: From The Red Badge to ‘The Open Boat’.” American Literature 50, no. 3 (November 1978): 441-60.

[In the following essay, Schulman traces Crane's growing sense of community in his fiction, which culminates in his story “The Open Boat.”]

Sixty years before Crane's “The Open Boat,” Tocqueville described the settlers of the virgin land: “The desire of prosperity has become an ardent and restless passion in their minds, which grows by what it feeds on. They early broke the ties that bound them to their natal earth, and they have contracted no fresh ones on their way.”1 Alienated from the land, Americans also tend to be separated from each other. “Aristocracy,” Tocqueville observed, “had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increase who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart” (II, 105-106).

Crane's developing sense of the value of human community gains heightened significance through contrast with this basic impulse of American society. The dynamics of Crane's growth are revealing. Consider the situation of extreme isolation and fragmentation Crane had brought to life for himself in the process of creating The Red Badge. Crane was in part responding to one of the deepest tendencies of his American society, its tendency to isolate individuals, to fragment selves and relations, and to substitute technological, contractual, and bureaucratic ties for those of human compassion and community. The Red Badge of Courage is one of the most self-contained novels in all of literature. Although in a few scenes of brilliant colloquial dialogue a sense of human relatedness emerges, for the most part selves are cut off from one another and grope through the fog. This aura of fragmentation is furthered by the prevailing smoke, the blurring of fixed outlines, and by the dislocating irony and absence of grammatical connectives and explicit evaluations. As in the most intense battle scenes, moreover, the focus in The Red Badge is predominantly on the inner responses of a self unaware of others or even of its own “higher” mental powers.

Beginning with “An Experiment in Misery” and “Men in the Storm” (February, 1894) and developing through the major stories of 1897-1898, however, Crane was compelled to test the possibilities and failures of community, an understandable interest since for him the solitary self has limited resources and God and nature are both inaccessible as sources of sustaining power. As an alternative to an intolerable, deadening sense of isolation, human community assumes heightened importance, and in the great works of his maturity Crane understandably explores different dimensions of this concern.2

Crane hardly waited until the ink was dry on his final revision of The Red Badge before he tentatively began this exploration of community in “An Experiment in Misery,” which was published on April 22, 1894.3 The Depression of 1893-1894 gave an acute topical interest to Crane's enduring concern with the underside of city life and the underside of existence. In “An Experiment in Misery” Crane fuses these interests with his incipient concern with community and his basic preoccupation with perception. In “An Experiment in Misery” and, through the next few years in story after story—it is a stylistic signature—Crane arranges his opening paragraphs so that clear outlines are blurred and stable relations are undermined. At the start of “An Experiment in Misery” Crane thus stresses the “fine rain swirling down,” the glistening of light on the pavement, the “quivering glare” on the benches, and “the mists of the cold and stormy night” out of which loom cable cars and elevated trains, embodiments of the “irresistible,” “formidable power” of the city.4 In “The Open Boat,” “An Experiment in Misery,” and in many other stories, Crane's visually effective experiments with light, motion, and color express different degrees of epistemological uncertainty. They are not arty exercises but rather his unique and extreme version of a common nineteenth-century response. Because absolutes and certainties no longer exist for him, because he does not take for granted the mind's ability to perceive clearly, and because he has strong intuitions about the sheer power of natural and social forces and perhaps a residual longing for a protection that for him no longer exists—for all of these reasons Crane is compelled by blurred forms and powerful shapes emerging from mist or storm, by scenes in which the heavens are beyond us and the storm of existence blows hard on men who can see jagged waves or cold pavement but not the sky.

Another basic move of Crane's imagination is the descent into the depths of the self and of existence, as in The Red Badge, Maggie, or “An Experiment in Misery.” As the latter two works show, death, fear, and human misery, the realities Crane repeatedly confronts, are for him often fused with a social world he brings to the test. Thus, after preliminaries in the saloon, “the youth” of “An Experiment in Misery” begins a “journey”—the word is his—into “the dark and secret places of the building” (p. 287), a flophouse from the lower depths. The experience of “the youth” is based on Crane's own experimental visit to a flophouse, a fact we should keep in mind even as we recognize that Crane's omission of the original opening paragraphs and his entire handling of point of view are designed to distance us and the third person narrator from “the youth.” It is as if the personal urgency of the experience demanded the discipline of this formal distancing in order to achieve the immersion in experience that distinguishes the story.5

The descent into the interior brings into sharp focus the youth's underlying fears, so that throughout the story Crane gives us the youth's revealing subjective perceptions, not to call their reliability into question, as in The Red Badge, but to establish the intense reality of his inner response to a dark world. The visual blurring and gloom, the stress on eyes and seeing, culminating in the youth's confrontation with the eyes of a corpse-like being, and the authority of the third person narrator all suggest that at key moments both the inner and outer worlds are dangerously problematic, so that death, social misery, and nightmares are not only on the youth's mind but also have a reality outside of his mind. Death, agony, and loss of identity, moreover, are genuine threats.

The threat of death, misery, and loss of self in a universe where traditional religious assurances are nonexistent contributes powerfully to the blurred outlines that characterize Crane's work. This threat is intensified because the hell-fire side of his religious heritage often compels Crane at the same time that the promise of salvation is totally absent. Under these conditions death and misery pose the terror of the total extinction of the self. In “An Experiment in Misery” the setting thus becomes increasingly hell-like, an effect Crane conveys at the center of the story by intensifying to the tenth power the visual blurring and flickering lights of the opening paragraph. The youth can hardly see “in the intense gloom within,” “a small flickering orange hued flame … caused vast masses of tumbled shadows in all parts of the place,” and the youth struggles violently against “the unholy odors [that] rushed out like fiends” from the closely packed bodies of the sleeping man. In this dark, hell-like cavern, a clothes locker has “the ominous air of a tombstone,” the youth's cot is “like a slab,” and the sleeping men, far from seeming tranquil, were “lying in a death-like silence, or heaving and snoring with tremendous effort, like stabbed fish,” so that even in sleep, because of that startlingly effective simile, there is the threat of horrible, violent death. Matters reach an almost unbearable impasse when the youth stares into the partly open eyes of a “corpse-like being” and feels threatened to the core of his own being by this glimpse of death and misery (pp. 287-288).

At the climax of the story, the youth, already deeply unsettled, almost immediately hears nightmare shrieks “echoing … through this chill place of tombstones, where men lay like the dead” (p. 288). He could easily respond with terror or total despair or he could identify with this tormented man and risk being pulled under with him. Instead, the youth saves himself by finding a grim, life-affirming meaning in these awful sounds. To him they “were not merely the shrieks of a vision pierced man. They were an utterance of the meaning of the room and its occupants. It was to him the protest of the wretch who feels the touch of the imperturbable granite wheels and who then cries with an impersonal eloquence, with a strength not from him, giving voice to the wail of a whole section, a class, a people” (p. 289).

His recognition of community—for him the voice speaks “for a whole section, a class, a people”—and the youth's sense of the protest against death and inexorable social misery: this constitutes one of the most profound of Crane's insights. At stake are the youth's personal identity and his deepest feelings about human mortality. These concerns combine with his sense of social pain to endow the nightmare sound with its full significance. The context, timing, and unfolding psychological drama are fully realized; the issues are personally, socially, and humanly urgent.

At the end of the story, however, these conditions are absent. The youth emerges from the depths of the building and from the intensity of his nighttime experience. In the light of day the story tapers off into observations of the men dressing and the social panorama the youth's tramp companion supplies through the unidealized details of his wandering life. The story ends with the youth's journalistic indictment of a prosperous, materialistic society that ignores the suffering he has seen, a society he feels alienated from. The ending aside, these observations and stories are no more or less credible than the youth's responses to the dark interior and the nightmare sound. The daylight perceptions and details, however, are relatively less intense, deep, and dramatic and relatively more amusing, idiomatic, and realistic. The latter qualities, however, do not make for greater accuracy or reliability. Typically, moreover, it is pretense, egotism, and self-serving distortions that impel Crane to undermine his characters. Throughout the story the youth has none of these qualities, and the third person narrator properly accepts the youth's reactions, as most readers do. The presence or absence of these moral qualities helps us decide when Crane is or is not being ironic at the expense of his characters. Tendencies like the self-serving demands of the ego also bear on the character's ability to know and to see clearly and accurately. Henry Fleming, whose perceptions are repeatedly warped by his inner needs, is again the negative example, as opposed to the youth of “An Experiment in Misery.”

As his responses in the depths indicate, the youth, like Crane himself, is also open to metaphysical as well as social and moral issues. These metaphysical concerns should not be dismissed as an unreliable distortion of “objective reality,” as “strictly a property of the youth's mind,” to quote a recent critic, as if Crane somehow neatly divides the universe into a valued and reliable “objective reality” and a suspect and distorting mind.6 In Crane the relation between perceiver and perceived is much more fluid and shifting than that, and in “An Experiment in Misery” the relation itself is central.

The story centers, then, not on the Bowery or its inhabitants and their moral cowardice, as Crane later suggested, but on the relation between the youth and a new, dark environment, or on his responses to and perceptions of this world.7 Thus, what gives power to the ending is not the conventional indictment of an indifferent, money-grubbing society but the youth's feeling that he is “an outcast” (p. 293), a characteristic Crane response but one that at the center of the story the youth has momentarily transcended by recognizing that the nightmare voice speaks in protest against the misery of “a whole section, a class, a people.”

However tentatively expressed in “An Experiment in Misery,” the recognition of community at the center of the story represents a lasting interest Crane was to deepen in the years that followed. Community, that is, is one of the dominant concerns Crane was impelled to explore as he was working out the human consequences of the extreme situation he had reached in the course of writing the Red Badge of Courage. Vision and violence are two other main concerns. In contrast to the extensive undercutting of Henry Fleming, for example, the acceptance of the youth's perceptions in “An Experiment in Misery” looks ahead, in particular to “The Open Boat.” Instead of the human mortality and social misery of “An Experiment in Misery,” in “The Open Boat” the impersonal violence of nature is the antagonist that makes the correspondent aware of his involvement in a human community, to focus on two of Crane's other main interests. Similarly, the correspondent's awareness that the brotherhood of the men in the boat is their main resource in the face of the assaults of the elements constitutes a deepening of the insights of “Men in the Storm.”

In that story, like “An Experiment in Misery,” written as he was revising The Red Badge during the severe Depression winter of 1893-1894, Crane renders the elemental violence of the fierce blizzard that characteristically blurs clear outlines in a “swirl” of “great clouds of snow” (p. 315).8 It is within this universe that Crane, without the mediating presence of the youth or the correspondent of “The Open Boat,” then sympathetically records the unemployed men huddling together for warmth against the storm and joking and swearing together at both their social superiors and the fierce winter. In contrast to “An Experiment in Misery,” however, Crane does discriminate between the habitual Bowery inhabitants and the temperate, hardworking unemployed, whose pathos is that they uncomplainingly blame themselves for their failure (p. 317). All of the beleagured men, those from the Bowery and the working men alike, nonetheless share an American language of profanity and a grim sense of American humor as resources against their natural and social antagonists. Despite their impulse to trample each other as they rush to escape the knives of snow, moreover, they finally enter the refuge of the soup kitchen “three by three, out of the storm” (p. 322). In this echo of the formation of the Biblical community on Noah's Ark, the shift from two to “three by three” stresses a certain human brotherhood opposed to the storm of the universe.

As early as “Men in the Storm” and “An Experiment in Misery,” Crane's imagination was thus already working towards insights he was to realize fully in “The Open Boat,” particularly the stress on “the subtle brotherhood of men” opposed to the fierce elements and the emphasis on the perceived, experienced reality of men exposed to death and the force of the universe. The realizations of “The Open Boat” were implicit but less fully and deeply developed in the earlier sketches. Under the pressure of his own exposure to the elements after the wreck of the Commodore, Crane brought into sharp, suggestive focus concerns and a sense of existence he had been growing toward for nearly three years. In Crane's development beyond The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat” marks a culmination and turning point.

From the beginning of “The Open Boat” the perspective of the men is totally limited by the violent sea. They come to know it intimately, in the precise detail, wry humor, and sensitivity to color and to the way things look and feel that are major achievements of Crane's narrative art. He develops the point of view of men who “knew the color of the sea” but not “the color of the sky,” a distinction that points up simultaneously Crane's accurate rendering of the men's visual perceptions, the inaccessibility of those conventional certainties the sky traditionally represents, and man's inevitable involvement in a situation that conditions his vision and awareness.9

The fact that for Crane men cannot achieve absolutely certain, unchanging knowledge, however, does not for him make their perceptions inevitably false in an absurd universe and it does not detract from their remarkable achievements. The fact that the point of view of the men is limited, moreover, does not for Crane discredit their views or make any one perception suspect on principle. Intelligent and influential critics of “The Open Boat” have placed an unwarranted normative stress on objectivity and absolutes, the latter a category often dismissed at the front door only to be let in at the back. The emphasis has distracted attention from the complexity of Crane's achievement in “The Open Boat,” distorted his basic concerns, and often undermined our confidence in his characters and in our own ability to read and understand without a special interpretive key to unlock the mysteries of a story allegedly so hedged in ironic and epistemological qualifications as to be inaccessible to the uninitiated.

In contrast to The Red Badge, from the outset of “The Open Boat” the responses and perceptions of the men are basically convincing and reliable. It is a mistake to assume that what holds for Henry Fleming holds equally for the men in the open boat, as if Crane had not genuinely developed. Even more insistently than in “Men in the Storm,” in paragraph after paragraph of “The Open Boat” Crane builds up the drama of the immense power and ferocity of the elements all but destroying the infinitely small men in their shell of a craft. Sometimes like jagged rocks, sometimes like snarling animals, sometimes like white flames, the waves attack and nearly overwhelm the boat. The elements that arbitrarily follow their own uncontrollable rhythms are sometimes more and sometimes less fierce as the ordeal goes on, but immediately before the men jump, as at the beginning, the waves are “furious” and the third one “fairly swallowed the dingey” (p. 89). Like the figurative language throughout the story, this metaphor serves, not to discredit the distorting minds of the men but to render the felt, perceived reality of their situation.

In all of these instances the figurative language is the narrator's. He is close to the men but his role is to go beyond them and to speak in his own convincing voice so as to establish the reality of their world, their views, and their responses. Thus, he sometimes says “seemed,” as when he renders their point of view in the famous first paragraph. Sometimes he uses “was” or “raged” or “came,” as when he writes of the waves, “they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.” And sometimes he reconstructs, as when he says “in the wan light, the faces of the men must have been gray. Their eyes must have glinted in strange ways as they gazed steadily astern” (p. 69). This usage—“must have glinted”—establishes both the inevitability of precisely these glints under such circumstances and the credibility of a narrator who catches the most minute nuances of a scene and even discriminates his own reconstructing role, implied in “must have,” from direct reports (“was,” “came,” “raged”).

In a story “after the fact” (p. 68), as part of the occasional process of reconstructing, the narrator sometimes recalls other vantage points. For the men the precipices were immense, each ascent was perilous, and then the dinghy had to face the next menace. Then the shift to “viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque.” This line does not imply that several equally tenable views are possible but it does effectively highlight through contrast the reality of “the men [who] … had no time to see it, and if they had the leisure there were other things to occupy their minds” (p. 69-70). They are in fact menaced and too busy to respond conventionally, as a man safe on shore might.

Similarly, when the narrator later convinces us of the beauty of the scene—“it was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber” (p. 70)—he does so to drive home the contrasting danger and reality of the men's situation. For them, “the wind tore” and mundane matters related to survival, not the aesthetics of the situation, understandably dominate what they see and take into account.

As in this scene, the recurring explicit and implicit references to other points of view—the balcony or a picnicker's, for example—always serve to stress the earned, experienced reality of the men in the boat. After he has endured the night on the ocean, the exhausted correspondent, we recall, can still see an unlikely admirable “speed and power” in the shark's fin that “cut the water like a gigantic and keen projectile” (p. 84). We are not to ask if it is really gigantic or to imagine how a detached observer would see it and to praise or blame the correspondent accordingly, praise if he sees it as the detached observer would, blame if he fails to, but in any case to take it in context as evidence of man's shifting, unreliable perceptions, of what James Colvert sees as Crane's dominant theme, that of “faulty perceptions,” or of what others have seen as the story's undermining of man's mind, character, and language in an epistemologically absurd universe.10 Instead, what is remarkable is that tired as he was the correspondent was capable of such complex, precise, and convincing responses and that Crane, as he does time and again, was able to convey so exactly the experienced quality of the situation. Thus, “the presence of this biding thing did not affect the man with the same horror that it would if he had been a picknicker. He simply looked at the sea dully and swore in an undertone,” not because he is more “objective” than the landsman but because his night's experience, fatigue, personal sensibility, and deep involvement give the correspondent rather different expectations and responses than a picknicker. Central to the reality of the correspondent's situation, moreover, is his desire for companionship in a world of sharks and sea. The episode appropriately ends on this note, thus carrying into yet another scene the central theme of community, touchingly rendered here because the correspondent does not awaken his exhausted companions.

Far from discrediting the correspondent in particular or mankind in general, even the episode of the poem about the soldier dying in Algiers unpretentiously develops the reality of the correspondent's situation and furthers in a more humorous way than earlier the theme of community. The dying soldier who “never more shall see my own, my native land” has enough in common with the correspondent who may not reach land so that the differences are humorously inappropriate, particularly in view of the contrast between the style of the verse and of Crane's story. Now that he himself may die without reaching his native land, and now that he has experienced the night, the shark, and the sea, the change in the correspondent's situation makes him understand the soldier's. He can now sympathetically enter even so unlikely a world as that of the poem and can see the soldier's situation “as a human, living thing … as an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine.”11 He sees the Algerian sunset, the foreign city, the romantic death; and he “was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers” (p. 86). We note the discrepancy between the sentimentally romantic world he is totally involved in and his own immediate reality that he but not the reader has momentarily forgotten. This contrast, the significance of the issues, and the high quality of the correspondent's awareness, simultaneously elevated and gently called into question (isn't his humanity in a sense misplaced; doesn't he deserve to feel for himself and his companions, rather than for an imaginary soldier?) all contribute to the humorous play on serious themes, especially that of brotherhood and human sympathy. The contrasts of desert and ocean, of remote Algeria and the precisely recorded details of the immediate scene—the narrator provides a brilliant paragraph to highlight the contrast—similarly contribute both to the humor and to the exact, full rendering of the experienced reality of the correspondent's situation.

A further reality for the correspondent, “a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe,” is that he “should see the innumerable flaws of his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance” (p. 88). As the passage continues, the narrator's point of view merges with the correspondent's, so that the exposure of the religion of the foxhole men under stress is prone to suggest a dimension of self-depreciation, a wry awareness on the correspondent's part of his and man's tendencies and pretenses, and an unwillingness to strike noble postures, as in the comic anti-climax of his understanding that, given another chance, “he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea” (p. 88). The correspondent's credibility is furthered, not weakened, by the episode.

As in this context, which includes his well-known reflection on the windmill, the correspondent's occasional emphasis on the individual in an indifferent universe, moreover, does not detract from his and the story's concern with community but rather develops convincingly the reality of the correspondent's situation. The feeling of brotherhood he experiences early in the ordeal the correspondent knew “even at the time was the best experience of his life” (p. 73), a value that is not undercut when circumstances later force the men apart. When he sees the windmill as representing “the serenity” and “indifference” of nature “amid the struggles of the individual,” the perception comes immediately before the men make their final, unaided effort. The correspondent's mind is occupied with the encounter to come and with the individual struggles he knows are in store. Nature, furthermore, “did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (p. 88). This view highlights through contrast the value of human community and deepens our understanding of the human and intellectual reality of the correspondent's experience. This sense of existence, moreover, was earlier rendered in the authoritative voice of the narrator in the passage on the “cold star on a winter's night” (p. 85). It is an intellectually tenable position supported by the dominant metaphors and actions of the story, and it is basic to the tragic sense of “The Open Boat.” Less central is the correspondent's response in the midst of the immobilizing current, when “he thought: ‘I am going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?’” (p. 91). As the narrator immediately establishes, the death of an individual is not “the final phenomenon of nature,” but the heightened importance the correspondent puts on his own life is a convincing part of the reality of the experience, particularly from the perspective the narrator provides.

Since they, too, are open to question, the implications of the narrator's vocabulary of qualification also deserve attention, as when he writes of the sea, “it was probably splendid. It was probably glorious” (p. 70). In context the “doubtless” and “probably,” the “seems,” “appeared,” and “perhaps” the narrator favors always reinforce our sense of the men's situation or the scrupulousness of the narrator (the functions are not in conflict). These words are not symptoms of fundamental epistemological uncertainty and when irony is involved, in context the irony does not systematically undercut the men, their minds, or human capacity and does not define the Crane of “The Open Boat” as an ironist in Andrew Wright's sense of a man fundamentally “not sure which is and which merely seems.”12 None of the foregoing, however, implies that Crane was insensitive to the difficulty of knowing or that he had lost his sense of irony.

In general, though, when one or another of the men is mistaken, as the cook is in the argument about houses of refuge and life-saving stations or as they all are in blaming the nonexistent men for not rescuing them (pp. 80-81), Crane is perfectly clear and usually tolerant about it. The dominant concern of the story, it bears repeating, is to convey the experienced, perceived reality of men in a particular and particularly representative, difficult, and suggestive situation, of men in an open boat exposed to the power of the elements. As part of the human reality of their situation, the men are sometimes mistaken, baffled, or uncertain, just as they are often perceptive, skillful, and above all cooperative. Against great odds they row, bail, have their hopes raised and dashed, see colors, shapes, and shadows exactly, somehow see on the horizon the dot that is the lighthouse, somehow solve the “problem in small boat navigation” each precipice of a wave poses, and sometimes argue in circles about what constitutes a signal.

These recurring, almost formal debates, the unlikely use of the intellectual terminology of navigational problems and repeated references to mind, and the responses and speculations of the correspondent and the narrator all suggest that the situation of man in the universe has hard intellectual as well as physical dimensions. Somehow, despite all of the pain, difficulty, fatigue, and threatening power, three of the men manage to get to shore, partly through the caprice of the elements, partly through their own human resources—cooperation, skill, fortitude—and their good luck. The death that occurs for no good reason, arbitrarily, is a convincing reminder that in the sea of existence, for all the men have achieved, human life is not in our control, that elemental powers must be reckoned with. By doing justice to the reality of the men's situation, the story at once renders the magnitude of the forces they confront, the exposed situation of the men, their human fallibility, and their skill, endurance, and the human community and feeling of brotherhood that above all are their resources against the powers they confront. The story renders a modern tragic vision of human existence because all unpretentiously and believably, not larger than life, the ordinary men in the open boat affirm their—and our—shared humanity and vulnerable mortality in the face of arbitrary death and a threatening universe in which ultimate knowledge is unattainable but death, sharks, and the implacable power of the elements are ever present.13

“The Open Boat” does not give us two radically different worlds, the sea and land, such that what goes on at sea is basically different from on land. Instead, the story is a precise rendering of a particular experience so accurately presented that it becomes a metaphor for the human condition, as essentially pertinent to man's life on shore as on the seas. The experience on the sea in the open boat is a heightened, intensified, and sharply focused version of the possibilities implicit but usually concealed in ordinary life. But since the story suggests barriers as well as connections between men, and the sea-shore dichotomy is involved, it is worth stressing that in the final paragraph the narrator, as he has done repeatedly, calls on the resources of metaphor to put the total experience in perspective. He personifies the sea and conveys a sense of its mystery, dignity, and restrained power. At the end, “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” (p. 92). Having experienced the sea as they have, they are now in a position to convey some of its inexhaustible meaning to those on shore, to use human speech to communicate suggestively and intelligently with other men, and to make humanly meaningful “the sound of the great sea's voice” and man's relation to it, as “The Open Boat” itself does.

Particularly because Crane has such an acute sense of the complexity, power, and mystery of existence and because he realizes the difficulty of knowing, given human tendencies and the nature of the universe, it is worth stressing that in an early episode on the theme of knowing the captain and then the cook claim to see the lighthouse. To the extent that we expect they are deluding themselves, we contribute to the drama.14 But the main emphasis in the carefully developed dialogue on seeing and the difficulty of seeing is a tribute to the captain and the cook in their situation, a tribute to the “anxious eye” it took “to find a light-house so tiny” (p. 73), a pinpoint almost impossible to discover on a swaying horizon. The anxiety of their situation here leads to significant discovery. When Crane later exposes the men's false hopes of being saved, he is not undercutting their achievement in particular or human capacity in general but is developing his full version of the human reality of their experience.

He thus presents the episode as an intricate ballet of misunderstanding and false expectations. As they approach the lighthouse, these able men cooperate to shape reality in accord with their shared hopes. Each member of the crew makes his own unique contribution to the common mistake, just as throughout the story each contributes to their survival. The captain reinforces the cook's misplaced assurance that “‘that's the house of refuge, sure. … They'll see us before long, and come out after us’” (p. 75). The oiler leaves the main premises unchallenged, although, like the captain and the correspondent, he must know that houses of refuge do not have crews. Earlier, the correspondent has correctly disagreed with the cook about the difference between a house of refuge and a life-saving station (p. 70). The disagreement forgotten, the correspondent now supplies the four cigars that contribute to the comic spectacle of “the four waifs [who] rode impudently in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men” (p. 75). The community of error and false hopes is humanly understandable, and it is compounded by the fact that the narrator understates it when he says “there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction” (p. 76). There was not a house of refuge, either.15 The exposé intensifies as the men, their minds “sharpened” by their needs and the demands of the situation, know acutely but falsely that the rescuers are out there, so that the four rage and “conjure pictures of all kinds of incompetency and blindness and, indeed, cowardice” (p. 76). In this episode the men's shared misperceptions and misplaced moral outrage emerge from a primarily psychological source.

Elsewhere, Crane discriminates other obstacles not only to accurate perceptions but also to human community. He repeatedly exposes our normal expectation that things will work out for us, that houses of refuge and life-saving stations will take care of us, that in our civilized, modern world “they'll see us before long, and come out after us” (pp. 75, 78-79). In fact, when people do appear on the beach the men in the boat and the men on shore are in perfect noncommunication. To dramatize the point, Crane stages a Buster-Keaton-like comedy of epistemological misunderstanding. Men run, wave coats, absurdly turn out to be riding a bicycle on the beach, even more absurdly appear to launch a lifeboat that turns out to be a hotel omnibus, perhaps for spectators to watch what they take to be the fishing boat out there. The men in the boat see and describe accurately; their interpretations, however, are frustratingly inaccurate. The comedy turns on the fact that they base their interpretations on the assumption that their predicament is obvious and that they and the men on shore are living in the same world. Apparently our predicament is not always obvious to those on shore. The failure, however, is not really a moral failure of insufficient humanity but grows out of a generalized epistemological problem. “‘I wish I could make something out of those signals,’” one of the men in the boat says. “‘What do you suppose he means?’” His friend complicates the problem by replying, “‘He don't mean anything. He's just playing’” (p. 80). Our problem is not only to interpret signals, not easy at best, but also to decide if they are in fact signals. At this level of generalization the barriers to human community are the mind and reality itself.

For a writer sensitive to the implacable violence of the elements and aware of the epistemological barriers to knowledge and human relatedness, the community the men do achieve in the open boat is essential, precarious, and unusually hard-won. It constitutes an indispensable human affirmation. “The subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas” the correspondent “knew even at the time was the best experience of his life” (p. 73). Crane waits until he has convincingly established the situation of the men in the open boat and then he has this recognition emerge from a representative context. In their exposed situation the men achieve a community that is their main resource against the natural forces and intellectual barriers that threaten them. Crane fully develops the correspondent's recognition and makes it a formal and philosophical organizing center for the story.

This theme, for example, is developed through the subtle, intricate, cumulative way the men are shown to function together. At some time each is shown taking one or another of his fellows or the group into account. The captain, for example, typically gives sensible orders that reassure the others without minimizing their danger. Even in the icy water at the end he directs the cook to safety and, facing away from the refuge of the shore, he calls the correspondent to the boat, an understated act of concern for another quietly emphasized by the pain and danger of the situation.

Even the cook, who receives less attention than the others, makes his necessary contribution to the common enterprise. He and the captain both see the lighthouse; the cook spends his uncomplaining, lonely night hours in the company of the shark, only reluctantly awakens his companions, and until the end he bails the boat, as the others do their jobs, without panic or complaint. The men's intimate sense of solidarity emerges in the fact that their division of responsibilities is never made an explicit issue: each man does his job without rancor or fear; each takes his turn alone to give the others some rest; but the basic decisions about who does what are based on tacit understandings that do not have to be expressed. The result is to further that sense of comradeship that goes beyond “a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety” (p. 73). Thus, the cook bails but does not row, and the fact is established in such a way as to deepen our sense of the community of men in the open boat.

The correspondent, for his part, shares the ordeal and exhaustion at the oars with the oiler, one relieving the other through the entire experience. The correspondent's concern and affection for his companions emerge not only in the famous explicit passages but pervasively in his gestures and responses. He is as skillful, controlled, and humane as any of the four, a point worth calling attention to, not to detract from the oiler or the captain, for example, but to emphasize that their achievement is carefully presented as a communal one. The men share equally and Crane deliberately avoids setting up a hierarchy of merit.

Thus the oiler performs his functions admirably, but no more so than his companions. He and the correspondent row together, skillfully exchange positions, row alone, and then rest. Their ordeal is shared, each takes the other into account, and in the scenes involving the oiler the emphasis is repeatedly on this subtle brotherhood central to the experienced reality of the men. Just as the captain or the correspondent sometimes takes the lead, moreover, the oiler, “a wily surfman,” realizes at a key moment that the boat will not make shore and “by a series of quick miracles, and fast and steady oarsmanship, turned the boat in the middle of the surf and took her safely to sea again” (p. 77).

When they finally enter the fierce water, the correspondent sees the oiler “ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly” (p. 90), whereas the correspondent himself soon after is immobilized in a deadly current. The arbitrary power of the elements and the arbitrary, unmerited quality of the oiler's death are underscored by these final facts, which do not define the oiler as the strongest and most capable of the men—physically, the correspondent has shared the ordeal equally, and the captain, the correspondent, and the oiler are all shown as competent. The story's sense of tragedy emerges from the consistently developed theme of the community of capable, fallible men in their exposed situation confronting the power of the elements. The death of the oiler under the circumstances of the ending and in the context of the entire experience dramatizes man's precarious hold on existence. The tragedy is that the brotherhood of men in the open boat, a central human value in the face of the impersonal elements, is unable to prevent the death, so that in context the death of one and the survival of the others simultaneously reinforce our sense of human capacity, limitation, and the mystery and power of existence. The story achieves this tragic sense not by elevating the oiler above the others but by rendering the community of which he like the others is an integral part.16

This recognition of the value of community is especially important for Crane's American society. During Crane's lifetime, a basic American tendency to fragment and privatize relations was intensified by rapid urbanization, immigration, and industrialization. Robert Wiebe shows that these pressures left America a society without a core, the earlier small-town configuration shattered and Americans groping toward order. To hold things together, Wiebe argues, Americans developed bureaucracy and professionalism.17 As an alternative both to that impersonal order of experts and to the restless, alienated individualism Tocqueville diagnosed, Stephen Crane's vision of human community in “The Open Boat” has an irresistably powerful appeal and significance. As with those moments in Twain's novel when Huck and Jim are together with each other and at one with the river, we are fortunate that our most sensitive American writers have been impelled to remind us of the value of relations our society threatens systematically to destroy.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York, 1945), I, 305. Subsequent quotations will appear in this text.

  2. In contrast to this view of the dynamics of development in Crane's work, see Warner Berthoff, who believes that in Crane's case “chronology and questions of development [are] nearly immaterial” (The Ferment of Realism: American Literature 1884-1919, New York, 1965, p. 228). See also a modified version of this minimizing of the importance of development in Crane in Gordon Taylor, Passages of Thought: Psychological Representation in the American Novel 1870-1900 (New York, 1969), p. 111.

  3. R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York, 1968), p. 98.

  4. Stephen Crane, Tales, Sketches, and Reports, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, Va.; 1973), pp. 283-284. Quotations from “An Experiment in Misery” and “Men in the Storm” are from this edition and will appear in the text.

    In the newspaper version of “An Experiment in Misery,” Crane begins with a series of paragraphs on “the youth” who, with an older friend, “stood regarding a tramp” and, because “you can tell nothing of it unless you are in that condition yourself,” decides to put on the dress of a Bowery bum in order to find out and “perhaps discover his point of view or something near it” (Tales, pp. 862-863). When it came to book publication Crane showed excellent critical judgment in deciding to eliminate these paragraphs, thus bringing the opening into line with his prevailing practice during the years immediately following The Red Badge and dramatizing the issue of perception through suggestive imagery rather than direct and, in this case, uncompelling statement. Marston LaFrance, A Reading of Stephen Crane (New York, 1971), p. 43, argues for the original version.

  5. For a discussion of the contrasts in technique and handling of point of view between Crane, who places us and his characters directly in the “other world” of misery, and contemporaries like Howells and Riis, who are tourists in this region, see Alan Trachtenberg, “Experiments in Another Country: Stephen Crane's City Sketches,” Southern Review, X (Spring, 1974), 265-285, an essay that sees Crane in the context of the nineteenth-century city and its rendering in literature and photography.

  6. LaFrance, p. 45. These remarks represent one persistent and, I believe, misleading tendency in Crane criticism. See also Donald B. Gibson, The Fiction of Stephen Crane (Carbondale, Ill., 1968); Joseph X. Brennan, “Stephen Crane and the Limits of Irony,” Criticism, XI (Spring, 1969), 183-200; and to an extent Berthoff, Ferment of Realism, pp. 231-232, where the undeveloped view that Crane lacks mass and clarity may rest on assumptions similar to those I have been objecting to. On the general issue of Crane's way of seeing, Milne Holton, Cylinder of Vision: The Fiction and Journalistic Writing of Stephen Crane (Baton Rouge, La., 1973) and especially Frank Bergon, Stephen Crane's Artistry (New York, 1975) are revealing.

  7. In his perceptive essay, “Misery and Society: Some New Perspectives on Stephen Crane's Fiction,” Studia Neophilologica, XXXV (No. 1, 1963), 104-120, Maurice Bassan was the first to test Crane's comment about cowardice and the Bowery against the story itself and to conclude that Crane's later remarks are not supported by the story (especially 119-120).

  8. “Men in the Storm” was probably written in February, 1894, and published in October, 1894. Stallman, p. 96 and Tales, p. 865.

  9. Stephen Crane, Tales of Adventure, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, Va., 1970), p. 68. Subsequent quotations from this edition of “The Open Boat” will appear in the text.

  10. James B. Colvert, “Style and Meaning in Stephen Crane: ‘The Open Boat,’” Texas Studies in English, XXXVII (1958), 40; Rodney O. Rogers, “Stephen Crane and Impressionism,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, XXIV (Dec., 1969), 292-304; and Donna Gerstenberger, “‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective,” Modern Fiction Studies, XVII (Winter, 1971-1972), 557-561.

  11. Crane and the correspondent are not identical, but in view of the controversy about Crane's attitude in this episode, it is worth noting that immediately before the Commodore sailed Crane read and favorably reviewed—his only published book review—Under Two Flags by “Ouida” (Louise de Ramée), a writer he had admired as a boy. Under Two Flags has an Algerian setting and involves heroic, romantic sentiments Crane approved of as having “a fine ring.” Quoted by Stallman, pp. 243-244.

  12. Quoted by Colvert, p. 42.

  13. My emphasis on brotherhood is similar to Max Westbrook, “Stephen Crane: The Pattern of Affirmation,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, XIV (Dec., 1959), 223 and my stress on perceived, experienced reality is close to Bergon, pp. 86-93. For another way of seeing the role of brotherhood, see Edwin Cady, Stephen Crane (New York, 1962), pp. 151-155.

  14. George Monteiro, for example, in “The Logic Beneath ‘The Open Boat,’” Georgia Review, XXVI (Fall, 1972), 328, argues that “there is no lighthouse within miles when the men convince themselves that they have seen one.” But the lighthouse was there, 159′ above sea level, about one mile to the north and west of the entrance to Mosquito Inlet, Lat. 29/04/50, Long. 80/55/42, and with a candlepower of 15,000 and a range of nineteen miles. Department of Commerce Lighthouse Service, Light List Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States (Washington, D.C., 1924), pp. 332-333. See also such lines as “meanwhile the light-house had been growing slowly larger” (p. 74).

  15. Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1897 (T.24.1; Washington, D.C., 1898), p. 369. Life-saving stations had boats, provisions, and a rescue crew. Houses of refuge, as the correspondent correctly puts it to the cook, “are only places where clothes and grub are stored for the benefit of shipwrecked people. They don't carry crews” (p. 70). There were no life-saving stations on the Florida coast. The nearest house of refuge north of Mosquito Inlet Light was at Smith's Creek, about thirty miles from the lighthouse. The nearest house of refuge south of the lighthouse was not, as E. R. Hagemann says, “just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light” (Lat. 29/04/50, Long. 80/55/42) but was about twenty miles away (Lat. 28/51/30, Long. 80/46/20). E. R. Hagemann, “‘Sadder than the End’: Another Look at ‘The Open Boat,’” Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays, ed. Joseph Katz (DeKalb, Ill., 1972), p. 85.

  16. The elevated status of the oiler is generally accepted. For some representative examples, see Cady, pp. 152, 154-155; Monteiro, 329; and Max L. Autry, “The Word Out of the Sea: A View of Crane's ‘The Open Boat,’” Arizona Quarterly, XXX (Summer, 1974), 101-110. The received view seems to me to do imperfect justice to the story's tragic sense because it undervalues the role of community in both that tragic view and the economy of the story.

  17. Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York, 1967).

Bert Bender (essay date spring 1979)

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SOURCE: Bender, Bert. “The Nature and Significance of ‘Experience’ in ‘The Open Boat’.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 9, no. 2 (spring 1979): 70-80.

[In the following essay, Bender investigates the religious overtones of the concept of personal experience in “The Open Boat.”]

It is an eye-opening experience for most readers when they learn that “The Open Boat” is based on Stephen Crane's own harrowing experience. And there is no question that what happened at sea on those January days of 1897 opened the author's own eyes; he would not forget it, even on his death-bed, where he murmured deliriously about changing places in an open boat.1 In the famous newspaper report of the incident, he indicated that he would take time in writing his story; his problem would be how to communicate the significance of so shaking an experience to an audience whose inexperience in such matters would necessarily distance them from his drama. “In a ten-foot dinghy,” he writes early in the story, “one can get an idea of the resources of the sea … that is not probable to the average experience, which is never at sea in a dinghy.”2 This simple truth regarding the chasm between experience and inexperience is unwittingly reiterated by critics and students who continue to reject “The Open Boat” on grounds that it isn't realistic—for example, the student who can't believe that the men would have waited so long to brave the breakers, or the critic who complains that Crane failed “to achieve circumstantial verisimilitude.”3 Anticipating such complaints, and understanding their basis, Crane shaped his story in ways that not only emphasize the enormous personal significance of his experience, but that render the very concept of “experience” more complex and vitally central to the story than has yet been recognized. For now, let me merely suggest, and explain later, that the full significance of “experience” in “The Open Boat” can be glimpsed if we see that the story dramatizes a variety of what William James would call (a few years after Crane's death) “Religious Experience.”

“Fact” and “Experience” in the story's subtitle (“A Tale Intended to be after the Fact: Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore”) clearly signal that Crane is writing about an actual experience. It is not so obvious, however, that he begins at once to delimit the meaning of “experience,” in an effort, perhaps, to distinguish his narrative from popular adventure stories. The story's first sentence, “None of them knew the color of the sky,” prepares—as many have sensed—for the spiritual nature of the following journey, one in which there will be considerable scanning of the heavens. But we should also note that this first statement, along with “all of them knew the colors of the sea” (in the third sentence), plays upon the primary sense of “to know” as “to perceive” or “to experience.” That is, these first sentences extend the subtitle's emphasis on “experience” by establishing the story's crucial linking and limiting of what is “known” to what is “experienced.” This special narrative definition of “to know” is essential for Crane's purposes in “The Open Boat,” but it is also necessary, in part, since he writes in English; for in our language, the single word “know” has two main senses which in French or German, for example, are reflected in the different words connaitre and savoir or kennen and wissen. Quoting the Encyclopedia Britannica, the OED notes that the word “know” is considered by some to have “two main meanings: ‘to know may mean to perceive or apprehend, or it may mean to understand and comprehend. … Thus a blind man, who cannot know about light in the first sense, may know about light in the second, if he studies a treatise on optics.’” Accordingly, the OED's first sense for “know” is “to perceive (a thing or person) as identical with one perceived before … ; to identify.” Its second sense is “to be acquainted with; to be familiar with by experience or through information or report” (as in connaitre or kennen); and its third sense is “to have cognizance of through observation, inquiry, or information” (as in savoir or wissen).

Throughout “The Open Boat” Crane uses “know” in a way that excludes the OED's third sense of the word. From the first sentence to the last, he systematically denies his men the sort of verifiable knowledge that “cognizance,” “observation,” or “inquiry” imply. Instead, he makes them confront what we normally think of as the unknown or unknowable—as when they attain a “new ignorance of the grave-edge” (p. 335)—and leaves them only with the kind of knowledge that we refer to in such expressions as “I have known sorrow,” i.e., “I have felt or experienced sorrow.” The story's path to this sort of knowledge is easily traced: it begins with the curious formulation about knowing colors, and leads the correspondent to the moment when, having felt nature's cold indifference to his pleas, he can come to “know” “the pathos of his situation” (p. 353). In bringing together “know” and “pathos” in this crucial moment, Crane underscores the meaning of “experience” in “The Open Boat”: as “to know” carries the primary sense “to experience,” so does “pathos,” whose root extends to the Greek paschein, “to experience, suffer.” Like Gloucester and King Lear, Crane's correspondent comes to “see feelingly.” Thus, having heard “the great sea's voice” (at the end of the story), he and the other survivors “felt that they could then be interpreters” (my emphasis).

If what I am saying about “know” and “experience” seems to belabor the obvious, I must report that, unfortunately, many interpreters of “The Open Boat” lose touch with the story in its opening moments by failing to follow Crane's lead. Joseph X. Brennan, for example, misrepresents the story and Crane's view of experience when—in writing about the story's “artistic defects”—he points to the “successive intellectual and psychological steps” Crane's men take and concludes that “in Crane's view evidently no valid insight or awareness … can be derived from human experience.”4 On the contrary, Crane means to dramatize that the only kind of valid knowledge is experience, as he defines these terms in his story. And Donna Gerstenberger loses Crane when, in writing about the story's “epistemological emphasis,” she argues that “The word knew in the famous first sentence is the key word, for the story which follows is about man's limited capacities for knowing reality.”5 Again, this kind of interpretation fails to follow Crane as he leads his correspondent to the ultimate knowledge of reality—the kind of knowledge one feels and clings to in the face of death, as the dying Crane did in murmuring about changing places in an open boat, or the kind of knowledge one derives from what William James called a “religious experience.”

Whether Crane consciously played upon the etymological link between “pathos” and “experience” in “The Open Boat,” it is impossible to tell. But, clearly, he sought to record the sort of experience that William James would describe in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James included all of his varieties of religious experience under the general definition of “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”;6 and he defined “divine” as that “primal reality” that “the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest” (p. 38). Such experiences, James was “almost appalled” to discover, involved much “sentimentality” and “emotionality,” and he realized that “in all these matters of sentiment one must have ‘been there’ one's self in order to understand them” (pp. 486, 325). More specifically, what happened to Crane after the Commodore sank showed him “the religious values inherent in actual experience” that John Dewey would write of in A Common Faith (1934).7 Dewey's point is that “whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious, not that religion is something that introduces it”; thus he claims that institutionalized religion with its emphasis on the supernatural “stands in the way of the realization of distinctly religious values inherent in natural experience” (pp. 9, 24, 28). And he concludes—almost as though he had “The Open Boat” in mind—that, “Whether or not we are, save in some metaphorical sense, all brothers, we are at least all in the same boat traversing the same turbulent ocean. The potential religious significance of this fact is infinite.” (p. 85).

In attempting to dramatize what we may call a Jamesian experience, Crane began his story, as I have suggested, by stressing the actualness of his experience and by linking “knowledge” with “experience.” His next step was carefully to depict, in his characterization of Captain Murphy, an heroic figure who embodies religious values that derive directly from actual experience. Throughout the story, Crane emphasizes that the captain steadies the men with his constant calmness and serenity. Speaking of the “personal and heartfelt” quality in the captain's voice, and of the men's obedience to him, Crane tells us that “after this devotion to the commander of the boat, 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” (p. 344). The captain will become an object of devotion, and the terms with which Crane understands the captain's heroism are indicated in his initial portrait. Crane sets it off from the others' portraits by placing it last, by making it longer and more detailed than the others, and by rendering it in sounded, rhythmic language:

The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy-nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her, though he command for a day or a decade; and this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces, and later a stump of a topmast with a white ball on it, that slashed to and fro at the waves, went low and lower, and down, Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and a quality beyond oration or tears.

(p. 340)

This is memorably poetic prose, as many have noted, and it clearly conveys how strongly Crane felt about the captain. But I want most to indicate here that Crane's terms for depicting the captain's heroic embodiment of religious values are (1) that he is already injured, (2) that his “mind is rooted deeply in the timbers” of his vessel, and (3) that he is moved to deep mourning by having witnessed the suffering on the “seven turned faces” (of the men who, actually, went down with the Commodore). By virtue of his injury, he has suffered or “experienced.” And his suffering for others, his resulting deep mourning that is “beyond oration or tears,” is distinctly different from the correspondent's repeated useless ragings to an empty sky about “the seven mad gods who rule the sea.” The captain is moved not by seven imagined mad gods, but by the faces of seven suffering men. The correspondent will eventually experience this sort of feeling, but only after his dark night alone: Crane's remark about the captain, “Thereafter there was something strange in his voice” (p. 340), parallels his later remark about the correspondent, “Thereafter he knew the pathos of his situation” (p. 353). But that the captain's mind is “rooted deep in the timbers” of his vessel, that he is deeply in touch with his actual situation, is perhaps his prime heroic characteristic. And it is this trait by which Crane dramatizes the difference between the captain and his men early in the story when they encounter some sea gulls.

The gulls, with their staring, “black bead-like eyes,” seemed “uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny, and the men hooted angrily at them.” But when one attempts to land atop the captain's head, Crane uses the crisis to characterize the captain's steadying grasp of reality:

‘Ugly brute,’ said the oiler to the bird. ‘You look as if you were made with a jacknife.’ The cook and the correspondent swore darkly at the creature. The captain naturally wished to knock it away with the end of the heavy painter, but he did not dare do it, because anything resembling an emphatic gesture would have capsized this freighted boat; and so, with his open hand, the captain gently and carefully waved the gull away. After it had been discouraged from the pursuit the captain breathed easier on account of his hair, and the others breathed easier because the bird struck their minds at this time as being somehow gruesome and ominous.

(p. 342)

The captain is worried about his hair; his mind—unlike the others'—is not susceptible to fearful fantasies that might have caused the boat to capsize. Crane's point is that, at this early stage in his experience, the correspondent has a long way to go before he will be able to direct his own mind away from the empty sky and thereby come to know the pathos of his actual situation. Nor does the captain lose his grip even when faced with the possibility of his own death; he cooly accepts the likelihood of this inevitable reality, saying to the others, “If we don't all get ashore, … I suppose you fellows know where to send news of my finish?” They exchange the necessary information, and Crane again distinguishes the captain from the men by remarking that “there was a great deal of rage in” the “reflections of the men.” Their raging is expressed as, “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?” It is a formulation which, like a refrain, is thrice-repeated in Parts IV and VI, and ends here in its first instance in a flat denial of reality: “She cannot drown me” (P. 346).

Despite his injury—perhaps even because of it, the experienced captain retains his heroic grasp on reality. At one point he literally teaches the men how to see the lighthouse: “‘See it?’ said the captain. … ‘Look again, … It's exactly in that direction.’” Crane's comment is that “It took an anxious eye to find a lighthouse so tiny” (p. 343). And even in the whirling surf, with “his face turned away from the shore” toward his men, the captain repeatedly calls, “Come to the boat!” In short, this selfless, experienced “iron man” to whom the men are so devoted exerts a growing influence over them that is most apparent in the “curiously ironbound friendship, the subtle brotherhood of men,” that develops among them. In a very definite sense, Captain Murphy fathers this “subtle brotherhood.”

Partly because of the captain's influence, then, and partly because of their physical predicament, the men cease their fantastic ragings; and Crane gradually replaces the refrain, “If I am going to be drowned,” with the simpler repeated notes about the prolonged rowing: “… the oiler and the correspondent rowed. And they also rowed”; “In the meantime the oiler rowed, and the correspondent rowed, and the oiler rowed,” etc. (pp. 342, 347, 350). In this way he dramatically signals how the men's developing unity is based in simple, shared, physical experience. And he heightens the spiritual significance of this kind of experience by having the men touch each other, as well as by adding to the repeated notes of their rowing another note that will take on the effect of a refrain: “‘Will you spell me for a while,’ he said meekly.” This part of the brotherhood, the meekly shared suffering, comes when one man is literally spent, as here, when the oiler, “blinded” by the “overpowering sleep,” “rowed yet afterwards”: “Then he touched a man in the bottom of the boat, and called his name” (p. 351). The intimate human proximity of these men in the boat contains the essence, I take it, of Dewey's “Common Faith,” which I mentioned earlier. Crane's genius is that he can make what Dewey called the “infinite” “religious significance” of such a situation as finite as the experience of one human touching another. When he depicts these men huddling, touching each other for warmth (p. 351), he means to dramatize the physical reality of the spiritual fact: “The subtle brotherhood of men” “dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him” (p. 343).

It is worth pausing here to note that the religious quality of Crane's “brotherhood” should be located squarely within the American tradition, as I have suggested by referring to William James and John Dewey. And it should be clear that the values inherent in his “brotherhood” are scarcely new. One needn't arrive at what is essential in Crane by way of the existential values represented in “Camus' heroes,” for example, even though the comparison has been eloquently made.8 The values dramatized in “The Open Boat” have been realized in similar terms by the greatest writers in our literature—by Melville, for example, in “A Squeeze of the Hand” in Moby-Dick; and by Whitman in Chant Three of “I Sing the Body Electric.” There, Whitman begins, “I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons”; and he goes on to develop the image of a vigorous, calm, experienced man like Crane's Captain Murphy. Whitman ends the Chant by imaging the old man sailing his own boat: “You would wish long and long to be with him, and would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.”

But Crane's deepest feelings about “experience”—as rendered in “The Open Boat”—entail much more than an intimate brotherhood; he invites us to follow him more deeply as he speculates upon the subjective nature of such experiences. Even the correspondent's exposure to the chilling actualities of survival at sea, and the experienced captain's influence upon him do not, of themselves, develop in the correspondent a deep sense of the significance of his experience. This kind of awareness begins to come to him only in Part VI when—after having spent a dark night alone that helps him sense nature's indifference to him—he comes to know “the pathos of his situation.” At this point, he has a vision that comes to him through poetry: “To chime the notes of his emotion, a verse mysteriously entered the correspondent's head” (p. 353). This small scene constitutes the story's intense lyric center, its epiphany.

The verse (about “A soldier of the Legion [who] lay dying in Algiers,” which Crane took from Caroline, Lady Norton's “Bingen”) and the use Crane makes of it here have been criticized as “patently sentimental and banal.”9 On the contrary, however, the correspondent's vision of the dying soldier has all the characteristics of a Jamesian “religious experience” (it occurs in the correspondent's solitude, it is full of sentiment and emotion, and it provokes in him a grave and solemn response). And, since it introduces “genuine perspective” for the correspondent, it is clearly the sort of moment that John Dewey would have called “religious.” The correspondent's new perspective is simply, but profoundly, that he—“who had been taught to be cynical of men”—has come to see the suffering of another man as a “human, living thing … it was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine” (p. 353). When Crane writes that the correspondent “plainly saw” the soldier and, finally, that he “was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension,” it is clear that the correspondent has come in his own mysterious way to imitate the Captain's most impressive power—empathy—as indicated (after he had seen the seven faces of his drowning men) by that “something strange in his voice” that was “deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.”

But Crane's investigations into the nature of “experience” do not end even here. Already, in telling the story of his own most memorable experience, he has (1) dramatically linked “know” with “experience” and “pathos”; (2) created a hero, the captain, and associated his compassion with his mind's deep connection with actual experience; (3) created a correspondent whose cynicism is associated with his inexperience; (4) implied that the correspondent's present experience in the dinghy has in some way helped to prepare him for a religious experience, his vision; (5) associated the correspondent's most profound moment not with actual experience, alone, but with mystery, emotion, and poetry; and (6) given us a story whose aesthetic derives from the correspondent's visionary experience or “epiphany.” He goes further, however, to incorporate into his story yet another dimension of experience—that of the reading experience. To begin, he was keenly aware that the “mind unused to the sea” would be unprepared to grasp even simple realities that he wished to depict (p. 347). And he knew that a writer's efforts to convey larger realities would be even more difficult. As another of his correspondents exclaimed, “we can never tell life, one to another” (my emphasis).10 Crane was aware of this difficulty well before “The Open Boat”; thus he had developed his unique poetic style—his own way of expressing the emotional and psychological realities inherent in his material. But further, he had come to sense that what was true of even the most dramatic physical experience—that its significance might be comprehended only by some mystic sense—was also true of the reading experience. He knew, that is, that even the power of poetry is unaccountably lost on some readers at the same time that it deeply affects others.

As early as Maggie (1893), for example, he had sensed that the reading experience is mysteriously subjective. There, in a scene that strangely foreshadows the problems he would later confront self-consciously in “The Open Boat,” he has a woman in a Bowery beerhall “sing a sorrowful lay, whose lines told of a mother's love, and a sweetheart who waited and a young man who was lost at sea under harrowing circumstances.” The young writer's interest, however, is not in the song, but in the response it gets: “From the faces of a score or so in the crowd, the self-contained look faded. Many heads were bent forward with eagerness and sympathy.”11 In their capacity to lose their “self-contained” looks in response to a song, the “score or so” in this Bowery crowd seem to possess instinctively the mystic sense that finally comes unaccountably to the correspondent in “The Open Boat.” In “The Open Boat,” however, Crane looks more closely at this phenomenon, for it had become vitally connected with his investigations into the nature of experience. He therefore dramatized it at work at the very heart of his story: he is fascinated with how the correspondent—whose “profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension” comes to him through recollected poetry—had earlier in his life been completely unmoved by the same lines. By now, “he had even forgotten that he had forgotten this verse,” even though in his childhood “myriads of his school fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight.” Their “dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers.” One of Crane's subtlest touches in “The Open Boat” is to challenge his readers to respond more humanly than he had, to make it their affair that four men struggled to survive at sea in an open boat. Yet even as he parodied himself and challenged his readers, he was aware of the mystery.

As Crane proved in writing The Red Badge of Courage, firsthand experience of dramatic and tragic events is not the essential material from which art may be created. A writer can give us compelling dramas of human tragedy only after he has found within himself that mysterious empathetic power to sense the essential dramatic and tragic nature inherent in ordinary experience, to come to know “the pathos of his situation.” And the sensitive reader—as Crane saw in writing “The Open Boat”—must possess a similar empathetic power. His faith was that, if he could reach us at all, it would be as the correspondent had come to see and know another man's suffering—through the mystery of poetic experience.

In his awareness of the mysterious complexities of experience in general and of the reading experience, in particular, as well as in the values embodied in his “subtle brotherhood of men,” Crane might be compared with Herman Melville, who had accounted for Hawthorne's power to reach readers by resorting to religious and mystical terms quite like Crane's in “The Open Boat.” Melville could account for the “shock of recognition” (whereby a reader senses a writer's genius) only by clinging “to the strange fancy that, in all men, hiddenly reside certain wondrous, occult properties” that make them capable of experiencing the shock of recognizing genius.12 And like Crane, who imagined ideally responsive readers, Melville called for Hawthorne's books to be “read by the million” even though he knew that they could be “admired” only by those who were “capable of admiration” (my emphasis, p. 204).

The mystical terms with which Melville accounts for genius and the deepest kind of literary response will strike many as impossibly romantic. Still, his “shock of recognition” has its hold on our imagination. And our best contemporary efforts to understand the phenomenon of literary response scarcely improve upon Melville's. Norman Holland, for example, has concluded that the act of reading requires something like the writer's genius. The act of literary “perception is also an act of creation in which I partake of the artist's gift,” he says; and he finds in himself “what Freud called the writer's ‘innermost secret; the essential ars poetica,’ that is, the ability to break through the repulsion associated with ‘the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others.’” His Freudian terms bring him to the same view of “experiencing [in general and, specifically, in literature] as an in-gathering and in-mixing of self and other as described by Whitehead or Bradley or Dewey or Cassirer or Langer or Husserl.”13 To this list we might add at least Crane and Melville. Yet, in finally addressing himself to that most troublesome question in subjective literary theory—of just how a reader is moved or affected, Holland concludes that “there is no satisfactory theory of affect in any circumstances, real life, literary response, dreams, or inner tension.”14 Any formal attempt to analyze affect will confront “the notorious difficulty of using words (instead of mathematics) in formal systems and also of using words to describe feelings. At that crux, a psychology of literary response might turn not to psychology, but to poetry” (p. 299). Or, we might add, to a psychology like William James's that recognizes the mystical experience; for the deep, personal response in reading—like the correspondent's “profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension”—transcends the self.

Stephen Crane pondered such questions in “The Open Boat,” where, attempting to comprehend “the best experience of his life” and to convey its import, he turned to the poetry of religious experience. Even as he turned to poetry, however, he realized that many of his readers and critics would be capable only of viewing his story “from a balcony” (p. 341). Even the unlikely reader who had suffered similar experiences at sea might not yet have had that kind of rare inner experience that finally enabled the correspondent to recognize what Melville might have called his own genius.15


  1. Robert W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: Brazillier, 1968), p. 515.

  2. The Complete Short Stories of Stephen Crane, ed. Thomas Gullason (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 340. Further references to “The Open Boat” will be cited parenthetically by page number from this text.

  3. Cyrus Day, “Stephen Crane and the Ten-Foot Dinghy,” Boston University Studies in English, 3 (Winter, 1957), p. 211. Arguing that “the physical hardships endured by Crane and his companions in the ten-foot dinghy have been grossly exaggerated” (p. 204), Day looked up the weather records for January, 1897 and found that the wind at New Smyrna and Jacksonville was blowing only “nineteen to twenty-four miles an hour” on January 2 and 3; this would have been “comparatively harmless, even to men in a ten-foot dinghy,” he naively concludes (p. 201). Obviously, Day had never tasted the sea, for he unabashedly quotes old sayings (like “Red in the morning, sailors take warning,” etc.) and old sea manuals like Seamanship (1863) and Practical Seamanship (1890) in an effort to prove that neither Crane's description of the events nor Captain Murphy's strategy were commendable.

  4. Joseph X. Brennan, “Stephen Crane and the Limits of Irony,” Criticism, 11 (Spring, 1969), 194, 196.

  5. Donna Gerstenberger, “‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective,” Modern Fiction Studies, 17 (Winter, 1972), 557.

  6. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York and London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1902), p. 31.

  7. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1934).

  8. Peter Buitenhuis, “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existentialist Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 5 (August, 1959), 243-250.

  9. Brennan, “Stephen Crane and the Limits of Irony,” 199. Similar criticisms have been made by Gerstenberger, op. cit., 560-561, and J. C. Levenson in his “Introduction” to Crane in Perry Miller, ed., Major Writers of America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), II, 384.

  10. Stephen Crane, “War Memories,” in Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899), p. 229.

  11. Stephen Crane: Stories and Tales, ed. Robert W. Stallman (New York: Vintage, 1952), p. 63.

  12. Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in The Shock of Recognition, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: Modern Library, 1955), p. 204.

  13. Norman N. Holland, “Unity Identity Text Self,” PMLA, 90 (October, 1975), p. 820.

  14. 5 Readers Reading (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), p. 292.

  15. The essay is dedicated to the memory of the author's uncle, Bert Stroud, lost, while it was being written, in a sea accident in the Gulf of Alaska.

William K. Spofford (essay date autumn 1979)

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SOURCE: Spofford, William K. “Stephen Crane's ‘The Open Boat’.” American Literary Realism 12, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 316-21.

[In the following essay, Spofford argues that an examination of “The Open Boat” “in relation to Crane's earlier fiction, poetry, journalism, and letters reveals that Crane had articulated his themes and formulated his motifs and images long before the incident, and his recounting of the thirty hours in an open boat merely provided the vehicle for these materials to come together.”]

On 1 January 1897, while on a filibustering expedition to Cuba, the Commodore sank, and Stephen Crane spent thirty hours in an open boat before he and his three companions reached the Florida coast. In “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” published in the New York Press on 7 January 1897, Crane recounted the facts of the experience except for the thirty hours spent in a ten-foot dinghy. This part of the ordeal he saved for “The Open Boat,” “A Tale Intended to be after the Fact: Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore.” J. C. Levenson emphasizes that the “main intent” of this subtitle “is obviously to say that the author has tried to be accurate, to give an account in accordance with what really happened.”1 But beyond the factual framework, how much of Crane's short story is a reflection of that particular experience? Put another way, how much of “The Open Boat” really happened in the open boat? A careful examination of the story in relation to Crane's earlier fiction, poetry, journalism, and letters reveals that Crane had articulated his themes and had formulated his motifs and images long before the incident, and his recounting of the thirty hours in an open boat merely provided the vehicle for these materials to come together.

Throughout his career Crane was concerned with the indifference of the natural universe to the plight of man. This concern is succinctly expressed in a poem first published in 1899 in War is Kind.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

(X, 57)

This theme is important in “The Open Boat” as well. Through the ordeal the correspondent comes to the realization “that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him” (V, 84-85). Symbolizing this natural indifference is a windmill on shore that stands “with its back to the plight of the ants,” representing “the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual” (V, 88). Nature “did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (V, 88).

Very significant, I believe, is the fact that this view of the indifference of nature had crystalized in terms of the relationship between man and the sea long before Crane ever set sail on the Commodore. In April 1896, the Philistine published the following lines:

To the maiden
The sea was blue meadow
Alive with little froth-people
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.

(X, 47)

Even earlier, in “Coney Island's Failing Days,” first published in the New York Press on 14 October 1894, Crane anticipated the correspondent's realization of the indifference of nature to pathos in the world of men: “There is a mighty pathos in these gaunt and hollow buildings, impassively and stolidly suffering from an enormous hunger for the public. And the unchangeable, ever imperturbable sea pursues its quaint devices blithely at the feet of these mournful wooden animals, gabbling and frolicking, with no thought for absent man nor maid!” (VIII, 322).

In “The Open Boat” the correspondent's realization of his true relationship to the natural universe is doubly frustrating. He would like nature to take cognizance of him. When it does not, he wishes to protest, but embodied in the concept of flatly indifferent nature is the idea that there is no one to whom he can take his complaint. As Crane phrases it, “he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples” (V, 85). Interestingly, more than a year before the Commodore fiasco, Crane had a comparably frustrating experience while cat-boat sailing at Hartwood. In a letter of 19 November 1895 to Willis B. Hawkins, Crane recounted how his boat hit stump after stump: “Up to the 5th stump I had not lost my philosophy but at the 22d I was swearing like cracked ice. And at the appearance of the 164th, I perched on the rail, a wild and gibbering maniac. It is all true. I cant [sic] remember when I was so furiously and ferociously angry. Never before, I think.”2 Crane goes on to mention the response of his brother Edmund's dog in comparably frustrating circumstances and then arrives at the same conclusion he came to in the later short story—for him there were no bricks and no temples: “Teddie has a Belton setter named Judge. When the girls run Judge out of the kitchen [where he has been very comfortable], his soul becomes so filled with hate of the world, that outside, he pounces on the first dog he meets. … Little dog, or big dog, hound or collie, put him out of the kitchen and he pounces on the first one. This is the way I felt up the pond. But there was nobody there” (Letters, p. 77).

Neither in the cat-boat nor in the open boat is there any “visible expression of nature” to “be pelleted with his jeers” (V, 85). Though a man might have “an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds” (V, 77) and deliver a speech, such gesturing would be absolutely futile. This situation is of course reminiscent of Henry Fleming's plight at the end of Chapter Nine of The Red Badge of Courage. In the earlier novel, as Henry stood beside Jim Conklin's body, he “shook his fist” (II, 58). He was on the verge of delivering a philippic against nature but realized that such an oration would make no impression and saved his breath with a curt “Hell—” (II, 58). Above him he had seen “The red sun … pasted in the sky like a wafer” (II, 58) and had fully realized the futility of any assault, verbal or otherwise, on the natural universe. But an even closer parallel can be found in an 1892 Sullivan County sketch, “The Black Dog.” In fact, the anticipation of “The Open Boat” is almost uncanny, and the sketch shows that this basic situation was conceptualized more than four years before the sinking. In this short piece, four men, soaked to the skin, are lost in the woods (as opposed to adrift on the seas), and they succumb to the impulse to rail at what Crane later called “this old ninny-woman, Fate,” who has “the management of men's fortunes” (V, 77). In 1892 Crane wrote, “Four water-soaked men made their difficult ways through the drenched forest. The little man stopped and shook an angry finger at where night was stealthily following them. ‘Cursed be fate and her children and her children's children!’” (VIII, 242).

Even the image of the red sun pasted in the sky anticipates Crane's emblem of natural indifference in “The Open Boat.” When the correspondent realizes fully the futility of any protest against nature and even of the pathetic, ultimate plea, “Yes, but I love myself,” Crane symbolizes his plight with the following image: “A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation” (V, 85). And such a stark emblem appeared elsewhere in his work, too, suggesting that this image was firmly embedded in his artistic imagination before he sailed on the Commodore. “In the Depths of a Coal Mine,” first published in McClure's Magazine for August 1894, employs the same image to suggest the pathetic condition of the mules that have to slave for years beneath the surface, cut off from “the white splendor of snows,” “the glories of green springs,” “the decorations of brilliant autumns.” The mules “had remained in these dungeons from which daylight, if one could get a view up a shaft, would appear a tiny circle, a silver star aglow in a sable sky” (VIII, 598). The same image is also employed late in 1896 in “The Blue Hotel,” confirming that this image was for Crane the natural way of symbolizing man's plight. In this story, five men go out into a blizzard in which two of them will fight it out over a question of cheating at a game of cards. “The covered land was blue with the sheen of an unearthly satin, and there was no other hue save where at the low black railway station—which seemed incredibly distant—one light gleamed like a tiny jewel” (V, 158). The parallel with “The Open Boat” is completed by Crane's reference to the sea at this crucial point in the story. When the men leave the hotel to fight, they plunge “into the tempest as into a sea” (V, 158). Had “The Blue Hotel” been written after the Commodore sinking, this image of a distant dot of light over a sea on a winter's night would be predictable, but the actual chronology suggests that the inclusion of this image in the later story was more a matter of drawing on his artistic resources than a matter of reflecting his actual experience.

The antagonism between the Swede and Johnnie in “The Blue Hotel” is the antithesis of the brotherhood that grows in the open boat: “each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common” (V, 73). It is “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” (V, 73).3 This basic situation and even Crane's phrasing were anticipated in an earlier work, George's Mother. In a little rear room of a bar, George Kelcey and his friends get drunk together: “Brotherly sentiments flew about the room. There was an uproar of fraternal feeling” (I, 129). Lying pleasantly in bed later that night, George feels that he has just spent “the most delightful evening of his life” (I, 130).

It is the correspondent's deep sense of brotherhood that intensifies his loneliness when a shark circles the dinghy during the night. He feels isolated, “bereft of sympathy,” and he wishes “one of his companions to awaken by chance and keep him company with it” (V, 84). This feeling in a similar situation was anticipated by more than three years in “The Reluctant Voyagers.” When night falls on the two men adrift on a raft, they come to depend on one another: “Night menaced the voyagers with a dangerous darkness, and fear came to bind their souls together. They huddled fraternally in the middle of the raft” (VIII, 20). If the correspondent had known that the captain was actually awake, he could have gotten the same fraternal comfort from a fellow voyager.

As Crane traces the correspondent's increasing sense of universal brotherhood, he seems to be reworking some of the materials he had employed in The Red Badge of Courage. In the earlier story Crane took Henry Fleming into the woods where he encountered the decaying corpse of a soldier and then out to a procession of wounded soldiers where he agonized over the death of his friend, Jim Conklin. In “The Open Boat” the sequence is reversed, progressing from friends to an anonymous soldier. The sympathy with his comrades in the boat is established very early in the passage on brotherhood quoted above. From this limited view, the correspondent's perspective broadens and his comprehension becomes universal. Crane's vehicle is a dying soldier, not only unfamiliar to the correspondent as the dead soldier was to Henry but known to him only through a poem he was forced to memorize as a schoolboy. The death of this soldier, at one time “less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point,” now becomes “a human, living thing,” “an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine” (V, 85). The correspondent is “moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He [is] sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers” (V, 86). The correspondent has been prepared for such an understanding by his experience of brotherhood in the limited world of a ten-foot dinghy; his feeling of universal brotherhood is the natural extension of his feeling for the captain, the cook, and the oiler. This extension is facilitated by Crane's rearrangement of earlier materials.

By the beginning of the final section of “The Open Boat,” the correspondent has realized two things: the indifference of the natural universe and the necessity, therefore, of brotherhood in the world of men. This increase in awareness is suggested by the difference between the openings of the first and last sections. The perspective of the men at the beginning is very, very limited: “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea” (V, 68). The first paragraph of section seven, on the other hand, suggests a wider comprehension. The correspondent can see the colors of both the sky and the sea, for he is no longer totally absorbed by his own personal predicament: “When the correspondent again opened his eyes, the sea and the sky were each of the gray hue of the dawning. Later, carmine and gold was painted upon the waters. The morning appeared finally, in its splendor, with a sky of pure blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves” (V, 87).

Crane's way of conceiving of such a harmonious vision, such universal comprehension, however, was formulated long before he watched the sunrise off the Florida coast. In a poem published in the Philistine in September 1895, Crane creates the same sense of harmony with the same colors in his description of the chorus of colors coming over the water.

Small glowing pebbles
Thrown on the dark plane of evening
Sing good ballads of God
And eternity, with soul's rest.
Little priests, little holy fathers
None can doubt the truth of your hymning
When the marvelous chorus comes over the water
Songs of carmine, violet, green, gold.

(X, 60)

The same image of serene and beautiful harmony is employed in “The Pace of Youth,” written either in the spring of 18934 or in the spring of 1894 (V, xxiv)—at any rate, long before the Commodore sailed. In this early story, the lovers Frank and Lizzie walk along the lakeside in Asbury Park while “out upon the water those gay paper lanterns, flashing, fleeting and careering, sang to them, sang a chorus of red and violet and green and gold, a song of mystic lands of the future” (V, 10).

What is the import of the song? What is the message of this chorus of colors? I believe it is the same as that expressed in a poem first published in the Philistine for February 1896. That poem, too, speaks of a song sung in the evening, of a message from the sea:

The sea bids you teach, oh, pines
Sing low in the moonlight.
Teach the gold of patience
Cry gospel of gentle hands
Cry a brotherhood of hearts
The sea bids you teach, oh, pines.

(X, 46)

Also brought across the water in the moonlight is the voice of the sea at the conclusion of “The Open Boat”: “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” (V, 92). As Crane reflected on the significance of his thirty hours in an open boat, and as he thought particularly about the theme of universal brotherhood, his earlier poem must have come to mind. This, I believe, is the derivation of “the great sea's voice” mentioned at the close of the story, and its message—“Cry a brotherhood of hearts”—was spelled out more than a year before Crane sailed on the Commodore.

The relationship between “The Open Boat” and Crane's earlier prose and poetry seems to substantiate the generalization about the relationship between Crane's experience and Crane's art advanced by James B. Colvert: “What he saw in real life is rendered not as history, but as history transmuted by the resources of his imagination. These resources were the images, themes, motifs, and descriptive patterns he worked out—invented, in a manner of speaking—very early in his literary career. … This is to say, in effect, that he observed the world from a pre-established literary point of view, a view which largely determined what was seen and what the observed event signified.”5 Of course, it is impossible to tell how much of “The Open Boat” is fact and how much is fiction, how much was actually experienced and how much was contributed by his imagination. But what is clear is that his themes, motifs, and images—his view of the pathos of man confronting the indifferent sea; his belief in the necessity of brotherhood (the best experience man can have); his picture of railing at that old ninny-woman, Fate, shaking a fist at the clouds, and wanting to throw bricks at the temple; his images of a high cold star on a winter's night and the harmonious dawn of carmine and gold; and his faith in the message of the great sea's voice—were formulated long before the Commodore went down.


  1. J. C. Levenson, “Introduction,” in THE WORKS OF STEPHEN CRANE, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1975), V, lxii. Subsequent references to the works of Crane are to this edition.

  2. STEPHEN CRANE: LETTERS, ed. R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes (New York: New York University Press, 1960), p. 77. Hereafter cited as LETTERS.

  3. My emphasis. That Crane himself had outgrown such cynicism before his experience in the open boat is clear from a letter written to Nellie Crouse about a year before the Commodore sinking: “The final wall of the wise man's thought however is Human Kindness of course. If the road of disappointment, grief, pessimism, is followed far enough, it will arrive there. Pessimism itself is only a little, little way, and moreover it is ridiculously cheap. The cynical mind is an uneducated thing. Therefore do I strive to be as kind and as just as may be to those about me and in my meagre success at it, I find the solitary pleasure of life” (LETTERS, p. 99).

  4. Corwin Knapp Linson, MY STEPHEN CRANE (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1958), pp. 26-28.

  5. James B. Colvert, “Stephen Crane: Style as Invention,” in STEPHEN CRANE IN TRANSITION: CENTENARY ESSAYS, ed. Joseph Katz (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972), p. 130.

Edwin H. Cady (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Cady, Edwin H. “After The Red Badge of Courage.” In Stephen Crane, pp. 145-60. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following essay, Cady surveys Crane's fiction after The Red Badge of Courage and regards “The Open Boat” as one of his best literary achievements.]

That sense of the ambiguous sublimity of courageous life in the face of the common fate, and the Maggie theme of the tragic needs for pity and solidarity, became the centers of all the rest of Crane's great work. Except for a few poems, his future greatness was all to come in the short story. The one possible exception to that generalization would be George's Mother. In length it is a nouvelle, as Henry James called the form, at the most. But then, The Red Badge is hardly more; and one apologizes, if apology is ever needed, for the lack of complexity, of rich social involvement, which is the penalty The Red Badge pays for its superb compression, by noting that it too is perhaps a nouvelle. One does not expect of it what Tom Jones or The Portrait of a Lady offer.

With George's Mother Crane returns to the slums to tell the story of George's mother's losing fight to keep her boy uncorrupted in the Rum Alley neighborhood of Maggie. As she loses George to drink, delinquency, and a sure future as a Bowery bum, the mother loses her grip on life and slides away into death. The accent falls on George's confusion of values between home, mother, and church on one hand and street gang and saloon on the other. A more careful and mature study than Maggie, it lacks the dramatic intensity and compassion of Crane's first slum book. Brief, cold, and disillusioned, it focuses as much on George's cowardice as his bewilderment. It makes an interesting forerunner, Protestant and Old New York in viewpoint, of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan.

As this and all Crane's subsequent flights at the novel show, he did not live to grow into a mastery of manners which might have permitted the traditional novel, though he showed signs, especially in “The Monster,” of growing that way. There is no surprise, given the circumstances of his last five years, in the fact that his three other efforts at the novel failed. The surprise lies in the greatness of the tales. It is, however, revealing to glance at these three attempts.


The Third Violet has by far the most charm. It came from a relatively happy and strong period of Crane's life, written in the midst of his perturbations over the success of The Red Badge and done because he wanted to do it—with some misgivings but con amore. It attempted to make use of Crane's experiences with painters and “Indians,” and its hero, Hawker, was apparently more or less modeled on Linson. Crane had disclosed glimmers of capacity to dramatize manners in moments of Maggie and in incidental writings like “Mr. Binks' Day Off” and “An Experiment in Luxury.” There is no doubt that maturity and adult experience would have ripened his powers to true mastery of the great tradition in the novel. But The Third Violet tends to show why novelists are seldom great before the age of forty. By contrast, it shows how youthful yet unique, how experimental yet inherently brilliant, Crane's best writing is.

The Third Violet, though exploiting autobiography, was a fascinating attempt to imitate W. D. Howells. The first part takes place in a resort like Hartwood, where Hawker has returned to his farm home to paint and where he sees and falls in love with Miss Fanhall at the summer hotel and courts her on the tennis court, on picnics, and on walks, with the help of his friend Hollanden, a cool Craneian writer. Howells, of course, had virtually invented the summer-vacation novel, had turned it into a genre convertible to all sorts of purposes, and had made its exploitation a steady part of his career. The other half of Crane's book was placed among the “Indians” of the Art Students' League Building. Howells, beginning with A Hazard of New Fortunes, was devoting much of his output in the 1890s to the problems of the artist in New York. The World of Chance had barely ceased publication in Harper's Monthly for November, 1892, when The Coast of Bohemia (which dealt in part with the students of the League before they moved out of their old Building) began to run in Bok's Ladies' Home Journal for December.

Crane of course knew and could do things Howells couldn't. Widely acquainted with painters, sculptors, architects of his own day, Howells knew Crane's generation best through his son, John Mead, and his daughter, Mildred. The impecunious “Comanches” of The Third Violet, fine portraits, and the model, Florinda “Splutter” O'Connor, a Maggie competent for survival, were as beyond Howells as the wonderful sketches of “Stanley”—a “large, orange and white setter.” There are many fine touches in The Third Violet to prove that it was written by Stephen Crane: Hawker's perceptively studied farm folks; the Hartwood scenery; the Bohemians at home—“Wrinkle,” “Great Grief” Warwickson, “Penny” Pennoyer, “Purple” Sanderson; and of course Splutter and Stanley. Those characters were all minor, however. It was in the perceptions of the real situations of the major characters and in the clarification of ideas to which those perceptions should have led that Crane fell down.

Probably it did not occur to Crane that Howells had spent thirty years learning how. Of course Howells, disillusioned of egalitarian myth, had discovered the broad drama involved in a situation like Crane's confrontation of poor, farmerish, gifted, artistic, personally superior Hawker with rich, urban, cultivated, sensitive but snobbish Miss Fanhall. It confronted two basic, fascinating American types, as Howells saw early: the “Social” and the common, the “conventional” and “unconventional,” Society's lady and nature's gentleman. Over many years, with deepening perception and disillusion, Howells had studied the implications of all this until it had made an independent, semi-religious and democratic socialist of him. In The Third Violet Crane saw only personal injustice and amatory affront. Similarly, Crane wholly failed to dramatize the point Howells was making about the artist in a world of chance: that the combat conditions of a competitive, acquisitive society stifled art. Having the Bohemians just talk about it was not enough.

It was, however, only expressive immaturity, not seeing far enough, which held Crane back. Intrinsically, the situation he had imagined was far more immediate and dramatic in its potential, far more modern, than any comparable situation in Howells. After having Hawker woo Miss Fanhall in an inconclusive idyll, Crane transports him back to the city and a triangle. “Splutter” O'Connor, a “very honest” Irish girl with “a beautiful figure” frankly carries a torch for Hawker. Crane develops the setting, the dramatis personae, and the conflict in class, character, candor, and personal reality (much in “Splutter's” favor) between the two women—and then abruptly deserts it for a foggy final scene in which Miss Fanhall starts to brush Hawker off, as Hawker had done to “Splutter,” and then incomprehensibly reverses herself and accepts him.

The failure to face and develop the conflicts of class and convention, of sex and of art against society, destroys the novel and strips its deficiencies of all concealment. Its fragmentary brevity, its lack of competence to carry off scenes requiring the full development of conversation, its confusion of ideas and missed opportunities of a dozen sorts, and its ultimate lack of achieved, over-all form protrude like the skeleton of a half-built house. And the key to all this failure may easily be seen on consideration to be Crane's entire inability to comprehend women, especially Miss Fanhall.

It was not necessary to her case that Crane should understand Maggie Johnson personally or even consider viewing her from within. Not explaining her either, he does a good introductory job of communicating the personality of “Splutter” O'Connor. But, as Carl Van Doren said of the women of Active Service, “with young girls [Crane] never outgrew the young man's sense that they are cryptic creatures, whose words never mean what they seem to say and whose silences are deeply mysterious.” They are “incomprehensible.”1 That is everywhere true but triply so if they are ladies. Crane's ladies are just about what Lowell said of Fenimore Cooper's, “Sappy as maples and flat as his prairies.”

That sappiness had some warrant in Howells, who had made a life-long study and some wonderful comedy of the vagaries of feminine logic, of the irresponsible emotionalities, and of the quixotisms of ladies full of a dangerous pride in the little knowledge they had gleaned from romances. Howells had not in several instances been above the trick, once his real story was told, of sugar-coating it for the hopeless magazine reader with a story-rounding “happy” ending based on such illogic—secure in the faith that perceptive readers would enjoy the joke and others would never feel the irony till they sneezed.

The real trouble with The Third Violet and Active Service is that, in dealing with women in fiction, Crane's irony deserted him. He did not have a clear single view of them, much less a double or triple vision. One of the difficulties, in fact, of accepting the recurrently popular notion that Crane's early “affairs” were more than the passion of the moth for the star, that he was a roistering whore-chaser, an experienced lover before Cora, a trapped exemplar of Freud's case of “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men,” is that none of this experience did anything for his imagination. If such experience existed, it was, among Crane's experiences, uniquely unavailable to his creative mind. The main exception, which is post-Cora, may appear in the troubled poem “Intrigue.”

Except for the almost laughably romantic portrait of Nora Black, femme fatale and war correspondent like Cora, who was probably derived from Cora, Crane's women are imagined exactly as they might have been had he been quite innocent, quite normal. Perhaps he was. Marjory Wainwright of Active Service is portrayed no more sophisticatedly than Miss Fanhall. And Nora Black, as Carl Van Doren said, is handled “with a boy's ferocity. Snubs which would batter an ordinary woman into pulp only accelerate her pursuit of the cool hero. She is no less a myth than eager Venus on the trail of young Adonis.”2

For the rest, it seems impossible to improve on Van Doren's criticism of Active Service as far as it goes. Beyond Van Doren, the significance of Active Service and Crane's part of The O'Ruddy lies in their revelation of the late, desperate, and pathetic struggle of Crane's integrity with bestsellerism. In the age of Trilby, Graustark, and When Knighthood Was in Flower, inferior literary talents coined money in such golden floods as had never before been won by authors. Cuban glory, an exasperated consciousness that his superior talent still earned far too little, haste, and that pressure of money for “Brede” which Ford and Liebling believed killed Crane, all tempted him to cash in on the fad. In pieces like “The Private's Story” and “The Clan of No-Name” he gave in occasionally to embarrassingly Kiplingesque ideas and mannerisms.

But his surrender was never for long. It seems that he wrote Active Service only because Harold Frederic insisted he must: it would be the salvation of his career. Frederic knew how to grind them out; Cora must hold Stephen to it. But if neoromanticism were to be his salvation, Crane was not to be saved. He could not resist the realist's game of inflating and then puncturing it. In Active Service he sends Coleman, the correspondent, to rescue Marjory Wainwright at the front. Coleman loves “reflecting upon the odd things which happen to chivalry in the modern age … he made no effort to conceal from himself that the whole thing was romantic” but took “a solemn and knightly joy in this adventure.” As Crane builds it up, Coleman sees himself “dealing with a medieval situation with some show of proper form: that is to say, armed, a-horseback, and in danger, then he could feel that to the Gods of the game he was not laughable.” He “took satisfaction in his sentimental journey. It was a shining affair. He was on active service, an active service of the heart … even as the olden heroes … he had never known that he could be so pleased with that kind of parallel.”

Coleman prospers as Minniver Cheevy, however, no better than Henry Fleming had. At the first real danger he is lost: “He would not have denied that he was squirming on his belly like a worm through black mud,” and yearning to get out. “If his juvenile and uplifting thoughts of other days had reproached him he would simply have repeated and repeated: ‘Adventure be damned.’”

The same feelings motivated the design for, and the large fraction Crane lived to write of, The O'Ruddy. Crane's historical imagination was keen, but he never had confused things either by supposing that he could seriously re-enter the past or by lacking respect for the sense of the past because it was imaginary. Therefore to him the irresponsible historical romance was fair game. In The O'Ruddy he tried to write a sword-clashing, picaresque, true-love-laden, coincidence-packed romance and make fun of the silly, golden genre by burlesquing it with the best sustained humor he had yet achieved. All the life goes out of style and characterization when Robert Barr takes over. Barr's troubles were not, as he supposed, with plot so much as with focus of character, tone, atmosphere, and dialogue. If Crane had lived, The O'Ruddy might have been a brilliant tour de force on themes by the ghostly Stevenson.


After The Red Badge, then, Crane's aspiring novels are about what one would expect of a novelist his age: essentially autobiographical, occasionally intense, sporadically gifted, weak in characterization, fragmentary in form. A number of the short stories, on the other hand, are absolutely first-class; some of them are of definitive, classic stature. Bernard Berenson described them as “having almost Dante's or Tolstoi's gift of making one see the people and scenes he describes.”3 I suppose there is not much higher praise left to imagine. It is a measure of the greatness of the best that there can be space to discuss only those few and that the others, so very good, must be let go.

Widely anthologized as a standard representative of the short story and Crane's work, “The Open Boat” has too often been appreciated for biographical or tendentious reasons and too seldom for its authentic artistic power. The tale has repeatedly been called naturalistic, even the one pure American example of naturalism; or impressionistic; or the work of a symbolist, or even of an existentialist. And commentators have been peculiarly tempted to the exercise of the biographic fallacy—the identification of the author himself with the interior substance of the fiction—by the circumstances of the story's provenience. Crane was shipwrecked, spent long hours at sea in a dinghy, was swamped in the surf, and lost Billy Higgins coming ashore. He did write up all but the dinghy voyage for the New York Press, and wise anthologists have found it useful to print the account seriatim with the fiction. Crane (or Scribner's) did subtitle it: “A Tale Intended to be after the Fact. …”

“After the Fact” here may as well be in pursuit of the truth of experience as of the mere exact occurrence, however—and in Crane it is much more likely to be. Actually, “The Open Boat” seems one case in which a grasp of the methods of Crane the visionist, the perspectivist, reconciles difficulties. As most modern critics have seen, and as most undergraduates recognize on comparing the news report and the story, the latter is altogether a work of art. That being true, the biographical events were at best the occasions for the tale; it does not in the least matter that Crane may have made free imaginatively with the wind, weather, or anything else; and to identify Crane himself with “the correspondent” in the fiction is naïve.

The essence of Crane's art and achievement in “The Open Boat” is his control—subtle, complex, and intense—of its internal points of view. The famous opening line announces the centrality of point of view: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Why not? Their group point of view was concentrated on the never-ending athletic feat of surmounting each gray, snarling, “barbarously abrupt and tall” wave which tried to capsize their dinghy and drown them. That group viewpoint, uniting the men in a brotherhood of danger, is the first, least usual, and most important of three points of view in the story. The other two are that of the neutrally observing narrator, who reports dramatically on the scenes which occur among the men, and that of the intellectual in the boat, the correspondent. It matters immensely to an understanding of the story that one see through which point of view events are conveyed.

Crane's newspaper account has the fact-perspective of his journalism: strong in effects yet told in a flat, technically “objective,” first-person narrator's voice. The significant thing about the fiction is that the major perspectives are those of the characters. They know the human solidarity and the generosity (best shown by Billy the oiler) of men whose eyes are cleared to see that they face death. One of them has shifting fantasies, certainly psychological and perhaps symbolic, as he rows through the darkness. At the end, with Billy in his grave and themselves safely abed—“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 the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”

It may be that the real implications of Cyrus Day's challenging reconstruction of the nice day on which the Commodore sank, and of the ethical problems of Captain Murphy, are that “the facts,” the actualities of his open-boat experience were so ambiguously bathetic that Crane made no attempt to transcribe them. He set to work to imagine it as a trope of man's condition face to face with nature, fate, and death. At any rate, the story certainly is such a trope. This being true, the polarity of points of view in the story is all important. If Stephen Crane can ever be unmistakably shown to be a symbolic naturalist, it is in “The Open Boat.” But to prove him so is to exercise the biographic fallacy and identify him with the correspondent and his thoughts with the correspondent's thoughts. For it is in the correspondent's mind and point of view that the key symbolic perceptions occur in the story. But does the story believe in his symbols?

Rowing all alone in the darkness with the others plunged in exhausted sleep, the correspondent begins to think in Section VI of the story: “If I am going to be drowned … why … was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?” The voice which succeeds is that of the summarizing neutral narrator. But what he summarizes is so placed in the framework of the correspondent's reveries that it is unmistakably the substance of the correspondent's thought. He thinks that to drown him would be “an abominable injustice” and a “crime most unnatural” to a man “who had worked so hard, so hard.” And then it occurs to him that “other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails,” and he is led to reflect despairingly on the quality of what is natural and where man stands:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.

Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot, he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying, “Yes, but I love myself.”

A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

This reflection is, of course, not unrelated to the collective point of view of the men in the boat. They had earlier, upon not quite daring to try the surf on the beach, rejected the idea that the “old ninny-woman, Fate,” might dare to drown them. And the narrator comments that this present content of the correspondent's thought, while discussed by nobody, had no doubt been reflected upon by each man “in silence and according to his mind.” It is nowhere suggested, however, that the correspondent's conclusions are those of the group. On the contrary, when in the morning they head for the beach again and see the white windmill, Crane explicitly gives it to the correspondent to see it symbolically. “It represented in 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.”

“The Open Boat” gains its greatest force, then, from a metaphysical tension between two opposing possibilities of the meaning of the death of Billy the oiler, as these possibilities are registered in the two kinds of character perspective. In the correspondent's point of view naturalism is almost classically presented. Nature is flatly indifferent, man will lose his struggle to survive; nature is therefore implicitly contemptuous and hostile; and man is absurd and the proper object of self- (since none else can feel it) pity. This gives rise to the naturalistic tragedy of pathos and bathos.

The opposing possibility, implicit in the heroism, the generosity, and the death in victory of Billy, implies of course a wholly opposite set of conclusions. The most admirable man in the boat, whose life is laid down for his friends, Billy is certainly no less a Christ-figure than Melville's Billy Budd. His function in the story seems much more obviously Christ-like than Jim Conklin's in The Red Badge. He plays the greatest part in creating the human solidarity, the brotherhood, the capacity for real pity, the disinterested “love of Being in general” which makes man in the story anything but absurd. Billy dies, but he gets his comrades safe to shore. The implication is that man by courage and complicity can rise superior to the pathos of his situation; he can understand it and answer it with the magnificence of his defiance, his acceptance, and perhaps even his use of it to achieve a classically tragic elevation.

The tension between these two polar possibilities is left unresolved in “The Open Boat.” For readers, certainly the complexities raised by that tension make for experience of a far higher order than the merely naturalistic, as may be seen by comparing its effects with those of the ending of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. That remains true even if one ends by declaring for the naturalistic interpretation. I think, however, that Crane in this one of the greatest of his short stories meant the same sort of ambiguity to stand as that which we find in the greatest of Hawthorne's short stories. Tension stands, and courage and negative capability are essential until one finds, as Crane never did, a way to resolve it.


The second of Crane's unmistakably great short stories, “The Blue Hotel,” has also stirred a vortex of warring criticism much of which no longer matters. Though some of the symbol-hunting has ranged past the point of the ludicrous, that criticism has not left much of the story unexplored. The comments of Joseph Satterwhite and Stanley B. Greenfield are particularly helpful.4 In much of the criticism the most striking feature is the resolute explaining away of portions of the text in order to make the story conform with the critics' predetermination that it shall be a work of naturalism. Actually, however, “The Blue Hotel” is no more purely naturalistic than any of Crane's other major work.

It tells the story of the irruption upon the sleepy little town of Fort Romper, Nebraska, of a hysterical foreigner, a Swede, who turns up at Scully's Palace Hotel in the midst of such a raging blizzard as Crane had seen scourging the farmers on his Western tour. Moody and jittery, announcing that he knows he will be killed, the Swede challenges the hospitable instincts of the hotelkeeper. Scully bucks him up with liquor and good fellowship, whereupon his guest turns insufferably arrogant. There is an uneasy card game which leads to a fist-fight between the Swede and Scully's son. Victorious and more arrogant than ever, the Swede checks out of the hotel, swaggers down the street to a saloon, tries to force the local gambler to drink with him, makes the mistake of manhandling the gambler, and is stabbed to death. In a final scene two of the other erstwhile guests of the blue hotel, the cowboy and the Easterner, talk the tragedy over.

There is no evidence in the story that it is nature or any other deterministic force which kills the Swede. No “force” compelled him to come to Fort Romper, and certainly none compelled him to mistake it for the Wild West. The cowboy's exasperated objections to the delusive quality of the Swede's perceptions are well taken. But it is apparently Crane's donnée that a lifetime of dime-novel romanticism about the West shall be a condition of the Swede's neurosis. Crane neither asserts nor denies that such romanticism may in itself have unhinged the Swede. He merely gives us an unhinged foreigner mad with the conviction of his impending death, his compulsion to find it, and a fixation upon violence which is properly only fictional. As we should now say, the Swede is a perfect example of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the most intriguing factors in the story is the blueness, the shrieking, outrageous saturation of the color of Scully's Palace Hotel. What does that represent? A really satisfactory answer might provide one a key to all Crane's famous use of color and color words. But one of the most interesting things about all the criticism is that nobody appears to have found the key either to the general question or to the specific case. This suggests that perhaps there is no key. Perhaps Crane found color significance where he found it, pluralistically, on an ad hoc basis, without a generalizable or theoretical ground for what he did.

Most obviously, the hotel's business is commercial. Nobody passes the town on the train or enters the town from the train without seeing, remembering, and perhaps entering the blue hotel. Beyond that, one can read all sorts of significances into the defiance of that color. It may be man's “coxcombry” against the blizzard of the universe, that conceit which is “the very engine of life.” It may be for old Scully, the one quite human being in the story, the assertion of his humanness. On the other hand, it may be the Swede's rejection of humanity for that frantic, romantic dream which brings him the “purchase” of his death, or it may be the failure of the other men to join Scully's effort to treat the Swede as a man and brother which makes them complicitly guilty of his death.

For some readers, the story has seemed properly to end at the conclusion of Section VIII, where, “The corpse of the Swede, alone in the saloon, had its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt atop of the cash-machine: ‘This registers the amount of your purchase.’” The final section, IX, has been a scandal and a stumbling block to no few commentators partly because it challenges a simply naturalistic reading of the story, partly because it explicitly introduces a moral idea and militates against the notion that Crane is always a nonideological symbolist in his art. Actually, what the addition of that final page and a half does to the story is greatly to enrich it by deliberately reversing its moral perspectives and restoring them to the same challenging ambiguity between naturalistic and at least humanistic perspectives of “The Open Boat.”

When the silent little Easterner suddenly breaks silence to explain the situation to the cowboy, naturalistic symbols, atmospheres, and ironies are totally missing. The language, the irony, and the symbolic drama are now moralistic; the sanctions behind them are humanistic if not religious. As a matter of fact, the perspective of the Easterner is that of Christianity as interpreted by Tolstoi and no doubt mediated to Crane through Howells. This is the language, just as it is the strategy of presentation, of that doctrine of complicity which Howells had been developing in book after book during the ten years before Crane left New York for Cuba. “We are all in it!” says the Easterner, “… every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men—you, I, Johnnie, old Scully; and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.” And the cowboy, to point up the irony, is given the line behind which every one would like to hide from the searching finger of his complicit guilt in the world: “Well, I didn't do anythin', did I?”

If one reflects back—as Crane clearly intended one should—from this point across the whole of the preceding story, he sees that this is not an appendage upon the tale: it provides another point of view. Though it has not been popular to do so, one might have read the story of the Swede as one does the stories of so many of the characters of Stephen Crane's great contemporary, Edwin Arlington Robinson. Perhaps the Swede was a kind of combination of Minniver Cheevy and Richard Cory. Or, of course, as it has been most popular to show, the Swede's story might be one of symbolic naturalism. The final section of “The Blue Hotel” provides a third perspective, one without which the story is far less significant than the great work Crane gave us. It seems hardly necessary to detail all the implications of that multiplicity. No criticism of the story, however, can finally be taken seriously which confines itself to less than the full complexity of its perspectives.


“The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel” are the sort of intense stories of masculine adventure, action, tragedy, and irony which it is generally agreed that Stephen Crane did supremely well. There has been too little tendency to grant him also the power to deal with the homely, domestic, and commonplace tragedies of society and the ironic examination of manners which have characterized American realism at its most typical and best. It was toward this which he must have grown had he matured into an achieved mastery of the novel in its traditional forms and concerns. It was this toward which he must have matured if he were to have matched Robinson or Joyce in his own way. But there has been too easy an assumption that, because the financially desperate and physically dying Crane of his last eighteen months obviously declined in creative power, his genius had actually preceded his body in death, his talent been burned out.

In the premises, of course, no such assumption is necessary. And actually Crane showed in some of the later writings great promise of proceeding toward the perceptions and problems necessary to his maturing. Such development may be seen in “The Monster,” in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and in the best of the Whilomville Stories. In these for the first time in Crane one is moving toward a dense, adult, demonstratedly complicit society. The great vein of the major novelists, the novel of manners, is beginning to open. Crane's is a world not only of young men and children but of grown men and grown, non-chivalric, and comprehensible women. It is not surprising that Crane turned to the exploitation of the genre of the boy book which had been developed by the American realists. But it was less to be expected that he should now take up the theme which Twain and Howells had prepared for Crane's generation—especially Cather, Anderson, and Masters—the theme best labeled by Sinclair Lewis's original title for Main Street, “The Village Virus.” In Whilomville and in Yellow Sky the terror and the beauty of the American small town's security and boredom and vulnerability are as beautifully portrayed as they would be by any of the specialists to come.

If he did not temperamentally suspect it before he went, Stephen Crane spotted the secret of the romantic West the moment he got there. And he told it delightfully in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” The secret which Roosevelt, Wister, and Remington would not let themselves believe was not only that the Wild West of romance did not exist but it never had. Natty Bumppo and all his descendants had been beaux idéals, privileges of the romancer. Romance was always somewhere, sometime else. “This ain't Wyoming, ner none of them places,” says a “deeply scandalized” cowboy in “The Blue Hotel,” “This is Nebrasker.” The best the frontier could offer were the raw, hoodlum tests of courage of “A Man and Some Others” or “Horses—One Dash.” Courage was always splendid—but what tested if might be evil, stupid, or merely absurd. The reality of the West, of the frontier, is the exorcism of chimeras like Scratchy Wilson by the mere advance of social realities like the marriage of the marshal to a commonplace little waitress from San Anton'. The proper mode of dealing with the theme was comic, that of social comedy, and Crane hit it perfectly in his story.

The same sense of social reality dominates the non-mythic stories of initiation which Crane told of the boys in Whilomville. The best of these—“The Stove,” “The Knife,” or “His New Mittens”—throw a good deal of light on “The Monster,” the major work Crane imagined from the same setting. Here Crane begins with what at first looks like a fairly ordinary Stephen Crane concern for the nature, conditions, quality, and fate of heroism. But he proceeds within a uniquely dense web of multiple characters and social reference. The compact descriptions of the substance and quality of the life of the village in its many social levels are brilliantly effective. The accuracy of Crane's sense of all sorts and conditions of men, women, and children is unexpected in the author of the almost abstracted characters of Maggie and The Red Badge. Crane never lets go of this exploration in a new, social context of his themes of courage and heroism; but, by the time one is half way through the story, he has become aware that the title is as essential and as pregnant as that of a poem by George Herbert.

Briefly, the story is that of Dr. Trescott, whose Negro stableman is horribly burned, mutilated, and reduced to idiocy in rescuing Trescott's son from a fire. Whilomville's first reaction to this, when it thinks Henry Johnson is going to die, is a sensational, romantic exaltation of his heroism. Trescott labors, with his own heroic devotion, to save Henry's life. But he cannot save his mind or his face. Gradually the sentiment of the town swings to revulsion against the poor derelict. Trescott, however, will neither forget nor cancel his debt of admiration and gratitude. Hysteria mounts. By the end of the tale, Trescott is suffering professional boycott and social ostracism for sheltering a monster.

The question becomes, Who is the Monster? And by the time one is done pondering the elements and implications of scene and action, he comes to a chilling conclusion. Everybody is. This is true in some sense for every individual character, at every social level, in the village. And it is true for the village as a whole. In fact, by the end the village itself, especially in its most respectable and dominant society, is most particularly the monster. Crane has never had to editorialize, but the indictment is colder, more furiously returned than in any comparable work. “The Monster” cries out for a more adequate criticism than it has received. But Berenson thought “The Monster” was “finer even than Ibsen's Enemy of the People, because here the people do their best to ruin a man who, out of loyalty and humanity, refuses to discard a person whom they cannot abide in their midst—well written as well as thought out.”5


Like pluralistic views of Crane's approaches to life and literature, appreciation of this latter development of his imagination spoils the harmony of a simple, unitary view of what he was and could do. It also challenges the notion of a burned out Crane whose death was no real loss to American letters. On the contrary, one remains convinced that the loss of Stephen Crane was a real tragedy to the development of our literature, our culture. A. J. Liebling put it well: “I think, myself, that Crane might have written long novels of an originality as hard to imagine, in retrospect, as Maggie and The Red Badge would have been to anticipate.”6 Among the men, Crane's death and then that of Frank Norris left his generation of novelists reduced essentially to Theodore Dreiser. Whatever one thinks of Dreiser's genius, it is clear that it could have profited immensely from the context of real contemporaries as gifted as Norris and Crane. And I, for one, think that Crane's gifts ranged widely beyond and above those of Dreiser. The tragedy of Crane's early silencing, quite apart from any element in it personal to Crane, is that of the death of any gifted young person. It is the tragedy of the unperformed, the unrealized, the never to be known.

In the end the real power of Stephen Crane is in awareness, the power to register and to make the reader see what he saw. Regardless of qualifiers, of what the vision saw, he is supremely a visionist. The one greatest unfairness dealt him has been the repeated implication that it was romantically himself he was trying to make the reader see. On the contrary, the essence of his art was to give, in his characters, persons with eyes and to set them in turn within perspectives which would let readers see both very sharply and complexly around them and so to feel life as Crane felt it. That is true of every great artist. It is equally true of them all that, having felt their power, one must decide for himself how far to accept it. Crane's vision was preternaturally “modern” in its progression to irony. Accept it or not, no honestly hospitable reader can deny either the power of its artistic transmission or, therefore, the youthful yet permanent greatness of Stephen Crane.


  1. Work, IV, p. xii.

  2. Work, IV, p. xi.

  3. Berenson, p. 23.

  4. Stanley B. Greenfield, “The Unmistakable Stephen Crane,” PMLA LXXIII (December 1958): 562 - 72, and Joseph Satterwhite, “Stephen Crane's ‘The Blue Hotel’: The Failure of Understanding,” Modern Fiction Studies II (Winter 1956 - 1957): 238 - 41.

  5. Berenson, p. 19.

  6. A. J. Liebling, “The Dollars Damned Him,” New Yorker, August 5, 1961, pp. 48 - 72.

Thomas L. Kent (essay date autumn 1981)

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SOURCE: Kent, Thomas L. “The Problem of Knowledge in ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘The Blue Hotel’.” American Literary Realism 14, no. 2 (autumn 1981): 262-68.

[In the following essay, Kent analyzes the ways Crane creates epistemological uncertainty in “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel.”]

Stephen Crane's fiction, especially his short fiction, has undergone in the past two decades a major revaluation. Crane is no longer considered a pure naturalist in the tradition best represented by Garland and Norris; rather, he is now regarded as one of the first American existentialist writers, one who was vitally concerned with the epistemological problem of man's ability to know his place in the universe. Donna Gerstenberger, for example, argues that “The Open Boat” “May best be viewed as a story with an epistemological emphasis, one which constantly reminds its readers of the impossibility of man's knowing anything, even that which he experiences.”1 But though the “epistemological emphasis” in Crane's fiction has been well documented, there has been little discussion about how this uncertainty is created on both the plot level and the extra-textual or reader level.2 By examining two of Crane's most acclaimed short stories, “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel,” I shall attempt to describe more carefully how epistemological uncertainty is generated for both the reader outside the texts and the characters within the tales.

“The Open Boat” is organized around a central episode.3 In the middle of the narrative, in the fourth of seven sections, Crane constructs a short short-story, a vignette, that relates perfectly the epistemological difficulties which plague the reader and the characters. This episode is also the motional pivot of the narrative, where the castaways' initial optimism about the prospects of rescue turns, in the last three sections, to pessimism and dread. The episode begins in uncertainty and confusion:

“Cook,” remarked the captain, “there don't seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge.”

“No,” replied the cook. “Funny they don't see us!”4

“Seeing” is the principal metaphor in the story. The word “see” or an equivalent is frequently employed to mean something like “know” or “comprehend.” “Knowing” is associated with “eyes” right from the opening sentence of the narrative—“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them” (p. 68)—and this association remains throughout the tale. In the fourth section, “seeing” is wedded appropriately with the castaways' physical problem, knowing the meaning of events occurring around them. To make their epistemological problem even more clear, the incantation “If I am going to be drowned,” which reveals the castaways' inability to make any sense out of their predicament, is introduced in this section for the first time in the text.

The incident that best reinforces the connection between “seeing” and “knowing” concerns the waving of the shirt by a man from the omnibus. The castaways attempt to decipher this signal, but because they cannot see clearly, they can only speculate about its meaning:

“What's that idiot with the coat mean? What's he signaling, anyhow?”

“It looks as if he's trying to tell us to go north. There must be a life-saving station there.”

“No! He thinks we're fishing. Just giving us a merry hand. See? Ah, there, Willie.”

“Well, I wish I could make something out of those signals. What do you suppose he means?”

“He don't mean anything. He's just playing.”

“Well, if he'd just signal us to try the surf again, or to go to sea and wait, or go north, or go south, or go to hell—there would be some reason to it. But look at him. He just stands there and keeps his coat revolving like a wheel. The ass!”

(p. 80)

The difficulty that the castaways experience in their attempt to know what events mean is similar to the reader's experience. During the men's exchange of speculative theories about the significance of the signal, an exchange that runs more than two full pages of text, there is no narrative intrusion. The “omniscient” narrator could easily reveal to the reader the meaning of the signal, but he refrains. The only information received by the reader comes from the uncertain speculations made by the castaways, and because the reader, at least in this particular situation, knows no more than the characters, the characters' uncertainty becomes the reader's uncertainty. Although the reader receives the same amount of information at the same rate as the castaways, we must remember that an important qualitative difference exists between the reader's interpretation of the significance of the information and the castaways' interpretation. The reader has the privilege and the luxury of knowing the pattern of the narrative; he sees the castaways as participants in an artistic text that has form, structure, and meaning separate from the form, structure, and meaning of his private experience. For the reader the uncertainty that the characters experience forms an event in a larger event structure, and this structure or pattern, about which the characters, of course, are ignorant, supplies information to the reader. What we learn is that the characters' expectations are designed to go unfulfilled; their uncertainty and ignorance is the subject matter of the text. From this higher point of view, the characters' uncertainty becomes the reader's certainty. The reader understands that the characters are not supposed to know the significance of the events in the narrative. Consequently, the Oiler's death is surprising only to the castaways because the reader has grown to expect the unexpected. The reader's epistemological difficulty grows out of the uncertainty surrounding the meaning of the text, not the meaning of the character's universe which he knows to be absurd. For the reader the difficulty is knowing how to comprehend the meaning of the text, and “The Open Boat” rejects a traditional, naturalistic interpretation.

On the narrative level, the events in “The Open Boat”—the pattern of expectation and surprise, the malevolent indifference of nature, and the irony of the Oiler's death—seem to point toward a naturalistic interpretation for the tale. But because the men have consistently misinterpreted the significance of previous events, the reader is naturally dubious when he is told that the men “felt that they could then be interpreters” of nature's language or “the great sea's voice” (p. 92). The reader understands that the men are fooling themselves; nature simply cannot be interpreted. On the narrative level, the resolution invites an interpretation in the realistic ironic mode; it invites a naturalistic moral. But on the reader's extra-textual level the ironic resolution suggests a more complex interpretation. By watching the progress of the text, we have learned more than the characters have been allowed to know. We learned to expect the unexpected and anticipate disorder. We know that the absurdity the characters experience is part of a larger, ordered artistic structure. From this god-like vantage, the reader knows that interpretation is futile. He cannot be an interpreter even of artistic language, for he knows—unlike the castaways—that he, in his own way, cannot “see.” The reader's problem then is not meaning, but rather how to know meaning, and the ultimate irony of “The Open Boat” is aimed squarely at us. If we insist that the text be interpreted naturalistically, if we insist that the text must have some sort of overarching meaning—even a meaning that shows the universe to be existentially absurd—we place ourselves in the same boat as the deluded castaways. On both the narrative and extra-textual levels, the subject of “The Open Boat” is epistemology, and the text suggests that meaning in the universe is secondary to man's ability to perceive it.

“The Blue Hotel” is technically different than “The Open Boat,” but the subject matter, epistemological uncertainty, is the same. While “The Open Boat” weaves together the characters' uncertainty on the narrative level with the reader's uncertainty about meaning on the extra-textual level, “The Blue Hotel” separates the levels. On the narrative level, the text is structured by a series of stressful events that are generated by a clash between antagonistic codes of behavior held by the characters.5 On the extra-textual level, the narrative events pose a question—“Who is responsible for the Swede's death?”—which has no satisfactory answer. Although the Easterner and the cowboy seem to be certain about the meaning of the Swede's death, the reader cannot accept their explanations, and the uncertainty about the significance and meaning of the murder becomes for the reader the real subject matter of the text.

On the narrative level, “The Blue Hotel” is organized by the characters' uncertain perception about proper codes of behavior. The narrative may be divided into three sections with each section ending in a display of violence or anger. Parts I-V deal with the Swede's provocations before his fight with Johnnie; parts VI-VIII concern the fight, the Swede's departure from the hotel, and his death; part IX is the postscript that relates the Easterner's naturalistic moral to the story. The first section carefully establishes the disparity between the Swede's expectations of violence and the expectations of correct or normal behavior held by the cowboy, Johnnie, Scully, and the Easterner. At the conclusion of part I, we are told:

Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that some of these Western communities were very dangerous; and after his statement he straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed again, loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to the others. They looked at him wondering and in silence.

(p. 144)

The Swede's gestures are incomprehensible to the others. At the end of part II, when Scully—who is rapidly becoming exasperated—questions Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner about the Swede's mysterious behavior, all three again express bewilderment at the Swede's conduct, and Johnnie cries out frantically, “Well, what have I done?” (p. 149). Although the Easterner offers a plausable explanation for the Swede's behavior—“… it seems to me this man has been reading dime-novels, and he thinks he's right out in the middle of it—the shootin' and stabbin' and all” (p. 152)—his analysis cannot prevent the impending violence when the Swede unknowingly breaks the other men's code of right behavior.6 Everyone except the “boardwhacking” cowboy realizes that Johnnie is cheating at cards, but no one except the Swede has the audacity to accuse him. Although Johnnie is guilty of cheating, to accuse him is to impugn his honor, and in the code of behavior held by the men of the blue hotel, to insult another man's honor is a more grievous fault than cheating in a trivial card game. After all, as the cowboy reminds us later, “The game was only for fun” (p. 170), not money. The Swede understands neither the code held by the other men nor the severity of his accusation. Even the peacemaker Scully finally loses patience with what he interprets to be the Swede's gross improprieties, and part V concludes with his angry judgment that enough is enough: “We'll let them fight. … I can't put up with it any longer. I've stood this damned Swede till I'm sick. We'll let them fight” (p. 158).

In the second section of the narrative, the Swede continues to display his manifestations of fear, and he also continues to demonstrate no knowledge of the code of correct behavior held by the other men. Before the fight he is convinced that the entire group will attack him; he shows no understanding of Scully's motives when Scully refuses payment for his accommodations; and as he leaves the hotel, he baits the cowboy by mimicking him. After leaving Scully's sanctuary, the Swede enters a different environment, where violations of propriety are swiftly punished. The saloon customers, like the inhabitants of the blue hotel, cannot understand the Swede's behavior; but unlike the blue hotel, the saloon has no friendly proprietor to act as mediator between the Swede and the customers. Without someone like Scully to act as a buffer between the Swede's code of conduct and the gambler's code, the Swede in this environment is doomed. The murder results in large part from the Swede's uncertainty and confusion—his inability to understand the Ft. Romper world—and the Ft. Romper citizens' failure to understand and to tolerate the Swede. Before the gambler kills the Swede, he tells him, “My friend, I don't know you” (p. 168), and this admission might serve as a kind of rubric for the entire story. The Ft. Romper people and the Swede do not know one another, and their inability to comprehend the meaning of one another's behavior results in the death of the Swede.

The concluding postscript is a discussion between the cowboy and the Easterner about the murder of the Swede. Revealing to the cowboy that Johnnie had been cheating, the Easterner argues that each of the participants in the events at Ft. Romper had a share in the Swede's death. According to the Easterner, the murder was a community act; by sticking to his code—his notion of correct behavior—and refusing to understand the Swede's point of view, each man in the drama contributed to the killing. The Easterner's analysis supplies a naturalistic moral to the story; the Swede is a victim of the Ft. Romper environment and each component of this environment must bear a portion of the responsibility for the murder. Considered within the context of this interpretation of events, the cowboy's final exclamation, “Well, I didn't do anythin', did I?” (p. 170)—which echoes Johnnie's lament, “Well, what have I done?” at the end of part II—is a selfish, egocentric example of man's refusal to acknowledge his individual participation in the web of silent conspiracy that is the source of so much pain and suffering in the universe. The cowboy's refusal to accept his share of the responsibility for the murder also suggests, according to the Easterner's point of view, that the cowboy is as deluded as the Swede; neither the Swede nor the cowboy understands the conspiratorial and essentially tragic nature of existence.

The Easterner's naturalistic interpretation of events seems to be the moral of the story on the narrative level, but on the extra-textual level, this moral is only part of a larger structure of events. Because he is distant from the character's textual universe, the reader is able to comprehend more about the significance of occurrences in the narrative than the characters are able to comprehend. The reader understands the ironic commentary; he recognizes patterns of metaphor, symbol, and action in the narrative; he evaluates events in the light of other events; he judges the characters' behavior and their explanations for their behavior; and he may assign a meaning to events that contradicts the characters' interpretation of meaning. In his capacity as “judge,” the reader tries the case of the murdered Swede, and he delivers the final answer to the question “Who is responsible for the Swede's death?” From this perspective, the cowboy's confused outcry becomes a meta-question addressed as much to the reader as the Easterner. Did the cowboy contribute to the murder? Is the Easterner's evaluation of events correct, or is he deluded, too? Who is responsible for the Swede's death?

For the reader, no easy, clear answer to these questions may be formulated from the evidence supplied in the text. The text supplies subtly contradictory information about the reasons for the Swede's death, and because of these contradictions, the reader cannot be certain about what to believe. Similar to “The Open Boat,” in which feasible, alternative interpretations are offered for what the text seems to mean, here in “The Blue Hotel” at least three possible and contradictory interpretations for the meaning of the murder are presented that coincide with the characters' different concepts about why the killing occurred. The most sophisticated interpretation is the Easterner's; he understands the murder to be a working out of naturalistic forces. The cowboy, Scully, Johnnie, and the gambler share a common code of behavior that, from their point of view, makes the Swede crazy and dangerous; therefore, according to their code of conduct, the gambler's behavior is excusable or at least understandable. The Swede is convinced that Ft. Romper is a wild-west town filled with killers, and when considered from this point of view—as far-fetched as it may be—the Swede's behavior is not outrageous enough to cause him to be killed. In fact, his behavior follows logically from his assumptions; and viewed from the Swede's perspective, it is the conduct of the Ft. Romper citizens that is cruel and dangerous. By refusing to endorse either of these points of view, the narrator further complicates the reader's already difficult decision about what interpretation to believe by offering intentionally uncertain and ambiguous explanations for events and character behavior. For example, describing the cowboy's final question, the narrator tells us, “The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory” (p. 170). This statement could mean that the cowboy is simply dull-witted and angry, and the Easterner's theory is mysterious and incomprehensible to him; or the statement could mean that the Easterner is confused. The Easterner may not know what he is talking about, and his theory actually is mysterious, incomprehensible. Our interpretation of this statement depends on our answer to the question “Who is responsible for the murder of the Swede?” And as we have noticed, there are at least three possible, contradictory solutions. Not only does the narrator's ambiguous and noncommittal commentary increase the extra-textual uncertainty in the story, sometimes his refusal to comment, his silence, increases our uncertainty as well. Part VIII concludes with the Swede's gazing at a sign on the saloon cash register:

The corpse of the Swede, alone in the saloon, had its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt a-top of the cash-machine. “This registers the amount of your purchase.”

(p. 169)

Other than telling us that the legend is “dreadful,” the narrator refuses to comment on this event, and there is nothing in the text that explains why the event is even mentioned. Certainly, the legend is meant to be interpreted figuratively as a comment on the Swede's death, but the meaning of the symbol is directly dependent on the point of view assumed by the reader. We receive no guidance from the narrator. If we assume the Swede's point of view and remember the assumptions upon which he acted, the legend is dreadful because the Swede's death is undeserved. From the point of view of the Ft. Romper citizenry, the legend is dreadful because the killing was for nothing, and one of the stalwart citizens of the community must pay the penalty—that is, pay for nothing. From the Easterner's philosophical point of view, the legend is dreadful because it reveals the meaninglessness of the Swede's death and, by implication, the arbitrariness and callousness of the universe. Depending on the point of view the reader assumes—and there are at least three possible—the meaning of the sign changes, and one meaning is as defensible as another. Because of the cross-currents of possible meaning in “The Blue Hotel,” the extra-textual uncertainty, the reader's alternatives of coherent and possible interpretations for the text, is so great that the selection of a single interpretation from the possible field of interpretations is, for the careful reader, impossible.

Both “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel” are kaleidoscopes of meaning, and the epistemological difficulties inherent in the narratives transform the texts, at least in part, into what we may call studies in uncertainty. On the narrative level, both the subject matter and the structure of the texts derive from the characters' inability to comprehend any meaning in the universe they inhabit. On the extra-textual level, the reader is asked to interpret the meaning of ambiguous, highly tropological texts; and in this act of interpretation, he must admit his inability to “know” the texts. Both “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel” address the uncertainty of our perceptions and comprehension more than our certain knowledge of the universe. These texts wrestle with the problem of how we know and if we know more than with what we know.


  1. Donna Gerstenberger, “‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective,” Modern Fiction Studies, 17 (Winter 1971-72), 560.

  2. Besides Gerstenberger's treatment of “The Open Boat,” two other excellent and well-known studies that comment on the “epistemological emphasis” in Crane's fiction are Frank Bergon's Stephen Crane's Artistry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975) and James B. Colvert's Introduction to Great Short Works of Stephen Crane (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

  3. E. R. Hagemann, “‘Sadder than the End’: Another Look at ‘The Open Boat,’” Stephen Crane Centenary Essays, ed. Joseph Katz (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 66-85, argues that part IV is the real climax of the story and certainly the most important single episode.

  4. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” Volume III, The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: The Univ. Press of Virginia, 1970), p. 76. All subsequent references to “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel” are to this edition.

  5. Frank Bergon in Stephen Crane's Artistry was the first critic to argue that “The Blue Hotel” is primarily concerned with antagonistic codes of behavior, but Bergon does not take, it seems to me, his analysis to its logical conclusion.

  6. Bergon points out that “‘The Blue Hotel’ reveals how the mythical Wild West often became reality in unexpected places because its true locale was a country in the mind.” Stephen Crane's Artistry, p. 131.

Paul O. Iheakaram (essay date spring 1982)

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SOURCE: Iheakaram, Paul O. “John Pepper Clark and Stephen Crane: An Investigation of Source and Influence.” Research in African Literatures 13, no. 1 (spring 1982): 53-9.

[In the following essay, Iheakaram investigates the influence of “The Open Boat” on J. P. Clark's short play The Raft.]

Stephen Crane seems to have influenced J. P. Clark's short play, The Raft, whose title also may have been suggested by one of Crane's nine sea stories, “The Raft Story” (1895). Since Clark got his B. A. Honours degree in English in 1960 from the University of Ibadan and was in 1963 a Parvin Fellow at Princeton University (New Jersey is Stephen Crane's home state), it is possible he read some of Crane's sea stories, especially “The Open Boat” (1897), before writing The Raft (1964). It is significant that Clark's controversial America, Their America and The Raft were both published in 1964 after he had returned from Princeton. “The Open Boat” is also the most anthologized of Crane's short stories. It is not surprising that The Raft was published only after one year of Clark's return from America, for Ulli Beier, who knows Clark's gestation patterns, avers that his inspiration “is always nourished by immediate experience.”1

Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, and John Pepper Clark in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. Like Clark who was brought up on the Niger coast, Crane spent most of the impressionable years of his life near a coast—those of Asbury Park and Port Jervis. After reading “The Open Boat” and The Raft and making allowance for parallels in coastal or riverine culture, one finds that similarities in naturalistic setting, in the theme of fear, in the tone of anxiety, and in the interplay of pessimism and optimism go beyond the question of parallels. What is left therefore is a very strong impression that Crane may have influenced Clark in The Raft. This essay will attempt to investigate, by close comparison and analysis, the nature of this relation.

“The Open Boat” deals with the experience of four men from the sunken steamer “Commodore” who try to save their lives by embarking in a ten-foot dinghy—a small ship-boat. A raft is a flat floating structure of logs fastened together in water for transportation and is as unsafe, especially in waves and high tide, as a dinghy. The Raft also deals with the experience of four men who are adrift, but in this case on the river Niger. As in Crane's story, the four men in the Clark story had lost a boat previously. Ibobo, one of the men, says:

… yes,
It was
The night we lost the boat, well, weren't you up
In your sleep that night, pottering about
With pole erect in your hands, … ?(2)

The desire of the men in “The Open Boat” and in The Raft and the task before them is the same. They want to progress towards the land. In Crane's story the captain assures his men, “We'll get ashore all right.” The brown mats of seaweed that appear from time to time “informed the men in the boat that it was making progress slowly toward the land.”3 In The Raft Ogro sings (TR, p. 99):

Good for nothing craft …
Good for nothing craft …
Just take me to port

Later Ibobo says, “I want to be in port, I want / To be in port—now, now!” (TR, p. 122).

The duration of action in both stories is one and a half days, although Ibobo complains that they have been “Seven market tides adrift / On a raft” (TR, p. 125). In Crane's boat are a captain, an oiler (Billie), a cook, and a correspondent, and on the raft are Kengide, Olotu, Ibobo, and Ogro. One man in each story makes use of the magic number, seven. The captain in “The Open Boat” has “the stern impression of a scene … of seven turned faces” (“OB” [“The Open Boat”], p. 69); Ibobo says they were “a happy gang that started out/ Seven strong” (TR, p. 119). Like the correspondent who does not quite fit in among a sea captain, an oiler, and a cook and “wondered why he was there” (“OB,” p. 68), Olotu complains that “Kengide/ Will not let me talk because I am/ A townsman” (TR, p. 94). Both the correspondent and Olotu are landlubbers who find themselves spending several hours on water.

Natural forces—tides, winds, and waves—harass the men. In the Crane story there is the “impetuous swooping” of the waves (“OB,” p. 74), and “the wind tore through the hair of the hatless men.” (“OB,” p. 70). In the Clark play a storm elicits, there “flies off somebody's hat!” (TR, p. 110) and there is a “bellyful/Of tornado” (p. 111). Both groups of men are afraid of dangerous sea creatures. In “The Open Boat,” the presence of a shark alongside the boat horrifies the correspondent who “breathed with the open mouth and looked at the sea” (“OB,” p. 83). In The Raft the men fear the possible visits of snakes, monkeys, or—worse—sea cows (TR, p. 94). Ibobo advises Ogro to remove his leg from the water lest some shark or crocodile snatch at it (TR, p. 105). Kengide sees “a school/ Of sharks prowling the place” (TR, p. 112)) and later (p. 133) he complains that “These waters teem with sharks.” “Canton flannel sea gulls fly near and far” around the boat. They come “very close and stare at the men with black bead-like eyes.” The seamen are irritated as “One came and evidently decided to alight on the top of the captain's head” (“OB,” p. 71). Ogro is also irritated when a swift bird hits him on the ear. The birds are identified by Kengide as swallows, and Ibobo complains that they swarm all over the place (TR, p. 110).

The men in the boat and those on the raft lose their direction on the vast waters and look for signs of land. In the boat an imaginary lighthouse and lifesaving station symbolize land and raise the expectation of safety (“OB,” p. 75). That the men expect to be picked up by lifeboats is echoed in The Raft when Kengide imagines that Olotu, separated from the rest, has “already been picked up by fishermen/ From the settlement of Age which is right/ On the sea's brink” (TR, p. 115). To his right Ogro sees “trees on the bank” (TR, p. 95). These are symbols of life and safety similar to the lighthouse and the lifesaving station. In the midst of uncertainty, Ogro asks, “Will anyone tell where we are?” and Olotu, “Where exactly are we going now?” (TR, p. 95). Once again there are indications of life on the shore. From the boat the men see “little dots which seemed to indicate a city on the shore” (“OB,” p. 78); from the raft Ibobo shouts, “I see lights—Oh, we are almost there!” (TR, p. 123). In Crane's story the men are under the illusion that the lifesaving station is near and Clark recalls this impression in The Raft by mentioning that the town of Odi, which Olotu thinks they are drifting towards, is, according to Kengide, “not in any direction here” (TR, p. 97).

Irrespective of ignorance about their location, giving and obeying orders help the men out of very tight situations. In the boat the captain tells Billie to “keep 'er a little more south.” (p. 69). Under the captain's, “Yes! Go ahead!” orders,

“This oiler, by a series of quick miracles, and fast and steady oarsmanship, turned the boat in the middle of the surf and took her safely to sea again.”

(“OB,” p. 77)

On the raft Kengide orders Ibobo (TR, p. 121):

There, there, keep her alongside
The tide. Yes, that's better. I think we'll make
A smooth slide off those stumps ahead.

Ibobo proudly asserts (TR, pp. 121-22)

… when you
Thought all was lost, and the mighty raft is
Back on the breast of the tide, clean away
From crash.

The men in the boat and on the raft have identical methods of appealing to those from whom they expect assistance. In “The Open Boat,” the captain ties a bath-towel to a floating stick he picks from the sea and waves at a man on shore to call attention to their plight (“OB,” p. 79). Similarly Ogro resorts to “waving his tattered shirt to the ship” of the Niger Company at a distance (TR, p. 117). In both cases help does not come.

In spite of their apparent hopelessness the men feel hungry and think about food. The cook in the boat “was deep in other scenes” and asks Billie, the oiler, “What kind of pie do you like best?” (“OB,” p. 81). The oiler and the correspondent upbraid him: “Don't talk about those things, blast you!” The cook explains, “I was just thinking about ham sandwiches and—” (“OB,” p. 82). In The Raft Ogro speculates (TR, p. 99):

If we had a gun, we could at coming of day
Shoot down several [monkeys] and so never peel
Our palms to eat.

And Olotu reprimands him, “Talk of food, and forget/ You are adrift” (p. 99). The use of the word farina (ground grain) may also be part of the American influence on The Raft (pp. 104, 131).

In addition, smoking is dear to the men's hearts (“OB,” p. 75):

The correspondent … found … eight cigars. Four of them were soaked with sea; four were perfectly scatheless. After a search, somebody produced three dry matches, and thereupon the four waifs rode impudently in their little boat.

In The Raft Kengide complains, “I have no pipe to smoke” (TR, p. 100). Later the mention of “an empty tin or can” by Ogro reminds Olotu of cigarettes (TR, p. 105).

The men in “The Open Boat” and in The Raft are highly resourceful. The captain of the boat surrenders his overcoat to provide sails so that the dinghy can move faster. And the “little boat made good way with her new rig … sailing was a success” (“OB,” pp. 73-74). In The Raft Ogro asks Olotu: “Don't you see you can string/ Them [the mats] into sails and so pull out of this tangle?” (p. 111). The post serves them for a mast. They use cane left over from repairing the cabin as ropes to string the sails together and bamboos for as many crossbars as they want. Like the captain's overcoat the sails move the raft faster and Ogro shouts, “Our raft is moving again. … Oh, shout for joy!” (p. 111). In a stage direction the author adds (TR, p. 111):

At this point, a loud creak, then a brief cracking sound, and the raft breaks in two, the portion with the billowing sail pulling furiously away. On it is Olotu.

It is pertinent to recall here that this separation of Olotu and later Ogro (in pursuit of a Niger Company lumbering ship, TR, p. 118) from the others echoes the separation of the men in “The Open Boat” when their dinghy is filled with water and “almost simultaneously the men tumbled into the sea” (p. 89).

When the boat capsized, the correspondent arrived “at a place in the sea where travel was beset with difficulty.” He does not stop swimming to inquire what kind of current has caught him, but “there his progress ceased” (“OB,” p. 90). He remains “in the grip of this strange new enemy—a current” (“OB,” p. 91). “But later perhaps a wave whirled him out of this small deadly current, for he found suddenly that he could again make progress toward the shore” (ibid.). There is a similar incident in The Raft when Kengide puts a bowl on the water to test if the tide is rising or ebbing and announces, “We are in the arms / Of the great Osiko-boro whirlpool,” Ibobo adds, “Right in the pit” (TR, p. 101). Olotu promises they will “punt the raft free” from the whirlpool (p. 101). Like the correspondent, the men are finally released and keep moving (p. 111).

There is good comradeship in the boat and on the raft. There is such “subtle brotherhood” in the boat that the correspondent “knew … was the best experience of his life” (“OB,” p. 73). Help is offered willingly among the men in the boat. In The Raft Kengide tells Ibobo (TR, pp. 122-23)

Come, you are tired at the till.
Let me
Take over.
This oar is worn already to breaking
By continuous grip.

The worn out oar in the raft story also repeats the state of the oar in the boat that is “a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap” (“OB,” p. 68).

Superstition exists in both stories. In “The Open Boat” the sea gulls that hover around the men “struck their minds at this time as being somehow grewsome and ominous” and “they were uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny” (“OB,” pp. 71, 72). In The Raft when the men think that the swallow that flies round their heads is a bat, Ogro wonders, “What evil errand does it run?” (TR, p. 110).

Superstitions strike fear into human minds. Perhaps the greatest fears men have are about death and there are gruesome deaths in the two stories. The fear of death by drowning grips the men—especially the correspondent and Ogro. What Clark calls Ogro's sob songs are the correspondent's chorus. He wails (“OB,” p. 77)

If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, … was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?

This song is repeated twice (pp. 81, 84). Ogro sobs (TR, p. 114)

Death that has nothing to do
With God is what has struck;
Death that has nothing to do
With God is what has struck.

Ogro also repeats his song in two places (pp. 113, 115). Ibobo's description of Ogro's song as “terrible tunes” (p. 115) is apt for the correspondent's song about drowning.

The deaths in the two stories are ironic because the victims are both good swimmers. When the boat capsized “the oiler was ahead in the race” (“OB,” p. 90), and yet he is the only one who dies (p. 92). Ogro is also “a good swimmer” (TR, p. 122); yet he too is the only victim—“chopped to pieces by/ That terrible stern-wheeler” (TR, p. 119). There are mental associations with death in the boat and raft stories. When the correspondent thinks that nature “feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of” a man, a verse comes to his mind (“OB,” p. 85):

A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers …
But a comrade stood beside him, and he took
that comrade's hand. …

In his desperate circumstances this otherwise unimportant verse becomes “stern, mournful, and fine” to the correspondent. He sees the soldier's corpse and the value of human life in a new light. In The Raft “Bundling up mats” to save themselves from a wet bed “puts [Ibobo] in mind of a corpse ready for the castoff” (TR, p. 110). The similarity in the thought and imagination of the two men is unmistakable.

In The Raft J. P. Clark does in theatrical expressionism what Stephen Crane did in prose impressionism. It has been observed that the stage is not a suitable medium for what Clark envisages in his plays, especially in The Raft.4 In other words, The Raft would have been a better story as prose fiction. Clark may have chosen the stage medium in order to achieve greater aesthetic distance, but it is quite clear how close he is to his source. The parallels between “The Open Boat” and The Raft cannot be attributed to mere coincidence.


  1. Ulli Beier, “Three Mbari Poets,” Black Orpheus, No. 12 (1962), 48.

  2. J. P. Clark, Three Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 92. All references to The Raft are to this edition and will appear in the text with the letters TR and the appropriate page.

  3. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” in The Works of Stephen Crane, Vol. V (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), pp. 71-72. Further references to “The Open Boat” are to this edition and will appear in the text with the letters OB and the appropriate page.

  4. O. R. Dathorne, African Literature in the Twentieth Century (London: Heinemann, 1976), p. 338.

Gregory A. Schirmer (essay date autumn 1982)

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SOURCE: Schirmer, Gregory A. “Becoming Interpreters: The Importance of Tone in Crane's ‘The Open Boat’.” American Literary Realism 15, no. 2 (autumn 1982): 221-31.

[In the following essay, Schirmer explores the tension between the varying tones of “The Open Boat.”]

None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.1

So much has been written about these opening paragraphs of Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” that it comes as a surprise to find that perhaps the most noticeable feature of the passage—the extraordinary difference in tone between the first and second paragraphs—has not been considered.2 The first paragraph, notwithstanding its symbolic force and the suggestiveness of its limited point of view, is quite neutral in tone. The syntax is relatively simple, and the diction, for the most part, ordinary; moreover, it is extremely difficult to detect any attitude on the part of the narrator. But the second paragraph is quite different. “Many a man” immediately takes the discourse to an abstract level, and has, as John Berryman has noticed, something of the mock-heroic about it.3 Similarly, “ought to have” is the language not of objective description, but of abstraction and opinion. The bathtub comparison is extremely unlikely, and, like “Many a man,” suggests ironic deflation.4 Even more striking is “most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall,” a phrase that not only sustains the mock-epic note of “Many a man” and of the curious inversion “here rode,” but also introduces a dimension of moral judgment quite alien to the narrator of the first paragraph. And, finally, the last clause restates the terrifying experience described in the first paragraph in the dry and distant terms of naval science. All this adds up to a distinctive tone that insists on a definite distance between the narrator and what he is describing, and also suggests that the situation being described, when seen from this distance, is more than a little absurd.

These two very different tones, both expressed in the voice of the narrator, recur throughout “The Open Boat.” In addition, there is a third readily identifiable—and markedly different—tone present in the story: that of the dialogue. When the characters speak, they do so in language that is direct, highly informal, if not colloquial, and aimed at immediate and practical action. “Keep'er a little more south, Billie,” the captain says shortly after the first two paragraphs. “A little more south, sir,” the oiler replies (p. 69).

As has often been argued, “The Open Boat” has at its center two quite different views of man: as a helpless and insignificant being adrift in a universe that is wholly indifferent to him and his ambitions, and, on the other hand, as part of a brotherhood that binds man to man in the face of that indifferent universe. Thematically, the story depends on a constant tension and interplay between these two views. What has not been argued is that the story also depends on the modulation of different tones to convey that tension and interplay.5 At one extreme, the distanced and ironic tone of the narrator observed in the second paragraph affirms the absurdity of man's struggle for meaning in an uncaring world—a world in which a boat precariously holding four human lives can be compared to a bathtub. Partly because of this kind of irony, and partly because of the distance between narrator and event that it registers, this tone insists on seeing the men in the open boat from a perspective so large that their specific plight seems meaningless. This is the view from a balcony that Crane refers to in the first section of the story, and from this point of view, as he says, “the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque” (p. 69). At the other extreme, the tone of the dialogue conveys intimacy, loyalty, and a fundamental optimism in man's actions—values that are essential to a faith in what Crane calls “the subtle brotherhood of men” (p. 73).6 The tension and interplay between these two tones, modulated by the neutral tone of the narrator observed in the first paragraph of the story, gives “The Open Boat” much of its force as a work of art; through the feelings that these different tones generate, the reader responds to the central themes of the story not as mere statements of philosophy, but as lived experience.

The passage immediately following the opening paragraphs illustrates how modulation of tone achieves this effect:

The cook squatted in the bottom and looked with both eyes at the six inches of gunwhale which separated him from the ocean. His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and the two flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the boat. Often he said: “Gawd! That was a narrow clip.” As he remarked it he invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea.

The oiler, steering with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself suddenly to keep clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap.

The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there.

The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her, though he command for a day or a decade, and this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces, and later a stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it that slashed to and fro at the waves, went low and lower, and down. Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.

“Keep'er a little more south, Billie,” said he.

“A little more south, sir,” said the oiler in the stern.

(pp. 68-69)

In the descriptions of the cook, the oiler, and the correspondent, the distanced, ironic tone observed in the second paragraph of the story gives way to the neutral tone of the story's opening paragraph. Detailed and objective description, straightforward syntax, plain diction, and a refusal (with the exception of “the broken sea”) to appeal to analogical language all suggest little distance between the narrator and the character, and no readily discernible attitude on the part of the narrator.

The tone changes perceptibly when the narrator turns to the captain. For one thing, the syntax becomes more self-consciously complex. The first sentence of the paragraph about the captain, the longest so far in the story, is marked by a series of interrupting qualifiers—“lying in the bow,” “temporarily at least,” “willy nilly”—that create narrative distance by calling attention to the sentence as a literary construct. Also, the sentence turns readily to abstraction, both in diction (“that profound dejection and indifference”) and in the comparison of the captain's plight to that of others who have suffered similar losses—the failed businessman and the defeated army commander. The first part of the second sentence maintains this narrative distance by means of a generalization (“the master of a vessel”) and the distinctly literary comparison of a captain's mind with a tree “rooted in the timbers” of his ship. And when the paragraph returns to the captain in the open boat—and indeed to his innermost thoughts—his highly impressionistic memories of the sinking of his ship are framed by formal and distanced language: “this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene,” and his voice was “deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.” At the very moment when the reader is brought as close as possible to the intimate thoughts of an individual, the tone keeps him at a distance, insisting that the captain be seen not as an individual but as one of many who, in a universe of indifference to man and his efforts, inevitably fail.

This distance, and the view of man that it affirms, is sharply undercut by the dialogue that follows. The brief exchange between the captain and the oiler is spoken in the familiar language of men speaking to men with respect and affection. The colloquial “Keep'er” reminds the reader of the intimacy between these four men, and between men in general; colloquial language rests, after all, on shared assumptions and understandings. The familiar “Billie” expresses affection as well as intimacy, and the oiler's repetition of the captain's order and his use of “sir” suggest his loyalty and his faith in a code of conduct, specifically that of the seaman, that binds men together in an ordered way in the face of an inherently unordered universe. In moving from the formal, distanced tone of the narrator describing the captain to the informal, intimate tone of the captain's exchange with the oiler, the reader is made to feel the tension between these two radically different views of man.

This kind of undercutting is the most common method of tonal modulation in “The Open Boat.” It is, however, an extremely flexible instrument, able to reflect various aspects of the story's basic thematic tension. The narrator's distanced voice can be, for example, decidedly literary, as in the opening of section two:

As the boat bounced from the top of each wave, the wind tore through the hair of the hatless men, and as the craft plopped her stern down again the spray slashed past them. The crest of each of these waves was a hill, from the top of which the men surveyed, for a moment, a broad tumultuous expanse, shining and wind-riven. It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.

(p. 70)

Here the mocking note of “the boat bounced” and “the craft plopped her stern down” gives way to self-consciously literary language. The phrase “shining and wind-riven,” the rhythmic repetition of “It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious,” and the strikingly poetic closing phrase “wild with lights of emerald and white and amber” all reflect a distant and highly romanticized view of what is going on—the “weirdly picturesque” side of the view from a balcony. A comment from the cook, which immediately follows this paragraph, abruptly counters all this romanticizing: “Bully good thing it's an on-shore wind.” The colloquial tone of this expresses intimacy and brings the reader back into the boat, but the abruptness and directness of the statement also reinforce the decidedly practical and antiromantic point being made: what matters to the men in the boat is not the aesthetic qualities of the wind on the sea—something that could be seen only from a distance—but whether the wind will blow them to shore.

The cook's comment also contains considerable optimism, and indeed the philosophic view that counts man as part of a brotherhood, as opposed to the view that leaves him at the mercy of an indifferent universe, is essentially optimistic. Again, modulation of tone conveys this difference, as in the passage that ends section two:

The little boat, lifted by each towering sea, and splashed viciously by the crests, made progress that in the absence of sea-weed was not apparent to those in her. She seemed just a wee thing wallowing, miraculously, top-up, at the mercy of five oceans. Occasionally, a great spread of water, like white flames, swarmed into her.

“Bail her, cook,” said the captain, serenely.

“All right, Captain,” said the cheerful cook.

(p. 73)

The contrast between the paragraph spoken by the narrator and the two simple statements made by the captain and the cook is marked. The narrator achieves his customary distanced tone here through such highly colored phrases as “each towering sea” and “splashed viciously by crests” (calling to mind “waves most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall”), the unlikely and ironic description of the boat as “just a wee thing wallowing,” the obviously exaggerated “at the mercy of five oceans,” and the self-consciously literary comparison of the waves to “white flames.” This tone underscores—indeed makes felt—the pessimistic view of man presented in the passage. But this is the view from a balcony. When the point of view shifts back into the boat, the direct language of dialogue affirms a dogged optimism that challenges the pessimism of the preceding paragraph. (Section two is one of four of the story's seven sections that end in dialogue.) The captain's instructions to the cook, combining directness with an acknowledgement of rank and order, and the cook's respectful reply insist on the validity of the specific and practical action of bailing the boat. This act may seem insignificant in the face of a threat from “five oceans,” but men take such actions because they hold to an optimistic faith, as expressed in the tone of this exchange, that what they do can make a difference; amid all the threatening chaos around them, the captain speaks “serenely,” and the cook is “cheerful.”

The central statement of the theme of brotherhood follows this passage, and is delivered in the voice of the neutral narrator observed in the first paragraph of the story:7

It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here 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. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common.

(p. 73)

This avoids the ring of false preaching and sentimentality precisely to the degree that the reader at this point, largely because of the kind of tonal counterpoint illustrated at the close of section two, is made to perceive this brotherhood of man not as mere statement but as lived experience.

The central statement of the theme of nature's indifference to man is the frequently cited description of the windmill. As might be expected, the tone is that of the distanced narrator:

This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in 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. It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea.

(p. 88)

This passage is marked by relatively complex syntax, including a series of interrupting qualifiers, self-conscious repetition, abstract diction, and the heavy irony with which it closes—mocking the possibility that an individual could profit from this experience. All these qualities of tone reinforce the pessimistic view of man that the passage presents.

But what has not been noticed about this passage is what immediately follows it—the words of the captain to his crew:

“Now, boys,” said the captain, “she is going to swamp sure. All we can do is to work her in as far as possible, and then when she swamps, pile out and scramble for the beach. Keep cool now, and don't jump until she swamps sure.”

(p. 88)

The affection of “Now, boys,” the implied intimacy of the colloquialisms (“going to swamp sure,” “work her in,” “pile out and scramble,” and “Keep cool now”), and the sense of fellowship in “All we can do now” create a tone that counters the feeling of man's helplessness conveyed in the windmill passage. Here is the distinctly human voice of men bound together in the face of chance adversity, and relying with dogged optimism on fellowship and mutual affection to withstand that adversity. To ignore the effect of this dialogue is to risk misreading the passage—and perhaps the story—as one that ultimately takes the darker of the two views of man that are its concern.

Although the kind of counterpointing used to offset the windmill passage is the chief method of tonal modulation in “The Open Boat,” the very different effects created by dialogue and the narrator's distanced voice work in other ways as well. The passage describing the sighting of the omnibus on the beach, for example—a passage that, in substance, cruelly mocks the optimism of the men in the boat—is written almost entirely in dialogue; the result is to reinforce the very qualities that the event being described seems to undermine. Through dialogue, every event on the beach is interpreted in the best possible light:

“Look! There's a man on the shore!”


“There! See 'im? See 'im?”

“Yes, sure! He's walking along.”

“Now he's stopped. Look! He's facing us!”

“He's waving at us!”

“So he is! By thunder!”

Ah, now, we're all right! Now we're all right! There'll be a boat out here for us in half an hour.”

“There comes something up the beach.”

“What the devil is that thing?”

“Why, it looks like a boat.”

“Why, certainly it's a boat.”

“No, it's on wheels.”

“Yes, so it is. Well, that must be the life-boat. They drag them along shore on a wagon.”

“That's the life-boat, sure.”

“No, by—, it's—it's an omnibus.”

“I tell you it's a life-boat.”

“It is not! It's an omnibus. I can see it plain. See? One of these big hotel omnibuses.”

“By thunder, you're right. It's an omnibus, sure as fate. What do you suppose they are doing with an omnibus? Maybe they are going around collecting the life-crew, hey?”

“That's it, likely.”

(pp. 78-79)

Even amid the exasperation of watching the man wave his coat at them, apparently without purpose, the men respond with this stubborn optimism:

“Wonder how long he can keep that up. He's been revolving his coat ever since he caught sight of us. He's an idiot. Why aren't they getting men to bring a boat out[?] A fishing boat—one of those big yawls—could come out here all right. Why don't he do something?”

“Oh, it's all right, now.”

“They'll have a boat out here for us in less than no time, now that they've seen us.”

(p. 80)

Ultimately, of course, this optimism proves shortsighted, and the reader surely is justified in seeing some of Crane's characteristic irony in these passages. Nevertheless, the entire scene is told through the language of men speaking to each other (individual voices are not identified, suggesting that the four men have become indistinguishable in their intimacy); and the warmth, humor, and fellowship expressed in the dialogue insist that there is a way to respond to the apparent cruelty and absurdity of the universe.

In contrast to the omnibus passage, the scene describing the long night's watch of the correspondent—when he believes himself to be the only person awake in the boat, and when his fears reach a peak—contains no dialogue. In fact, this passage, running from the point at which the oiler lies down to sleep, with the words “That's all right, old boy” (p. 83), to the moment when the captain sits up and says, “Pretty long night” (p. 86), is the longest in the story without dialogue. The absence of it has the same effect on the reader that the silence of the night has on the correspondent; both are bereft of human voices and company, and without them the world is an extremely threatening place, as evidenced in the appearance of the shark. The narrative voice heard during much of this night, particularly when the larger implications of the correspondent's feelings are considered, is that of the distanced, ironic narrator:

During this dismal night, it may be remarked that a man would conclude that it was really the intention of the seven mad gods to drown him, despite the abominable injustice of it. For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural. Other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails, but still—

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.

Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.”

A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

(pp. 84-85; emphasis added)

The existence of a journalistic version of the events that prompted “The Open Boat” inevitably invites speculation as to the difference between the two: what is it, after all, that makes “The Open Boat” a work of art that has survived almost a century, while “Stephen Crane's Own Story” remains of interest only to Crane scholars? A comment from John Berryman speaks remarkably well to this point: “To take ‘The Open Boat’ as a report is to misunderstand the nature of his work; it is an action of his art upon the remembered possibility of death. The death is so close that the story is warm.”8 What keeps the story warm—even after more than eighty years—is, to a significant degree, a matter of style. More specifically, the careful modulation of tone to reinforce the story's basic thematic tensions insures that the experience of the four men in the open boat is conveyed as lived experience, not merely reported on. As a result, the reader of “The Open Boat” is like the story's correspondent when he recalls the popular but crude lines about the death of the Soldier of Algiers. This event had once been “less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point” (p. 85), but after he has experienced the possibility of his own death, the poem comes back to him “as a human, living thing … an actuality—stern, mournful and fine” (p. 85). The correspondent then goes on to recreate the details of the soldier's death in an imaginative act not unlike that engaged in by the reader of Crane's story:

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. The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension.

(p. 86)

That profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension—the reaching out beyond one's ego to embrace another world of experience—is the inevitable result of a full engagement with a work of art. And what Crane says of the men in the open boat once they have come through their experience might be said of the reader of “The Open Boat” as well: “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” (p. 92).


  1. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” in Tales of Adventure, Volume V of The University of Virginia Edition of The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1970), p. 68. Subsequent references to “The Open Boat” will be to this edition.

  2. Frank Bergon, Stephen Crane's Artistry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 20-21; John Berryman, Stephen Crane (New York: William Sloane, 1950), pp. 281-282; and James B. Colvert, “Style and Meaning in Stephen Crane: ‘The Open Boat,’” Texas Studies in English, 37 (1958), 39, all offer detailed stylistic analyses of the first two paragraphs. They do not, however, discuss tone specifically or differences in tone between the first and second paragraphs.

  3. Berryman, p. 281.

  4. Of the comparison of the boat to a bathtub, Bergon (p. 20), says, “The real surprise is when what is so intense, immediate, overwhelming, and wrong is suddenly seen from another point of view as equally small, silly, and even insignificant.”

  5. Peter Buitenhuis, in “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existentialist Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 5 (Autumn 1959), 246, argues that Crane uses “several contrasting strands of rhetoric” in the story: (1) a narrative voice that is realistically colloquial and straightforward, like the dialogue; (2) brilliantly poetic and rhythmic writing; and (3) some badly written passages that Buitenhuis concludes are meant to parody the adventure-yarn and thereby deflate “the pretension that the poetic idiom tends to inflate.” He also says that these different voices “reflect the different attitudes that are taken toward experience,” but, unfortunately, does not elaborate. Bergon, p. 87, argues that the story presents multiple points of view from which experience is perceived, and says that one of the voices heard in the story is that which takes the view from a balcony that Crane refers to in the first section of the story. He adds that this voice “often uses a vocabulary (not out of reach of the correspondent) based upon a distant and often sentimental view of such an experience,” and that it is “often the voice of a man safe on the shore jocosely narrating the story.” Milne Holton, in Cylinder of Vision: The Fiction and Journalistic Writing of Stephen Crane (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 160-161, sees an ironic tension between the voice of the correspondent, “the character from whose point of view Crane tells most of his story,” and that of a detached and “‘concealed narrator,’ a landsman, apparently, since he describes events in homely similes or similes taken from the language of the West.” And James B. Colvert, “Structure and Theme in Stephen Crane's Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 5 (Autumn 1959), 200, finds as a characteristic structural pattern in Crane's work a tension between two points of view—“the narrowing and deluding point of view of the actors and the enlarging and ruthlessly revealing point of view of the observer-narrator.” Colvert does not, however, associate these points of view with style or tone, and, in reading “The Open Boat” is unhappily led to arguing that the perspective of the men in the boat is wrong-headed and deluded as to the significance of man and his actions.

  6. Bergon (p. 12), has recognized some of these qualities: “A voice not only vivifies a moment, but in the outrageous situations of Crane's fiction, where characters find themselves stranded in countries as foreign as the moon and faced with experiences equally remote, the sound of the human voice becomes a point of reference; it helps to humanize what is humanly incomprehensible.”

  7. Joseph X. Brennan, in “Stephen Crane and the Limits of Irony,” Criticism, 11 (Spring 1969), 199, has singled out this passage as one “singularly free of all ironic overtones” and written with “quiet simplicity and directness and intense sincerity.”

  8. Berryman, p. 291. Less penetrating but of interest is this comment from Marston LaFrance, in A Reading of Stephen Crane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 195-196: “The report conveys the literal truth of the fact; Crane's structure imposed upon the fact in the work of art conveys the moral truth of the human experience.” R. W. Stallman, in Stephen Crane: An Omnibus, ed. R. W. Stallman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), p. 416, compares the story to the events that prompted it: “Crane did not alter the facts or their sequence, yet the difference between what happened and what Crane reconstructed from his experience is immense. It is the difference that distinguishes life from art. In The Open Boat the whole event is charged with significance. Every fact has been charged with meaning and patterned into a scheme of relationships. Realistic details have been converted into symbols, and their sequence forms a designed whole possessing a life of its own.” Of much wider scope is Andrew Lytle's observation, in “‘The Open Boat’: A Pagan Tale,” in his The Hero with the Private Parts (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1966), p. 61:

    The report does have the drama of a shipwreck at sea, but the actors lack humanity, since it is the general fright, not the individual responding, which the newspaper reader is meant to receive. Except in a disaster so great that everyone is forced to feel a personal involvement or threat, the news story insulates the reader from life. The generalized report never gives him the sense of having observed but rather of receiving a rumor, the details of which are not quite to be believed. The reader's position is always that of the stranger, the uninvolved. … On the other hand, in fiction there is always a chorus, or what stands for a chorus, the enveloping action. This hold some essential archetypal explanation of experience, of which the action is one example. The sympathy between the reader, then, and the protagonist involves the reader and lifts him from the accidents of life into some phase and understanding of the essence of things.

David H. Jackson (essay date March 1983)

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SOURCE: Jackson, David H. “Textual Questions Raised by Crane's ‘Soldier of the Legion’.” American Literature 55, no. 1 (March 1983): 77-80.

[In the following essay, Jackson offers insight into Crane's use of Caroline Norton's poem “Bingen on the Rhine” in his story “The Open Boat.”]

Although the passage in “The Open Boat” in which four lines of verse “mysteriously” enter the correspondent's head is widely considered to have central thematic importance,1 the textual questions raised by these misquoted lines from Caroline Norton's “Bingen on the Rhine” have never received adequate answers. Three significant textual questions present themselves: Why do the authoritative texts truncate the first stanza of Norton's ballad? Why do they differ, in substantives and accidentals, from each other? And what form of these lines should a critical edition of Crane's story include? My research has suggested a hypothetical answer to the first question, from which follow new and more satisfying answers to the second and third.

The theory I wish to present is that Crane, like the character who is clearly his surrogate, memorized “Bingen” for a classroom elocution session, and in writing “The Open Boat” misremembered rather than consciously misquoted Norton's poem.2 There is both internal and external evidence to support this view. The story's substantial autobiographical content, the hypnotic iteration of the poem's first line (suggesting the indelibility of rote memorization), the correspondent's erroneous use of the masculine pronoun to refer to the poet all point to the conclusion that Crane remembered the lines from childhood rather than consulting a text at the time of composition. In addition, we know that Crane participated, with great reluctance, in classroom recitation exercises.3 Finally, research has turned up a fact heretofore unremarked by Crane scholars. “Bingen on the Rhine” is present, as an elocution exercise, in the dominant reader of the late nineteenth century, McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader. It is entirely possible that Crane used this “almost universal” textbook at the Asbury Park School (1883-84) or Pennington Seminary (1885-87).4

In editing “The Open Boat” for The Virginia Edition (volume V, Tales of Adventure), Fredson Bowers, like most critics, assumes that Crane worked from a text of Norton's poem, deliberately altering that text. This assumption leads Bowers substantively to emend his copy-text. The alternative theory about the misquotation presented here indicates that copy-text should stand. Before discussing this point, however, it is necessary to review the textual history of the story.

The manuscript of “The Open Boat” has not survived.5 The earliest printed text is that in the June, 1897 number of Scribner's Magazine (hereafter Sc). On 18 April 1898, collections of stories including “The Open Boat” appeared simultaneously in England and America: The Open Boat and Other Stories (London: William Heinemann—hereafter El), and The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co.—hereafter Al). Bowers believes that Crane, living in England in spring 1898, probably “exercised some supervision over the Heinemann edition … and provided printer's copy himself” (p. cxxviii). On the other hand, Bowers continues, “no evidence suggests that Crane supervised in any way the production of the American edition,” although he may have “read proof for this volume and made a very few revisions” (p. cxxxviii). Thus Sc is the text closest to the lost manuscript and Bowers logically selects it as copy-text, drawing on the less authoritative El and still less authoritative Al for emendations.

In the last of the four misquoted lines from “Bingen,” Bowers emends the copy-text (and El) reading, “shall never see,” to the Al (and Norton) reading, “never more shall see.” There is, he concedes in his apparatus, no external proof to support this emendation: “We may be willing to take it that the correction in the last line of ‘Bingen on the Rhine’ (85.24) could be authorial despite the fact that Crane had passed it in the El copy” (p. clxvi). The emendation therefore rests on the assumption that Crane deliberately misquoted Norton's ballad and ought to be set right. The textual note reads: “85.24 never more shall see] This is a correction in Al of the Sc, El limping ‘shall never see’, the correction coming from the true reading of the Caroline E. S. Norton poem, ‘Bingen on the Rhine.’ Crane has taken liberties with the text by deftly condensing the original” (p. 204). Like other advocates of this traditional position, Bowers does not say why Crane would have taken these liberties. Nor does he explain why, if conscious intention is manifest in the misquotation, Crane would have corrected his deliberate and already “deft” alteration.

Bowers' assumption leads him to prefer the reading closer to “the true reading of the Caroline E. S. Norton poem.” But, in the absence of proof that the correction is authorial, what direct textual relevance can be claimed for Norton's ballad? When dealing with authorial misquotation in a work of fiction, can we view the original source as “true”? Indeed, are we not more concerned with the workings of the author's mind—even down to his misrememberings—than with accurate texts of the works on which he draws? The most prudent editorial course in handling the lines from “Bingen” would therefore be to retain the copy-text (Sc) reading, despite its divergence from the original. The original Norton stanza should certainly be included in the apparatus (and in a more authoritative form than the 1885 gift book reprint Bowers uses)6, but it cannot be said to have primary textual authority.

While the matter raised in this note is primarily textual, it has several important critical implications. A central issue in Crane biographical criticism is the relationship of the author's childhood to his fiction. The hypothesis presented here casts more light on Crane's early education and emphasizes the interpretive significance of biographical fact. Too, my conclusion illuminates the process by which a major creative intellect retrieved and represented childhood memory. Finally, this crux suggests an important question from reader response criticism: when an author quotes a work belonging to the “body of allusion and reference”7 of his period, do later readers unfamiliar with the reference experience the work the author intended?


  1. See Bert Bender, “The Nature and Significance of ‘Experience’ in ‘The Open Boat,’” Journal of Narrative Technique, 9 (1979), 76; Edward Stone, “Crane's ‘Soldier of the Legion,’” American Literature, 30 (1958), 242-44; Peter Buitenhuis, “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existentialist Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 5 (1959), 249; Mordecai Marcus, “The Three Fold View of Nature in ‘The Open Boat,’” Philological Quarterly, 41 (1962), 514; Joseph X. Brennan, “Stephen Crane and the Limits of Irony,” Criticism, 11 (1969), 199; James Nagel, “The Narrative Method of ‘The Open Boat,’” Revue des Langues Vivantes, 39 (1973), 415; Herb Stappenbeck, “Crane's ‘The Open Boat,’” The Explicator, 34, Item 41.

  2. All other writers on “The Open Boat” assume that Crane worked from a printed text of “Bingen” and deliberately misquoted the poem. Differences from Norton's original are ascribed to “discreet editing” (Buitenhuis, p. 249), “free editing” (Nagel, p. 415), and “deft condensation” (Fredson Bowers, “Textual Notes,” The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane [Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1968-76], V, Tales of Adventure, p. 204. Hereafter references to vol. V of The Virginia Edition will be identified by page number only.)

  3. In a recently discovered letter, A. H. Flack of Claverack College writes to Crane's mother, “We will excuse him from declaiming but don't [sic] like to do so” (Joseph Katz, “Stephen Crane at Claverack College and Hudson River Institute,” Stephen Crane Newsletter, 2, No. 4 [Summer, 1968], 1-5). Compare “Making an Orator,” in which another Crane surrogate, Jimmie Trescott, painfully tries to recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

  4. The poem first entered the Fifth Reader with the second major revision of the McGuffey series (1857) and, with minor alterations, is present in all subsequent editions. On the history and influence of McGuffey, see Richard D. Mosier, Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (New York: King's Crown Press, 1947). Mosier calls McGuffey “almost universal” (p. 169). See also Henry Steele Commager, “Foreword,” McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader, 1879 ed. (rpt. New York: New American Library, 1962).

  5. Bowers describes the story's textual history (pp. cxxxiii-vii, clxvi-vii).

  6. The poem appeared as early as 1854, The Undying One; Sorrows of Rosalie; and Other Poems (New York: C. S. Francis & Co., 1854).

  7. Commager, p. xii.

Chester L. Wolford (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Wolford, Chester L. “This Booming Chaos: Crane's Search for Transcendence.” In The Anger of Stephen Crane: Fiction and the Epic Tradition, pp. 127-48. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Wolford asserts that “The Open Boat” illustrates Crane's shifting interest from cultural to individual aspects of the literary epic form.]


Stephen Crane was nearly a writer of epic. Certainly he wrote the great American epic into The Red Badge, but then he wrote it out again, mocking accepted notions of heroism central to Western consciousness. Crane depicted archetypes of unconsciousness very early in his career, particularly in the Sullivan County, New York City, and Asbury Park sketches, where he approached transcendence only occasionally, as in “Killing His Bear.” Transcendence, when it appears, tends to exist in the stories separate from and unperceived by the protagonists, as in “The Reluctant Voyagers.” Later, in Maggie, Crane scoffed at the idea that any world existed except the material, and his scoffing was aided by his use of a classical hierarchy of gods and goddesses of heaven (Sol and Phaethon) and hell (Dis and Proserpina) to mock ideas about transcendence to either higher or lower planes of existence—one of the reasons, as Gullason explains, that Maggie fails as a tragedy.1 After writing The Red Badge Crane traveled west for Bacheller's Syndicate in 1895 and saw for himself what Frederick Jackson Turner was showing: the frontier was closed. Possessed like any other American by the myth of manifest destiny, Crane nevertheless knew that the myth had been invalidated. Consequently, his western stories portray the demise of an almost heroic, nearly Homeric society. Into the garden of Crane's idea of the West had come the machine: a society of Pullmans, electric streetcars, businessmen, and progress. If the former was naive, bombastic, and childishly honest, the latter was insidious, conspiratorial, and corrupt.

The West encompassed an irony interesting to Crane: the early western society was old to the world but new to white America; the society that replaced it was relatively new to the world but old to the United States. By blending these histories with classical allusions and genres Crane revitalized and universalized his theme and its ironies. The American West was simply the latest example of the recurring death of an ageless dream of possibility, of starting anew in a new land, a dream possessed by most epic heroes. To take the epic to task on its own terms is a requirement for writers of epic, but then to attempt systematically to destroy the epic's claim to veracity is perhaps unprecedented. To the degree that he succeeded, Crane may have called in question beliefs about myth, history, religion, government, and perhaps many of mankind's other cultural foundations.

During 1897 and 1898, when most of his great short stories were written, Crane's interest in exposing cultural aspects of epic to ridicule begins to diminish and in some works his obvious use of traditional epic lessens. Certainly, those devices of epic which stood him in good stead in The Red Badge do not disappear entirely; still, one of the less cultural elements of epic always more or less present in his work begins to accrue comparatively more importance: the requirement that the protagonist face death squarely and by doing so overcome it. Transcendence seems to result more from the protagonist's individual strengths than from his cultural strengths. “The Open Boat,” written shortly after Crane was shipwrecked in January of 1897, and “Death and the Child,” published not long after Crane first saw battle in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, illustrate this shift in Crane's interests from cultural to individual (or psychological) aspects of epic. Manifest destiny takes a turn in Crane and begins to look for a way to conquer the “other” by mastering the self.

To be sure, “The Open Boat” repudiates traditional epic, and the repudiation begins, as is common for Crane's stories, with the first paragraph:

None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the color of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times the edge was jagged with waves that seemed to thrust up in points like rocks.


The main thrust of the paragraph is that these four men are utterly absorbed by the sea, or, in terms of the epic of consciousness, that they are battling an archetype of unconsciousness. The first sentence is pointedly after-the-fact and contributes both to the notion of the men's absorption and to the idea that they are bereft, permanently or temporarily, of those qualities symbolized by the sky: light, knowledge, consciousness. While the first is Crane's most often quoted sentence, its complement is seldom mentioned, even though it is at least as important as the first: “all of the men knew the color of the sea.” There may be, as well, in the simile of the waves as rocks a deliberate allusion to the famous Wandering, or Clashing, Rocks of Homer's Odyssey and Apollonius's Argonautica.

On one level a perfectly accurate and impressionistic description, on another level the paragraph's last sentence serves as a literary allusion supporting shifting reference points on and above the water. Occasionally in Greek epics heroes lose their frame of reference. Odysseus, for example, temporarily loses sight of his goal while a captive in Calypso's cave. More specifically, he and, earlier, the Argonauts of Apollonius's epyllion temporarily lose sight of the sky while they pass through the tented waves of the Wandering Rocks. Crane could have chosen this allusion for many reasons, but one of the most important may have been that it depicts a moment during a sea journey when, even in classical epics, what appears to be true is not. The difference between these Greek works and Crane's is that in the former the condition is temporary, while the language of “The Open Boat” suggests that man may be permanently benighted. The Odyssey, the Argonautica, and “The Open Boat” concern a quest for “home,” but only in “The Open Boat” does the quest seem to be futile. Odysseus knows he will reach home. Most of the Argonauts, informed by various oracles or by such signs from the sky as birds, stars, and thunderings, know they will return. Some know they will not. Even ancient audiences knew who would and who would not survive. The men in the dingey have no such assurance. And the reader is assured only of the survival of one to tell the story.

“The Open Boat” is extremely inclusive, for it seems that not only classical epics, but Christian ones as well, specifically Dante's Inferno, are targets for Crane's irony, as Kenneth Reed has shown. The point of allusions and parallels to classical and Christian epic in “The Open Boat” may be to invert the epics' original intensions. This would be consistent with Crane's earlier uses of epic allusions. “The Open Boat” may provide, as Reed says, “a dramatic illustration of the naturalist's rejection of the fundamental principle that human experience may lead to moral certainty.”2

This view, described by Gerstenberger as “epistemological existentialism,” makes “The Open Boat” a story about “man's inability to know anything about the complex whole of existence.”3 The story may be explained epically in exactly the same terms as The Red Badge. Having sloughed off cultural beliefs in the first two-thirds of the story—there are “no bricks and no temples”—the correspondent comes finally to a confrontation with death, and the narrator relates it in the present tense as a purely existential reflection: “Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature” (5:91). At this point in the story the correspondent faces death and perhaps achieves a kind of transcendence. Unceremoniously dumped into the sea, that grand archetype of the unconscious, and yet utterly conscious at the same time, the correspondent is momentarily caught in an undertow and considers his own death. His achieving this conscious unconsciousness, during which his mind revolves like a man in a maelstrom around the question of his own death, would seem to be much like Henry Fleming's discovery of heroism in The Red Badge: man has transcended nature by transcending himself. Moreover, if the ending of the story is as ironical as it is lyrical—and some have pointed out that lyricism in Crane signals irony—then the correspondent, like Henry, also forgets what he has learned; the idea that they can then “be interpreters” is absurd: “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” (5:92).

But “The Open Boat” is, as Conrad said, “a symbolic tale.” It is also so finely shaped that it tends to act as a prism for almost any well-polished and intelligent interpretation to penetrate and yield a finely ordered array of colors. This quality alone would make the story, for Aristotle, Crane's best; it is so inclusive as to support an opposite interpretation from that discussed here. One which concludes that the men do learn and which further illuminates Crane's use of epic is that summarized by J. C. Levenson, who discusses the story in terms of “the fiction of consciousness”: “‘The Open Boat’ is … a movement toward understanding. Technically, the fiction of consciousness simply makes dramatically immediate the way things felt. … Formally … there are cumulative changes whereby men, though they cannot control what happens, can at least come to a rational perception of their fate” (5:lxvi-lxvii).

The last paragraph can be looked at differently under this light. The paragraph is lyrical because true: the interpretation of the men lies in the content of nature: white waves, moonlight, the “great sea's voice,” and the imaginative construct of the paragraph, which creates beauty and order and value in a meaningless universe. Here, then, the transcendence is permanent, or at least has the capability of being permanent.4 As Levenson puts it:

The expansion of consciousness leads at last to the encounter with that absolute finality, the extinction of consciousness. The progress from self-engrossment to clear vision, from fanciful outrage to puzzled acceptance, is a growth of moral intelligence which does not simply come from within. The encounter with reality has made a crucial difference. From it the men learn. … Self-mastery and self-knowledge come only with the capacity to interpret the world outside oneself.


Levenson has described not only “The Open Boat” here, but also a prerequisite for epic transcendence. The only addition to be made is that Levenson's last sentence is reversible for epic: the capacity to interpret the world outside oneself comes only with self-mastery and self-knowledge. Drained of all physical strength, immersed in the unconscious energy of the sea, the correspondent reflects unconsciousness through his repetitions, his chants of “Can it be possible? Can it be possible?” An extraordinary consciousness is conveyed by his reflecting upon his death as nature's “final phenomenon.”

Crane throws bricks at cultural temples in “The Open Boat,” but soon discovering that “there are no bricks and no temples,” he spends more time than ever before facing the prerequisite for transcendence: death. He also advances from the clear denunciation of a lasting epic transcendence in The Red Badge to the deliberate ambivalence of “The Open Boat.” The question is: Is the last paragraph ironic?

Separated from the rest of the canon, “The Open Boat” remains beautifully ambivalent. And since everything to come before that story clearly repudiates lasting epic transcendence, it would be nice to accept Levenson's reading that the “men do learn,” and learn permanently. There are two problems with this interpretation, sound as it may be. First, as Griffith shows, all of Crane's lyrical endings earlier than “The Open Boat” are patently ironic:5Maggie, The Red Badge, and “The Veteran” to cite only three. Second, “Death and the Child,” a story which follows “The Open Boat” chronologically as one of his greatest and which also follows the pattern of the epic of consciousness, provides an ending more devastatingly ironic in terms of epic and nihilistic in terms of life than any of Crane's other works: Peza is Crane's Kurtz, albeit a pale copy, for Peza has only imagined the horror. If transcendence occurred in “Death and the Child,” there would be grounds for accepting a “transcendent” interpretation of “The Open Boat” as the interpretation. But since there are none, it is difficult to exclude the possibility that the ending of “The Open Boat” is ironic.

If Crane is finally able to deal at length with the existential heart of epic—facing death—in “The Open Boat” in part because he had come so close to death, he is able perhaps to pursue the subject again in “Death and the Child” because of what he saw in Greece only four months after his experience off Daytona Beach. Greece was another disillusionment for Crane, much like his trip west, but even more so. Holton suggests that Crane first retreated from staring at reality as a result of his Greek experiences, having discovered there that “war is only an instinctive killing, conducted and then marveled at by a gawking crowd. For the sensitive man … like Crane … there is only one possible response. From this intolerable reality he can only turn away.”6

It is possible that Crane also turned away even further from his classical sources because of this experience. “I'd a great idea of Greece,” he said after returning to England from reporting what was then popularly known as the Thirty Days' War but is now called the Greco-Turkish War of 1897: “Say, when I planted those hoofs of mine on Greek soil, I felt like the hull of Greek literature.”7 If the past tense is significant in contrasting his feelings before with those after his first war experience, then it would be safe to say that the “great idea of Greece” had been shattered. Certainly the Greek nation was, because from about mid-April through mid-May of 1897 Greek forces were routed on all fronts, largely, if not exclusively, through the apparent incompetence and inexperience of the Greek rulers. Retreat after seemingly needless retreat was ordered, often from nearly impregnable positions and occasionally long before Turkish forces arrived at the scene. Only one of many examples, “Crane at Velestino” (9:19-23) provides a barely controlled description of Crane's own private disappointment at Greece's national disgrace:

I hoped the Greeks on the plain would hurry and drive the Turks from their position. They did this gallantly in a short, ferocious infantry fight in the woods. The bit of woods seemed to be on fire. After a great rattling and banging the Turks went out. After this attack and defeat there was general rejoicing along the Greek lines and satisfaction all over. The officers walked proudly, the men in the trenches grinned. Then, mind you, just at this time, late in the afternoon, after another successful day, came orders to retreat. … I send this from Volo and before you print it the Turks will be here.

On another occasion, in “The Blue Badge of Cowardice” (9:44-48), Crane expressed it succinctly, angrily, and outright, almost as if he himself had been personally insulted: “Back fell the Greek army, wrathful, sullen, fierce as any victorious army would be when commanded to retreat before the enemy it had defeated.” Crane is clearly on the side of Greece; of that nation and its literature he clearly had “a great idea.”

Crane's disillusionment takes other and varied forms throughout his war reports from Greece, and many times, its form is one of contrast between the Greece of which he had had “a great idea” and the Greece he saw before him. In describing “a certain part of the Greek nature” foreign to “the Anglo-Saxon,” Crane mentions “a battery of howitzers on a hill above the mosque and the bullet-swept square. The captain of this battery walked out to his position at middle-rear. He addressed his men. His chest was well out, and his manner was gorgeous. If one could have judged by the tone, it was one of the finest speeches of the age. It was Demosthenes returned and in command of a battery of howitzers” (9:32-33). William Spofford locates “more than fifty-five instances” of Crane's using or describing oratory.8 In every instance, insincerity is implied, along with puffery, egotism, and lying. Dredging up Demosthenes for this comparison would indicate that already Crane's idea of ancient Greece was being modified by what he was seeing of its modern counterpart, but it also sheds a certain classical light on Crane's considerable use of the notion of oratory in other works, particularly The Red Badge.

Still, on the rare occasion that Crane could report even a minor victory, as toward the end of “A Fragment of Velestino” (9:27-44), his positive image of Greece is reinforced by the centuries that lay behind Greek civilization and pervaded, for example, the evening after a victorious day. Reading the description immediately evokes Greek shepherds resting above the plains of Troy:

There were some mountaineer volunteers in great woolly grey shepherds' cloaks. They were curious figures in the evening light, perfectly romantic if it were not for the modernity of the rifles and the shining lines of cartridges. With the plain a sea of shadow below them, these men sang softly the wild minor ballads of the hills. As the evening deepened many men … slept, but these grey-cloaked mountaineers continued to sing. … They sang of war, and their songs were new to the sense, reflecting the centuries of their singing, and as the ultimate quiet of night came to the height this low chanting was the only sound.


In “Death and the Child,” a youth named Peza becomes caught up in this Greek war song, only to have its tempo change to that of a horrifying dirge. Initially meeting a young veteran officer who, as Eric Solomon says, “accepts the role of Virgil to Peza's Dante,”9 Peza is guided to “the top of a great hill,” where he begins observing the inferno below: “Before them was a green plain as level as an inland sea” (5:124). Like the ocean of “The Open Boat,” this “inland sea,” this battlefield, provides the archetype of unconsciousness, the “cave” of “Death and the Child.” Surrounded by mountains, the plain also contains “little black lines from which floated slanting sheets of smoke. … It was war” (5:124-135). Although Peza here does much observing, and no doubt becomes more conscious as a result (he is “edified, aghast, triumphant”), Peza is less prescient than the narrator who mocks him: “It was not a battle to the nerves. One could survey it [the battlefield] with equanimity, as if it were a tea-table” (5:124-25).

So Peza “bounded” down the hill toward the battle. The young officer finally leaves Peza with some soldiers at a place where there may soon be some heavy fighting. In the process Peza learns several things: (1) “the accidental destruction of an individual, Peza by name, would perhaps be nothing at all”; (2) that his death “would be as romantic, to the old standards, as death by a bit of falling iron in a factory”; (3) that the peasant soldiers were generally much more calm than he; (4) that after entering the battle zone, acting like “a corpse walking on the bottom of the sea,” and conceding that the wounded men may, like him, have “dreamed at lightning speed until the capacity for it was overwhelmed” (5:130), he finally realizes that “pity had a numerical limit.” He no longer says, “those poor people,” as he had in the beginning. Peza has a vision of finally reaching the “bottom of the abyss” when he finds himself below the battle: “In the vale there was an effect as if one was then beneath the battle. It was going on above somewhere. Alone, unguided, Peza felt like a man groping in a cellar.”

That there is no transcendence, temporary or otherwise, in “Death and the Child” is made clear by the fact that Peza runs, like Henry, only never to return. Moreover, Henry had run from a real danger, an enemy with guns. Peza runs from an hallucination about dead men. Still, Peza's vision is much more horrifying than Henry Fleming's. And last, there occurs one of Crane's final descriptions of hell, a description more horrifying in the circumstances than those hells described in “An Experiment in Misery,” Maggie, The Red Badge, and several other stories. It is also more obviously classical. Having come to a place where he might soon be in battle, Peza is armed with a dead man's rifle, which has the “crawling and frightful” movements of a “serpent” (5:139), and the cartridge bandoleer of another, which makes him feel “that the dead man had flung his two arms around him” (5:138). All dressed up for war with rifle, shells, and a new white hat, Peza faces the final confrontation which must be overcome before transcendence is possible:

He looked behind him, and saw that a head by some chance had been uncovered from its blanket. Two liquid-like eyes were staring into his face. The head was turned a little sideways as if to get a better opportunity for the scrutiny. Peza could feel himself blanch; he was being drawn and drawn by these dead men slowly, firmly down as to some mystical chamber under the earth where they could walk, fearful figures, swollen and blood-marked. He was bidden; they had commanded him; he was going, going, going.

… the man in the new white hat bolted for the rear.


If Peza had lost some “egotism” by obeying the young officer's commands, he would have been annihilated by obeying these commandments, but perhaps would have achieved a kind of transcendence. But he doesn't, and once again Crane exhibits his fundamental belief that “conceit is the very engine of life.”

Peza survives, climbing the mountain again, but neither pretending to see that the world was a world “for him,” as does Henry Fleming, nor thinking that he could then be an “interpreter,” but rather to lie gasping “in the manner of a fish” (5:141).

The child who had watched the battle from afar and who had been throughout a human personification of nature—indifferent or at most mildly interested in the goings on in the valley—is also a more devastating symbol in that he is probably doomed to repeat Peza's experience, as are all children in any age. When the child asks “Are you a man?” the answer is clearly “yes.” Crane's idea of the human condition has changed. Henry Fleming, for example, is defeated because he can't sustain his vision. According to Holton, on the other hand, “it is Peza's very capacity to apprehend which has defeated and dehumanized him.”10 One can agree that Peza is defeated by his apprehensions without believing that he has also been dehumanized by them. The human condition seems to be one of confronting reality and then running from it in horror. The act of facing the horror and transcending makes epic heroes heroes, because in doing so they become somewhat more than human. It is in the failure, in the tragedy of not quite transcending reality after the pain and struggle, that one is reminded of the hero's humanity.

When Crane returned from reporting the Greco-Turkish War, he said that The Red Badge “is all right.”11 But it wasn't, for the very metaphor that manifests Henry Fleming's heroism—his impression of an individual blade of grass—becomes the metaphor for Peza's defeat: Peza “knew that the definition of his misery could be written on a wee grass-blade” (5:141).


After “The Open Boat” and “Death and the Child,” Crane either grew tired of his self-imposed task of exposing the innumerable illusions by which men live or he began to see possibilities in a new area based more upon affirmation than upon denial. After his Greek experience, he seemed never again to be so sure of himself. Perhaps he could not be sure that even his repudiations had been correct. To deny the epic, for example, requires certainty that the epic is wrong. In life, one may proceed by saying that something is or is not true, but Crane's art of denial, his repudiations of the accumulated assumptions of millennia, becomes ambivalent in “The Open Boat” and downright horrifying in “Death and the Child.” Perhaps Holton is right and Crane “turned away,” but perhaps Crane simply no longer had a strong commitment to the belief that certain things were false.

Whatever the reason, Crane's quarrel with epic and its illusions disappears from his work after 1898, and he seems to have spent his remaining time, as Stallman and Liebling say, either writing the sort of thing that would get him out of debt or casting about in a somewhat confused attempt to work his way out of artistic uncertainty.12 Much may be accounted for by the simple fact that after reporting the Spanish-American War, Crane was very sick. Even more than in the earlier stories, a riot of shifting points of view, wrong interpretations, and unanswered questions fill the later stories. “War Memories,” for example, lacks any epic background, and yet its sentences are continually placed in the interrogative, more so even than in The Red Badge.

The difference is that the unifying power of epic is gone.

By repudiating the epic and all it stands for—nationalism, patriotism, the greatness of individual and collective man, the existence of supernatural powers that care and protect and guide—Crane, in his life and in his best work, faced the horror of a meaningless universe as squarely as anyone has. That he took no respite, in spite of malaria and tuberculosis, is perhaps unparalleled. It probably shortened his life.

While few deny that Crane's art broke down after the great period of 1897 to early 1898, some of the later pieces may illuminate where he might have gone had he lived long enough to pick up the pieces. Since Crane apparently belonged to the group of American writers whose “quest for a supreme fiction” is a driving force, he had to go beyond his repudiations. Although the lines are far from clear-cut, the evident distinction between his best works and the lesser, particularly the later, works indicates that he did. The best works tend to conform to a definition of modernism given by Altieri: modern literature tends, albeit often negatively, toward “impersonality (i.e., formalism, overtly mythical [epical] themes and constructs, the use of persona, and a stress on complex and paradoxical statements).”13 Nagel has said that “the interpretive uncertainties of [Crane's] Impressionism foreshadow … much of Post-Modernism.”14 While perceptive and true, this observation is so in part because both impressionism and modernism foreshadow the postmodern revolt. Crane is impressionistic throughout his career, and in that sense is postmodern. But Crane's great works, to the degree that they fit period definitions, are modern. His often bad later works tend to fit Altieri's definition of postmodernism as a movement emphasizing “the direct, the personal, the local, the anti-formal, and the topical.”

Formalism in Crane—his use of myth, epic, and literary tradition in general—has been the subject of this book, but his use of persona and paradox are also well known. Maggie is not Crane, nor, certainly, is Henry Fleming, and while the correspondent in the dingey is in a way a Crane stand-in, he is so only as one undergoing the experience. The narrator of “The Open Boat,” on the other hand, is the after-the-fact presence. The correspondent is decidedly a persona.

The personae of the best works tend to give way later to Crane surrogates, especially in some of the war stories, where the line between journalism and fiction grows fuzzy: Little Nell, Shackles, Johnnie, and Vernall.15 In “Marines Signaling under Fire at Guantanamo” (6:194-200), even the surrogate is removed and the narrator is “I.” While the “direct” tone advanced by some of these characters may be a result of the stories' closeness to newspaper dispatches, that tone does not necessarily explain such direct addresses to the reader as appear, for example, at the end of “War Memories”: “The episode is closed. And you can depend upon it that I have told you nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all” (6:263).

“War Memories” also exposes some of Crane's rare personal moods, moods which sometimes verge on a nineteenth-century equivalent to contemporary “confessional” poetry. Most of Crane's readers knew who he was, knew he was covering the war, and could be expected to assume that Vernall, the “I” of the story and a correspondent, was Crane. What Vernall says is accurate, but not the kind of thing one reported about oneself to a nation sending the cream of its youth off to lick the Spanish. Having just made friends with one of those fine young men, a surgeon named Gibbs, Vernall soon finds Gibbs shot and dying, “dying hard. It took him a long time to die. … I thought this man would never die. I wanted him to die” (6:226-27). This statement is very personal, almost embarrassing in print even today, but certainly accurate. Yet it has little in it of the desire to shock so common in Crane, although that can be found easily enough even in the late writing.16 Later he describes his great fear at the prospect of going on patrol the next day: “All that night I was afraid. Bitterly afraid. In the morning I wished for some mild attack of disease, something that would incapacitate me for the business of going out gratuitously to be bombarded” (6:228). Much of the remainder of the story is a description of fear and ineffectiveness. Crane was beginning, in the war stories drawn from experience, to write in a new subjective voice, so much so that he was often parodied for, of all things, egotism:

I have seen a battle.
I find it is very like what
I wrote up before.
I congratulate myself that
I ever saw a battle.
I am pleased with the sound of war.(17)

On occasion, however, Crane can be both personal and classical. That is, he can describe war in his own voice and be directly allusive, as in this description from “War Memories,” where the correspondent has “a fine view of the Spanish lines”: “There was a man in a Panama hat strolling to and fro behind one of the Spanish trenches, gesticulating at times with a walking stick! That was the strangest sight of my life—that symbol, that quaint figure of Mars. … He mystified us all” (6:245).

Perhaps what prompted many of the parodies was not Crane's egotism, although it was interpreted in this way, but rather the “anarchic individualism” so fundamental to postmodernism and vitally basic to Crane. His rejection of Christianity in Maggie, of literature and history in The Red Badge, of culture in “The Monster,” and of everything else in “The Open Boat” and “Death and the Child,” and his insistence upon retaining what he called “the anarchy” of The Black Riders, attest convincingly to the ultimate rightness of Crane's confession to Nellie Crouse that he was “by inclination a wild, shaggy barbarian.” A barbarian, too, in the classical Greek sense of “foreigner,” Crane seemed always more at home walking the line between the anarchy of nihilism and the totalitarianism of late nineteenth-century American society; he seems to have been a cousin of chaos who only visited with mankind, a species to which at times he seems only distantly related.

The clearest tie between Crane and the postmodern, however, lies in the manner in which he falls directly in line with the tradition of American literature beginning, at least, with Whitman and moving to Wallace Stevens and beyond. In The Fragile Presence, Killinger speaks to the issue of the quest for a supreme fiction when he says that “the quest for a new transcendence in and through the materialities of human existence is unspeakably important.”18 In America this quest is perhaps first clearly articulated by Whitman—“The New World needs poems of realities”—most vividly stated by Stevens in “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself”—and, according to Altieri, now resides in the “postmodern insistence that value is not mediated but stems from a direct engagement with the universal forces of being manifest in the particular.”19 In short, Crane's impressionism throughout most of his career deliberately and painfully avoids the notion of value; toward the end, that impressionism can be said to create it just as deliberately: a clear and direct movement in Crane from what became an aspect of modernism to what has been called an “insistence” of postmodernism.

A prerequisite for unmediated experience lies in a process Roy Harvey Pearce and others have called “decreation.” Crane's art of repudiating epic is a holistic attempt to decreate not only literature but all human values: “human forms must first be destroyed if we are to be open to the true sources of value manifest in the natural process which create forms.”20 This, perhaps, is the ultimate goal of Crane's impressionism.

Attempts to participate in unmediated reality by finding some certainty in impressionistic experiences are everywhere in Crane; the complement of such participation, the extinction of ego, a special concern of much postmodernism, with rare exceptions comes late in Crane's career, for he first had to dispense with the egotistical selflessness of patriotism and the prideful humility of religion, as well as the egotism and pride necessary to one who undertook these repudiations. Mediated experiences with reality are everywhere in Crane and almost always provide sources for illusion and distortion. The old chieftain, long a British captive, in “The King's Favor” engages in this sort of illusion when he hears an old war song and has a vision of killing the British and being “again a great chief” (8:571). This story tries to evoke from readers, says Bergon, “those very states of wonder, awe, or transcendence which [Crane] habitually attributes to his characters.”21 Similarly, Maggie's “dream garden,” Henry's Christian-inspired “visions of cruelty,” and his Homeric pictures of deeds “paraded in wide purple and gold” are part of experience mediated by imagination and memory.

Occasionally, Crane presented impressionistic pictures that seem to have come close to passing beyond mediation. The early “Killing His Bear” describes a killing this way: “The little man saw the swirling fur over his gun barrel. The earth faded to nothing. Only space and game, the aim and the hunted. Mad emotions powerful enough to rock worlds, hurled through the little man, but did not shake the tiniest nerve” (8:251). Henry's vision of grass blades is another: “His mind took a mechanical but firm impression.” There is mystery in all this. Scratchy is awed by his “glimpse at another world,” and perhaps the Swede's “supreme cry of astonishment” is likewise partly the result of such a vision. Except for the earliest, in which the little man afterwards “ran up and kicked the ribs of the bear,” these visions invariably produce selflessness. The Swede, in Frye's terminology, becomes a lightning rod for humanity. Scratchy relents: “I 'low it's off, Jack.” And Henry, immediately after experiencing his one clear vision, leads the charge with a “delirium that encounters despair and death, and is heedless and blind to the odds. It is a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness” (2:105).

Selflessness, a manifestation of what psycho-criticism rather unnecessarily calls “ego annihilation” and “id destruction,” mystified Crane. It seems to have been the one human quality he could not explain through his theory that “conceit” was “the very engine of life”: “The final wall,” he said on his deathbed, “is human kindness.”22 In postmodern literature selflessness is largely antihumanistic or nonhumanistic, but in Crane the question of whether it is humanistic or not is difficult to answer. To the degree that Crane is romantic, selflessness becomes antihumanistic. When he is being classical, it is, of course, humanistic. At such moments one must return to the picture of the “conceited” Swede outside the Palace Hotel. It is a picture, a metaphor for all of Crane's work: man implacably struggling against chaos, against the other.

There is no transcendence in Crane's work. In epic terms, the struggle is solely for consciousness; finally for Crane, transcending consciousness is not transcendence but a falling back and succumbing to false echoes in caves of unconsciousness. Still, in spite of this nihilistic view, there are numerous instances in the later stories of a kind of acceptance of man's struggle against “this booming chaos” (6:196). War is business. War is Henry Fleming “at a task … like a carpenter who has made many boxes, making still another box, only there was great haste in his movements” (2:35). If Henry and the narrator seem repelled by this “business,” the later war stories project the business of war with a sense of awesome mystery; it can even become very personal and “sublime”:

There wasn't a high heroic face among them. They were all men intent on business. That was all. It may seem that I am trying to make everything a squalor. That would be wrong. I feel that things were often sublime. But they were differently sublime. They were not of our shallow and preposterous fictions. They stood out in a simple, majestic commonplace. It was the behavior of men. In one way, each man was just pegging along. … In another way it was pageantry, the pageantry of the accomplishment of naked duty.


Although Crane manages to skewer “preposterous fictions,” he is not primarily concerned with them, but rather with those men honestly, completely, “earnestly at work” (6:232).

The self-sacrifice and inexplicable kindnesses performed by men for no other reason than that they do perform them caused Crane to face a spectacle in which resentment toward a material and indifferent universe simply falls away, as does the antihumanism of romantic and postmodern visions. Crane at last comes as close to an epic transcendence as he ever does, and he does it by throwing away his art, much as Dante does when the character Dante arrives at the gates of paradise and is unable to describe it in words. Here is Crane: “One cannot speak of it—the spectacle of the common man doing his work, his appointed work. It is the one thing in the universe which makes one fling expression to the winds and be satisfied simply to feel” (6:249). Simply to feel. Crane seems to feel about such men, perhaps mankind, the way some romantic and postmodern writers feel about the material universe. Here, too, lies one result of the Arnold-Huxley controversy of classical versus scientific education. Rejecting the notion of order provided by classicism and the romantic notion of the material world as beneficent, Crane is left with his feelings.

Crane's later work is both hurried and harried, filled with experiments not so much of craft but of feeling. If the craft is disappointing, as in many of the late war stories and especially in most of the Tales of Whilomville [Whilomville Stories], that loss is occasionally paid for by advances in feeling and perception. Before Stevens demanded it, Crane had “become an ignorant man again.” And if he did not see the sun clearly “in the idea of it,” nevertheless, he was moving forward at the end.

In spite of his time's occasional economic depressions and constant social exploitation, Crane lived in an age and a country of unbounded optimism. At the same time, he was born, lived, and died in a world and a time when it was increasingly possible for people to deny utterly the existence of the supernatural and at the same time to disavow the ultimate value of mankind.

Only toward the end did he begin to find that value, and the literature of this century is still following the path Crane walked. Fewer than twenty years before the Great War, less than half a century from the atomic age, Crane struggled in a world where belief in God and man was rapidly unraveling at the seams; the mass, on the other hand, was in a frenzy of physical, verbal, and written motion to sew those seams, to shore fragments against its ruin. Alone, unwilling to compromise, unable to find solace anywhere, Stephen Crane stared at the gaping holes in the world's fabric, saw through them the abyss, and searched there for patches.


  1. Gullason, “Tragedy and Melodrama,” p. 245-53.

  2. Kenneth T. Reed, “‘The Open Boat’ and Dante's Inferno: Some Undiscovered Analogues,” Stephen Crane Newsletter 4 (Summer, 1970): 1-3; but see also Robert Meyers, “Crane's ‘The Open Boat,’” Explicator 21 (April, 1963): item 60; Lloyd Dendinger, “Stephen Crane's Inverted Use of Key Images of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’” Studies in Short Fiction 5 (Winter, 1968): 192-94.

  3. Donna Gerstenberger, “‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective,” Modern Fiction Studies 17 (Winter, 1971-72): 558; but see also Bert Bender, “The Nature and Significance of ‘Experience’ in ‘The Open Boat,’” Journal of Narrative Technique 9, no. 1 (1979): 70-79.

  4. See not only Bender, but these: Robert Shulman, “Community, Perception, and the Development of Stephen Crane: The Red Badge to ‘The Open Boat,’” American Literature 50 (November, 1978): 441-60; Joseph J. Kwait, “Stephen Crane, Literary Reporter: Commonplace Experience and Artistic Transcendence,” Journal of Modern Literature 8, no. 1 (1980): 129-38.

  5. Clark Griffith, “Stephen Crane and the Ironic Last Word,” Philological Quarterly 47 (January, 1968): 83-91.

  6. Holton, Cylinder of Vision, p. 194.

  7. Berryman, Stephen Crane, p. 183.

  8. William K. Spofford, “Crane's The Monster,Explicator 36, no. 2 (1978): 5-7.

  9. Eric Solomon, Crane: From Parody to Realism, p. 108.

  10. Holton, Cylinder of Vision, p. 191.

  11. Stallman, Omnibus, p. xxvi.

  12. Stallman, Omnibus, and A.J. Liebling, “The Dollars Damned Him,” New Yorker, August 5, 1961, pp. 48-60, 63-66, 69-72; see also Stallman, “That Crane, That Albatross around My Neck: A Self-Interview by R. W. Stallman,” Journal of Modern Literature 7 (February, 1979): 147-69.

  13. Charles Altieri, “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” Boundary 2, 1 (Spring, 1973): 605.

  14. Nagel, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, p. 175.

  15. Little Nell appears in “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” (6:136-54); Shackles in “God Rest Ye” and “The Revenge of the Adolphus” (6:155-71); Johnnie in “This Majestic Lie” (6:201-21); Vernall in “War Memories” (6:222-63).

  16. Mere shock value, and perhaps some verisimilitude, comes from the following in “War Memories”: “I remember Paine came ashore with a bottle of whiskey which I took from him violently” (6:227); Teddy Roosevelt, whom Crane knew, had called another Paine a “dirty little atheist”; but this passage was more probably addressed to a nation the majority of whose middle class spoke of drink as if it were as odious as murder.

  17. From the Lewiston (Maine) Journal and reprinted in the New York Tribune (May 18, 1897); quoted in Stallman, Biography, p. 552. The Buffalo Express said a day earlier (also according to Stallman, Biography) that “Stephen Crane and Grover Cleveland are running a mad race in the use of the personal pronoun ‘I,’ with ‘Steve’ a neck ahead.” The use of the “I” is of course not so much a measure of Crane's egotism as it is of his adherence to a credo of “personal honesty.” It may also demonstrate that he is beginning to eschew the “impersonality” which characterizes modernism and coming closer to adopting the “personal” mode accepted by postmodernism. See also Bergon, Crane's Artistry.

  18. John Killinger, The Fragile Presence: Transcendence in Modern Literature (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. 5.

  19. Altieri, “Symbols of Thought,” p. 612.

  20. Ibid., p. 613.

  21. Bergon, Crane's Artistry, p. 52.

  22. Letters, p. 99.

George Monteiro (essay date July 1984)

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SOURCE: Monteiro, George. “Text and Picture in ‘The Open Boat’.” Journal of Modern Literature 11, no. 2 (July 1984): 307-11.

[In the following essay, Monteiro considers three possible sources for “The Open Boat.”]

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.


In an early review of The Open Boat and Other Stories, the London Academy called Stephen Crane “an analyst of the subconscious.”1 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 & 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.


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, as I have shown elsewhere, 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.3 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 light-houses, 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.4

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 lifesaving 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 lifesaving 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 lifesaving 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?” (74).

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 lifesaving 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
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.(5)

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.


  1. “Reviews,” Academy, LIII (14 May 1898), Supplement, p. 522.

  2. Page references given throughout the text are to “The Open Boat” in Tales of Adventure, Volume V of The University of Virginia Edition of The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (University Press of Virginia, 1970), pp. 68-92.

  3. “The Logic Beneath ‘The Open Boat,’” Georgia Review, XXVI (Fall 1972), 326-35; and “The Pilot—God Trope in Nineteenth-Century American Texts,” Modern Language Studies, VII (Fall 1977), 42-51.

  4. McGuffey's Fourth Eclectic Reader, revised edition (Van Antwerp, Bragg & Co., 1879), pp. 57-58.

  5. Poems and Literary Remains, Volume X of The University of Virginia Edition of The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (University Press of Virginia, 1975), p. 47.

Clarence Walhout (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Walhout, Clarence. “Ives, Crane, Marin, and ‘The Mind Behind the Maker’.” Christian Scholars Review 16, no. 4 (1987): 355-72.

[In the following essay, Walhout utilizes a structuralist method to analyze “The Open Boat,” particularly exploring the implications of the last sentence of the story.]

The study of Ives, Crane, and Marin in this essay adopts what I would characterize loosely as a structuralist methodology. I say loosely because I do not wish to link my interest to any one of the particular structuralist models which fall under that rubric (Levi-Strauss, Jakobson, Greimas, Todorov, Barthes, etc.). I wish rather to use insights derived from the structuralist tradition to explore the formal affinities which seem to exist among three artists who lived and worked during the early years of the twentieth century. The structuralist tradition seeks to go beyond empirical description of the formal features of given works of art and to discover at a “deep” rather than “surface” level those structural patterns which link them to other artistic works and also to cultural systems of thought and value.

My aim is also to judge the value of a structuralist method for Christian scholarship. Ever since the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure developed, as part of his definition of the linguistic sign, a theory about the arbitrary relation between the signified and the signifier, structuralism has been associated with a nominalist or sceptical epistemology. Saussure pointed out that the sound which is used to designate a concept in any language has an arbitrary rather than a necessary connection with the concept. The concept “tree,” for example, can be designated by the sounds tree or Baum or arbor, etc. Saussure's followers tended to read this proposal concerning the nature of the linguistic sign (namely, that the sound has a culturally determined or “arbitrary” relationship to the concept it designates rather than a natural or necessary relationship) as a proposal concerning the relationship between words and the real world. The first proposal, however, designates a formal and syntactic relationship whereas the latter designates a semantic one. Saussure's followers tended to conclude that what Saussure said about the relationship between sounds and concepts at a linguistic level pertained as well to the relationship between words and things at an epistemological or ontological level. Thus, they questioned the traditional belief that words refer to things as well as to concepts of things, or, in other words, the belief that language speaks directly about reality. If words have an arbitrary relationship to things, we cannot assume that language can speak about reality per se. Some of Saussure's followers, in short, held that because language is a cultural product and because the tie between words and reality is problematic, language marks the boundaries of what we can know and knowledge is relative to the cultural processes by which we create our languages. If understood in this way, structuralism would seem to fly in the face of traditional Christian conceptions of reality and truth. The questioning of referentiality, however, is not an essential tenet of structuralism, and, consequently, realist epistemologies need not abandon the methodological insights of structuralism even though some structuralists link the methodology to epistemological scepticism. I will return to this issue at the conclusion of the essay.

For purposes of this analysis I will distinguish three kinds of structures: 1) the temporal or diachronic, 2) the spatial or synchronic, and 3) the thematic or referential. Diachronic structures are those which depend on sequential movement in time; in music these include melodic motifs, rhythms, modulations, cadences, thematic variations, development within established genres such as the sonata, and the like. Synchronic structures are nontemporal and include tonalities, harmonic relationships, chord structures, orchestration, modes, the generic forms themselves (genres per se), and the like. Referential structures are those which tie a work of art to material outside the work itself, i.e., to substantive as opposed to formal material. Though many structuralists are sceptical concerning questions of reference, one can, nevertheless, if one assumes that extralinguistic reference is possible and even inevitable, inquire into the structural forms whereby reference occurs.

For this analysis we will examine Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony (composed 1909-16; partial performances 1927, 1934; full performance 1965). A descriptive commentary, which apparently matched Ives' intentions concerning the symphony as a whole, was made by Henry Bellamann in 1927:

This symphony … consists of four movements,—a prelude, a majestic fugue [now movement three], a third [now second] movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content. The aesthetic program of the work is … the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies. … The fugue … is an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism. The succeeding movement … is not a scherzo. … It is a comedy in the sense that Hawthorne's Celestial Railroad is a comedy. Indeed this work of Hawthorne's may be considered as a sort of incidental program in which an exciting, easy, and worldly progress through life is contrasted with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through the swamp. The occasional slow episodes—Pilgrims' hymns—are constantly crowded out and overwhelmed by the former. The dream, or fantasy, ends with an interruption of reality—the Fourth of July in Concord—brass bands, drum corps, etc. … The last movement is an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.1

Ives was an innovative musician, but he did not innovate for the sake of musical texture alone. His letters and journals, and the notes appended to his scores, indicate a constant attempt to clarify the social and religious as well as the musical aims of his work. It is natural, therefore, and even necessary to inquire into the reasons for his structural innovations. In what ways do they give expression to his extramusical concerns?

The second movement of the symphony provides an excellent opportunity for us to consider this question. The movement's diachronic structures are characterized by a sequencing of unexpected elements rather than a natural evolution of musical material according to traditional tonal and formal conventions. The movement is almost constantly polyrhythmic. Often single instruments or groupings of instruments follow their own rhythmic patterns concurrently. … At various points, contrasting time signatures require the efforts of two conductors. Melodically the second movement is characterized by Ives' favorite device, the use of traditional tunes or fragments of tunes drawn from well-known hymns, patriotic songs, marches, and folk songs. These appear not only in surprising ways and contexts but are often superimposed on one another, being played concurrently by various instruments. [The] trumpets and trombones are vigorously intoning “Beulah Land” while the flutes, clarinets, orchestra piano, and bells are sounding out “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” At the same time the trumpets, solo piano, and violas are playing the ragtime motif that runs through the movement. In its development the movement is not governed by systems of tonality or by conventional formal requirements but by programmatic intent. It alternates slower and quieter sections with fast and raucous sections in order to trace the “trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through the swamps and rough country.” At section #23, for example, Ives' note on the score reads: “a take off here on polite salon music … pink teas in Vanity Fair social life.”2 The movement through these alternating sections eventually gives way to the Fourth of July passage which climaxes the Pilgrims' quest. But the movement does not end on this note. As frequently happens in Ives, the ending resists final resolution, and in the concluding passage the violas and solo piano remind us of the “dream, or fantasy” which surrounds the Pilgrims as they continue their journey through the discordant realities of experience.3

Ives' dissatisfaction with conventional forms is evident in some of his comments prefacing the second movement in the 1965 edition of the performance score.

In closing … it may be suggested that in any music based to some extent on more than one or two rhythmic, melodic, harmonic schemes, the hearer has a rather active part to play. Conductors, players, and composers, as a rule, do the best they can and for that reason get more out of music. … Many hearers do the same, but there is a type of auditor who will not meet the performers halfway by projecting himself, as it were, into the premises as best he can. … [S]ome who consider themselves unmusical will get the “gist of” and sometimes get “all set up” by many modern pieces, which some of those who call themselves musical (this is not saying they're not)—probably because of long acquaintance solely with certain consonances, single tonalities, monorhythms, formal progressions and structure—do not like. … The future of music may not lie entirely with music itself, but rather in the way it makes itself a part with—in the way it encourages and extends, rather than limits, the aspirations and ideals of the people—the finer things that humanity does and dreams of.

(p. 14)

Free development is not, of course, new with Ives. But he is one of the first composers to juxtapose discordant and incongruous elements in the construction of his musical architectonics. In pieces like the “comedy” section of Symphony #4 the jolting discordant movement seems to yield merely raucous and “antimusical” sounds until the listener perceives the underlying design and purpose.

Turning to the synchronic structures of the second movement, we observe that it is characterized by the use of dissonance which does not aim for conventional resolution. The first notes at Section 34 are illustrative. The orchestra sounds ten pitches simultaneously to begin a section which is polytonal, or perhaps even atonal in intent.4 To emphasize the lack of conventional harmonic patterns, the figure for the violins includes quarter tones, another favorite device of Ives. Furthermore, the purpose of the configuration of sounds seems not to be clarity of voices but deliberate imbalance and obscurity. Probably even a trained ear could not pick out all of the voices in this cacophony of sounds. Ives' comments on this movement of the symphony are revealing in this regard:

Technically, an important matter that has to do with the playing of this symphony, especially the second and fourth movements, is that of varying degrees of the intensities of various parts or groups. … If the players are put as usual, grouped together on the same stage, the effect of the sound will not give the full meaning of the music. These movements should not be played all in the foreground, with the sounds coming practically the same distance from the sounding bodies to the listeners' ears.

(In that connection) is a sound which is constant … cancelled, when another louder sound … comes, so that the hearer does not seem to hear the first sound? I have never yet seen any theory describing (both aurally and scientifically) the nature and processes etc. of sound-waves, together with their relation to the physiology of the ear, that seemed to me absolute proof that sounds (as above) are cancelled. The Professors and musicians say—“If you don't hear this sound (and a graph does not show the waves of this sound), isn't that proof that they are cancelled?”—NO—How does the listener know that he doesn't hear? … Can he be any surer about that than an architect can be sure that a certain grain of sand is not in his dam—because he doesn't see it there?5

In its referential structure—the third type of structural pattern we are examining—this movement (like much of Ives' music) is characterized by symbolism, that is to say, many of the musical themes are allusions to or quotations of previously existing materials and thereby acquire symbolic meaning. In the case of the Fourth Symphony, the symbolism is established both by quotation and by programmatic intent. The most insistent quotations in the second movement are taken from two traditional hymn tunes, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “Beulah Land.” Seen in the light of Ives' declared programmatic intent, these songs seem to suggest the persistence of a transcendental vision which endures amidst the trials and temptations of life. Ives also quotes himself in his use of the ragtime motif referred to earlier. It derives from the “Hawthorne” theme of the Second (“Concord”) Piano Sonata which Ives had completed during the years he was working on the Fourth Symphony. Ives' comments in his Essays Before A Sonata are helpful here:

Any comprehensive conception of Hawthorne, either in words or music, must have for its basic theme something that has to do with the influence of sin upon the conscience—something more than the Puritan conscience, but something which is permeated by it. … This fundamental part of Hawthorne is not attempted in our music [the Concord Sonata] which is but an “extended fragment” trying to suggest some of his wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.6

Ives' interweaving of the Hawthorne motif throughout the second movement suggests the presence of the mysterious world of the spirit which surrounds the Pilgrim on his “worldly progress through life.” These symbolic meanings are incorporated into the musical structure of the work by means of musical quotation and should not be considered as extraneous conceptual parallels to the music. They could not be derived from the music as “pure sound,” but because it is embedded in cultural history, music is much more than “pure sound”; its forms of referentiality tie it to material outside the work itself.

Before comparing Ives and Stephen Crane, it will be helpful to speculate on the general significance of these formal structures in Ives' music. Whenever we find innovation in the arts, we find a corresponding “loss” of established patterns. Ives, in his juxtaposition of incongruous passages, self-consciously rejects the norm of tonal predictability which characterizes traditional music. Instead of a predetermined sense of musical direction, he creates a montage of elements that are juxtaposed rather than related by tonal logic; instead of tonal continuities, he uses a programmatic structure to unify the work. He also rejects, through his use of dissonance, traditional harmonic patterns. Instead of traditional means for achieving coherence, he explores new harmonic perspectives. In both the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of his music we also find what we might call a loss of simplicity. This is not to say that there is less complexity in music before Ives but that the complexity that we find in Ives defies conventional norms. Ives' musical world requires a new conception of order, a new set of surveyors' instruments.

Thematically (i.e., in its referential structures) Ives' use of symbolic quotation may be illuminated by a consideration of the role of symbolism in nineteenth-century Romanticism. Though symbolism can be found in the arts in all ages, the symbol gained a special importance in nineteenth-century art. The rise of the symbol paralleled a decline in the status of allegory. Allegory thrives only when experience is illuminated by a conceptual order whose validity is assumed, as, for example, in The Divine Comedy or Pilgrim's Progress. As confidence in such a conceptual order was shaken by Cartesian doubt and Kantian epistemology and as new Romantic models of reality and imagination spawned new conceptions of people and their works, an altered conception of art also emerged. Rather than seeing art as a mirror of reality, artists began to see art as the exploration of possible visions of reality. The primary means for this exploration was the symbol. No longer did the nightingale signify the presence of existing truths available to the poet's mind; the nightingale became the symbol, as in Keats, of the poet's desire or aspiration for truth.7 The symbol became the means for seeking in the complexities of the mind and experience the evidence for transcendent realities. Transcendent realities were no longer accepted as the fixed or given truths of faith or reason; they were realities confirmed by the consciousness of those who sought and needed to believe in a transcendent order. In the nineteenth century the symbol is the rich artistic product of the artist's imaginative quest, but it also reveals a profound crisis in metaphysical belief.

In the early years of the Romantic era an “idealistic” tendency led some to view symbolism as proof of a correspondence between an experiential and a transcendent order of existence. Such a view we find, for example, in the confident idealism of Emerson and Thoreau, and also in the more questioning stance of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. Later in the nineteenth century this idealism begins to yield to a more “realistic” tendency which looks primarily to the natural or experiential realm as the source of symbolic meaning. We find this more “realistic” form of symbolism in such writers as Mark Twain and Henry James, and we find its philosophical counterpart in the pragmatism of William James. For example, in Twain's Huckleberry Finn the symbolic value of the river in Huck's journey toward maturity derives from its real importance as the place where Huck actually lives. In contrast, the symbolic value of the river which Robin crosses in his journey to maturity in Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” derives from its use as a conventional symbol within the framework of moral themes which Hawthorne is developing. Both rivers are symbolic, but whereas Hawthorne gives the river symbolic meaning in relation to the transcendent order of moral experience which he is embodying in the story, Twain gives the river symbolic meaning in relation to the actual order of Huck's daily experience. Symbolic meaning, in short, depends in Hawthorne on his use of a transcendent order of moral value whereas in Twain it depends on an interpretation of the observed patterns of actual life. For Twain and the realists experiential evidence becomes a stronger testimony to understanding and value than do traditional categories of transcendence.

The struggle to find new forms for the affirmation of human values is more problematic in Ives, Crane, and Marin than it is in Twain and the other realists of the previous generation, but their innovations are more closely related to these realists than they are to later artistic developments in what is nowadays called “modernism.” Ives, Crane, and Marin stand, we might say, between the end of Romanticism and the advent of modernism. The formal indication of their struggles can be seen in the increasing density of their artistic textures, in the interior complexity of their art forms, and in their exploration of new modes of representation; but these explorations are efforts to reaffirm rather than to undermine traditional conceptions of human nature and human value.

Ives' fondness for Emerson's transcendentalism is well documented. His symbolic quotations also show a need to search the American past for cultural and national symbols which would confirm a transcendental vision. His thematic use of symbolic quotation, as well as his rejection of conventional structures of harmony and form, exemplifies, we may conclude, the pervasive tendency among late-nineteenth-century American artists to turn to experience as the final test for our understanding of the meanings of life. In Ives the frequent indefiniteness of endings, the use of polyrhythmic and polytonal structures, and the quotation of “local color” materials all point to a new density in the “interior” possibilities of music, a fascination with texture rather than with symmetry and pre-established orders. They reveal a sharpened interest in the complexity of immediate experience and a need to discover new bases for enduring values. They are symptomatic as well of a loss of eschatological vision. Teleology becomes a matter of discovering experiential continuities rather than of asserting an a priori faith in ultimate or absolute design.

Though Ives continued to assert a transcendental vision, borne out by the rich textures of human experience rather than by a priori belief, other artists, such as Stephen Crane, were unable to maintain a similar faith in Emersonian transcendentalism. In his artistic practices, however, Crane, like Ives and Marin, belongs to the later “realistic” phase of nineteenth-century Romanticism rather than to the “modernism” which was soon to modify in even more radical ways the forms of artistic expression. Crane (1871-1900) was born three years before Ives, but his intellectual affinities were with his literary contemporaries Howells, Garland, Conrad, and Frederic rather than with Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Crane died at age twenty-nine, too early for us to judge the final direction he might have taken but not before he had written the works which place him among the first rank of American writers.

For purposes of this study we will focus on one of his best short stories, “The Open Boat.” Crane wrote this story after his own shipwreck off the coast of Florida on his return from Cuba where he had been working as a correspondent. The story ends, as does The Red Badge of Courage, on a somewhat indefinite and unexpected note. The plot seems to focus our interest on whether the four victims of the shipwreck will survive, but the story does not end there. Instead Crane moves to the final sentence: “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.” It appears that Crane is not interested primarily in the question of survival but in the meaning of the experience. Yet he tells us only that the survivors “could then be interpreters,” not what that interpretation amounts to. In order for us to interpret the significance of the last sentence, we need to examine the internal structures of the story.

The plot of “The Open Boat” is not constructed in the manner established by Poe. For Poe the action of a story was to be carefully plotted to move step by calculated step to a predetermined conclusion. Each action should lead into the following action until a fitting resolution is achieved. The resolution should be both surprising and inevitable, that is, it should both maintain suspense and confirm the logical continuity of the narrative. Crane's story, however, moves episodically with the rhythms of nature, and there are no apparent clues at any point as to what might happen next. Often it seems that dropping a paragraph or moving paragraphs around a bit would not greatly affect the movement of the story as a whole. The actions of the men as they respond to the dictates of the sea are not totally disjointed, but they lack a sense of inevitability. The men talk, row, look to shore, rest, and reflect, but the movement from action to action or from passage to passage at times seems arbitrary. To the extent that the plot depends on the motivation of the characters rather than the forces of nature, its movement reflects the uncertainty of the men about their situation. The characters attempt to interpret the “signals” they observe outside the boat, but they remain confused, and their actions mirror their uncertainties. As in the second movement of Ives' Fourth Symphony, the narrative line is marked by alternating passages of activity and rest, boisterousness and reflective quiet. The conceptual aims of Ives and Crane may be different, but the structural patterns are analogous. Their works, too, as noted, do not come to final or expected resolutions but end with passages which invite us to return to the narrative and to reflect once again on the significance of what has occurred.

Synchronically “The Open Boat” is structured in large part by what the characters are able to see and hear. Language having to do with seeing and listening and speaking permeates the story, as, for example, in phrases like “a new sound struck the ears,” “the growl of speech in them [the waves],” “the white lip of the wave,” “the surf's roar,” “the wind had a voice,” “a high cold star … is the word,” and “he heard a voice call his name.” Words like glanced, looked, watched, gazed, surveyed, saw, stared, scanned, and glimpse occur frequently, as do words like argued, swore, hooted, spoke, gurgled, and called. The opening passage of Section IV is a representative example of Crane's use of such language:

“Cook,” remarked the captain, “there don't seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge.”

“No,” replied the cook. “Funny they don't see us!”

A broad stretch of lowly coast lay before the eyes of the men. It was of dunes topped with dark vegetation. The roar of the surf was plain, and sometimes they could see the white lip of a wave as it spun up the beach. A tiny house was blocked out black upon the sky. Southward, the slim lighthouse lifted its little gray length.

Tide, wind, and waves were swinging the dingey northward. “Funny they don't see us,” said the men.

The surf's roar was here dulled, but its tone was, nevertheless, thunderous and mighty. As the boat swam over the great rollers, the men sat listening to this roar. “We'll swamp sure,” said everybody.

It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction, but the men did not know this fact and in consequence they made dark and opprobrious remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation's lifesavers. Four scowling men sat in the dingey and surpassed records in the invention of epithets.

“Funny they don't see us.”

The light-heartedness of a former time had completely faded. To their sharpened minds it was easy to conjure pictures of all kinds of incompetency and blindness and, indeed, cowardice. There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign.8

This language of seeing and hearing reveals an important structural pattern in the story. When the men look into the distance or hear the sounds of the distant surf, they are confused about their situation and their future, and they become angry and/or despairing. But when they perceive sights and sounds close up, they do so clearly, and they grasp the reality of their situation. In the scene, for example, where the men are trying to make sense of the movements of the people they see on the shore, they become increasingly irritated and frustrated (“What's that idiot with the coat mean? What's he signalling, anyhow?”). When they turn their attention to their immediate situation, however, and “speech [is] devoted to the business of the boat,” they speak in friendly and trusting terms (“‘Billie, will you spell me?’ ‘Sure,’ said the oiler.”). They even develop a sense of brotherhood on the boat although they have no assurance of being saved by agencies outside their immediate ken. Crane's characters, thus, must act according to their interpretation of their immediate situations, without trust in anything beyond themselves. Their “world,” shaped by what they are able to see and hear, offers no clear grounds for hope or rescue. At the end, when they plunge into the sea and do what they can to save themselves, some help does come, but it is not a help that they could have counted on.

The experience of the men in this story, then, requires them to interpret the signals that confront them from moment to moment and to build from these interpretations a more general understanding of what they should do. When Crane says at the end of the story that “they felt that they could then be interpreters,” he seems to imply that they can now understand that those caught in the turmoil of existence must depend on their own perception and assessment of their circumstances. Three out of the four do survive, but the story does not seem to offer a faith in anything beyond human perception and effort. The contours of reality beyond one's immediate situation are not clear or knowable; one can only struggle through the exigencies of the moment and accept whatever comes.

Although Crane's story portrays a kind of heroism in the struggles of the characters, the spirit of the story is still quite different from the affirmation of transcendence which we noted in Ives. Both of these artists, however, focus on texture rather than on traditional formal design: and in their work the textures often appear complex and confusing. Their departures from conventional forms mirror their society's uncertainty concerning traditional dogmas of faith and its insistence on experience as the source of value and understanding. The two artists arrive at different ways of assessing experience, but their work arises, to use Hans-Georg Gadamer's term, out of the same horizon of expectations. Though in the face of the complexities of experience, Crane was unable to affirm the hopeful and exhilarating spirit of Ives, both artists held the texture of experience to be the test of value.

Before we turn to the third structural pattern we will examine, the thematic or referential, we need to note an obvious difference between literature and music. In our discussion of Ives we spoke of the referential character of the music as the relation between the music and that which is extramusical. Since literature is made from words and since words are by nature referential (as notes or sounds are not), referentiality in literature is not completely analogous to referentiality in music. We may, however, distinguish two kinds of referentiality in literature, the second of which is analogous to referentiality in music. The first involves the use of words to refer to the imagined “world” of the story; the second involves the use of words to refer to something in the actual or “real” world which exists outside the story. In the first case the words refer to the setting of the story and to the actions of characters who do not exist in the actual world. In the second case the words point also to events or objects in the actual world. Referentiality in the second sense is not necessary in literature, for it may be that none of the characters and events in a work of fiction ever appear in the actual world. If they do occur, however, (as, for example, in the case of the Mississippi River's appearance in both the actual world and in Huckleberry Finn), we find the kind of referentiality that is analogous to the referentiality we find in music. In music, referentiality is achieved by allusion to or quotation of previously existing musical themes or by programmatic parallels to the music. In literature this kind of referentiality is likewise achieved by allusion to things which exist in the actual world or by programmatic parallels. In literature these programmatic parallels are allegorical; allegory in literature parallels programmatic meaning in music.9

Having made these distinctions we note one instance of extratextual reference in “The Open Boat” which is analogous to Ives' quotation of hymn tunes. In Section VI the correspondent quotes from and reflects on a poem by Caroline Norton, which he remembers from his childhood. Earlier the poem had meant nothing to him, but now he is able to understand what the poem says about the experience of a soldier dying in Algiers. The point of this episode in the story is that the correspondent's experience in the shipwreck has enabled him to empathize with the soldier and understand his plight. This extratextual reference confirms the thematic patterns of the story as a whole by showing how interpretation of value depends on experience; the correspondent's response to the poem depends upon his own experience in his own situation. Crane's reference to this poem is analogous to Ives' “reference” to hymn tunes, and in both cases the references reflect the view that empirical experience is the test of meaning. Thus, in the formal structures of their works—diachronic, synchronic, and referential—Crane and Ives give expression to some of the same philosophical and cultural assumptions of the late nineteenth century even though in the conceptual content of their work they respectively take ironic and optimistic stances toward the significance of these assumptions.

At the beginning of “The Open Boat” Crane anticipates the themes which the story develops. He writes: “None of them knew the color of the sky … and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.” For Crane, understanding is based upon and limited by perception. Within the boundaries of perception we must look closely at real things, interpreting their interrelationships in new and useful ways. These ideas are also implicit in the works of John Marin (1870-1953). Marin was born a year before Crane and four years before Ives. His development as an artist occurred somewhat later than theirs, and he was productive into the 1950s, but his work parallels Ives' and Crane's more closely than that of any other American painter.

The parallels in the lives, personalities, and attitudes of the artists are as remarkable as the structural similarities in their work. All of them join a keen interest in natural environments, specific American locales, and simple forms of life with a fascination with urban localities and the angular images of city life. They hold in common a distrust of intellectualism and pretense and articulate sharply satirical estimates of conventionalism in art and popular taste. They feel a kinship with ordinary people (the “common man”) and scorn the cultural elite. All of them have a deep interest in the ultimate mysteries of life and nature—though Crane is less mystical than Ives or Marin—but they also distrust merely personal or “inward” visions of reality. What MacKinley Helm says about Marin applies as well to Ives and Crane: “he craved revelation: provided its source could be reached through the senses.”10 By means of their experimental and innovative techniques, these three artists also strive to capture both the fluidity of experience and the solid realities undergirding our fleeting impressions. They are all realists of a sort, shunning subjectivism on the one hand and abstractionism on the other. In Marin's words, they strive to “paint disorder under a big order.”

Many of the statements found in Marin's semi-poetic comments on his own works could be used just as well to characterize the works of Ives and Crane. The following are only a sampling of such statements:

I see great forces at work—great movements—the large buildings and the small buildings—the warring of the great and the small—influences of one mass on another greater or smaller mass. Feelings are aroused which give me the desire to express the reaction of these pull forces—those influences which play with one another—great masses pulling smaller masses—each subject in some degree to the other's power.

In life all things come under the magnetic influence of other things—the bigger assert themselves strongly—the smaller not so much but they still assert themselves and though hidden they strive to be seen and in so doing change their bent and direction.

While these powers are at work pushing, pulling, sideways, downwards, upwards, I can hear the sound of their strife and there is great music being played.

With it all there must be an order—there—is—an order from the years of seeings and observings

The swirl of movements obey the laws of motion—people do not—unless in panic—run helter skelter on Streets—too—buildings obey their laws of Construction—granted—but there creep in another set of laws—a seeming—wayward—set of laws—The law of the Spirit—the law of Life—The law of the Seeings—which grip the sensitive—grips him in all his being—He with the traveling Eye—He with the Eye that takes in—Step by Step—

You try to see your objects in their movement—positions—you seek for (back bones) of those swaying objects—these you must hold to for all you are worth.

All good writing—All good music—All good painting—obeys this principle

for—as the back bones bend—the whole structure bends

and I would conceive the picture—the writing—the music—as structures related—bending—a swaying on their back bones

and strange as it may seem though rightly so—the great seeing the piercing seeing of the object begets an intelligent understanding so that one is equipped to the making of creative forms which have an equivalent balance to nature forms—therefore become nature forms in themselves created by that natural—the artist

There is only one excuse for making a picture that being to kill distance

only one excuse for making music—to kill distance

only one excuse for writing—to kill distance

only one excuse for living—to kill distance

the loaf of bread distant from you does you no good—

Those unconscious things that affect You have become close to You without Your Knowing it.11

Since the art of painting is not a temporal art, we can speak only metaphorically about diachronic structures in painting (as, for example, when we speak of the movement of the eye across the painting), and since Marin does not use allusions and “quotations,” we will concentrate on synchronic parallels to Ives and Crane. We note first Marin's use of overlapping or multiple planes in his handling of surfaces.12

This feature of his paintings has the effect of denying traditional perspective and depth while at the same time avoiding the loss of realistic perspective altogether, just as Ives' polytonality and polyrhythms break with traditional tonal structure and formal development without abandoning traditional forms altogether (as, for example, in Schoenberg's serial music). The world of Marin is the real world restructured, not the world of abstract art.

Yet for Marin the materials in the painting press upon us for attention in ways they do not in nature. In “Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy,” for example, the sun, the buildings, the water, and the bridge focus attention with roughly equal intensity and are not graded in size or vividness according to the rules of perspective. The result is seen in the flatness of the painting's surface and in the juxtaposition of images in unnatural sequence or contiguity. The movement across the surface of the painting parallels the craggy movement from passage to passage in Ives' music. Crane's “The Open Boat,” by comparison, seems more traditional and straightforward, but that is perhaps because innovation is conceptual and narrative art is not so immediately apparent. Crane's experiments in narrative technique are not so radical as James Joyce's, for example, but his attempt to structure his stories by following the course of his characters' perceptual experiences marks a break from the model of the “well-made” plot. Crane found in the natural flow of journalistic reporting a new method for structuring narrative fictions, and he employed it deliberately as a break from traditional forms.

Other parallels between Crane and Marin may be more readily apparent. Crane's limiting of action to what can occur within the boundaries of perception is parallel to Marin's “framing” devices. Marin often paints the boundaries of his painting into his pictures in order to prevent the eye and the mind from reaching for meaning beyond the images that are visually represented, as, for example, in the black strokes near the periphery of “Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy.” This framing device, along with the flatness of the surface, tends to destroy “distance” and to emphasize the immediacy and energy of the pictorial images. Like Crane and Ives, Marin gives us a texture alive with vivid impressions and conflicts. The interweaving of diagonal, vertical, and horizontal lines, as well as the use of multiple planes, adds to this impression of dense, varied, and unpredictable centers of activity. Yet there is in the painting, as in Ives' symphony and Crane's story, a structural design that unifies the work by setting complexity over against simple and elemental patterns. In Ives this effect is achieved by the use of the recurrent hymn tunes: in Crane by the use of the language of perception; in Marin by the use of color and geometric forms. Marin's colors are most characteristically the primary colors red, blue, and yellow, and they are given in broad, simple patches and strokes which organize and focus the linear movements that frolic rhythmically over the painting's surface.

Analysis of pictorial content in Marin (the images of nature and city life) and of his symbolic techniques (his way of painting sky, rocks, buildings, people, etc.) would reveal other similarities with Crane and Ives, but even apart from representational content, the formal patterns suggest a similar view of human experience, knowledge, and value. Beneath the very different but analogous formal patterns of their artistic work, there lie similar conceptions of man and the world and similar conceptions of how music, literature, and painting can be constructed to give expression to this worldview.

Interdisciplinary study of the arts, this essay has been implying, has in structuralist methodology a means for doing comparative analysis that is more than impressionistic and that can help the critic to avoid easy or anachronistic generalizations made on the basis of surface texture or thematic content alone. On the surface Crane may seem existentialist, Ives may seem avant garde, and Marin may seem expressionistic; but only an analysis limited to surface similarities in form or content would yield misleading conclusions such as these. The attempt to characterize an artist in relation to other artists, cultural movements, or historical periods requires a method which is capable of uncovering those relationships. Empirical descriptions of the surface features of art fall short of what is needed. Structuralist analysis, in contrast, attempts to see formal structures in the context of the historical drama of convention and innovation, tradition and change. In such a context we have a basis for discovering “the mind behind the art,” for the “mind” leaves its mark on the formal structures of an art as well as on its conceptual or programmatic content.

The structuralist approach that we have taken in this essay will perhaps lend support to the summarizing observations that follow:

1. Formal analysis of single works within the framework of an autonomous view of art is inadequate either for the understanding of the mind behind the art or for the full understanding of art works themselves. Because art makes use of formal conventions, it can never be fully understood apart from those conventions. But the effort to see the work “as it is in itself” apart from its cultural and historical context is at best a limited goal for art criticism.

2. Structural analysis resembles formalist practice, but since it aims to uncover the “deep” structures beneath the surface textures of works of art, it need not be formalistic in a narrow sense. It can be used to search out the patterns of thought which give rise to formal conventions within works and to departures from those conventions. Since the formal structures of art are related to the formal structures of other cultural products and activities, they may be illuminated by studies which see art in relationship to its surrounding culture and history.

3. Though structural analysis needs to work in conjunction with other methods—biographical, historical, psychoanalytic, affective, and the like—it does provide a way of distinguishing formal structures from ideological content and, thus, counteracts our tendency to interpret the arts in terms of some vague conceptions of Zeitgeist. Art is often innovative and exploratory, and to see in it the expression of a static worldview may do injustice to the unique qualities of a particular art work or to its value for our understanding of the history of art. How an artist responds to or uses or modifies a worldview in his art is more important than the fact of his adherence to it.

4. Structural analysis provides a way of understanding the diversity of art works within a given historical period. By distinguishing conventional qualities from innovative ones, and by distinguishing the formal qualities which are individual from those which are shared by other artists, structural analysis can provide insight into the drama of tradition and innovation which is the heart of historical experience. A structuralist method, when set firmly within the framework of historical analysis, offers one way of escaping formalistic studies on the one hand and conceptual history (Geistesgeschichte) on the other. The history of how artists have structured their works or have explored the structural possibilities of their art may not tell us all that we want to know about the “mind behind the artists,” but it does tell us a good deal.

5. From the perspective of a Christian theory of criticism, the approach used in this essay is per se neither Christian nor non-Christian; but if, as practiced here, it can contribute to an essential part of Christian criticism, namely, an interest in how the arts give expression to human beliefs about the meaning of existence, i.e., by perspectives which have a religious dimension, then analysis of the structural forms of their compositions provides one of the means by which we can understand the changing patterns of belief.

Christians often seem predisposed to view the arts in the light of the history of philosophy and theology, to look at art in terms of its “content,” to place the arts in the context of a history of ideas. But since the ideas in art are always mediated by sounds and images and stories, a Christian analysis and evaluation of the ideas in art must first give careful attention to how the forms and structures of the arts are expressive of meaning. A structuralist methodology shaped by and made to serve the purposes of Christian understanding is important for Christian criticism, both in theory and in practice. Structuralist criticism is not the exclusive property of any particular ideology or philosophy. Even though familiar structuralist models may be closely aligned with philosophical positions which are in conflict with Christian assumptions, structuralist analysis is not per se anti-Christian in orientation. The task of Christian critics is, therefore, to develop a structuralist model consistent with Christian beliefs and capable of serving the goals which Christian criticism aims to achieve. The structuralist concept of “deep” structure is a fruitful principle for exploring the relationship between religious belief and artistic form.


  1. Frank R. Rossiter's Charles Ives and His America (New York: Liveright, 1974) contains the following note: “These program notes, originally written by Henry Bellamann in consultation with Ives, were revised by Ives and printed as ‘Notes on Fourth Symphony’ in New Music 2 (January, 1929): [ii]. This issue of New Music contains the second movement of the symphony” (p. 339).

  2. Charles Ives/Symphony No. 4, Performance Score (facsimile edition) with a Preface by John Kirkpatrick (New York: Associated Music Publishers, Inc., 1965).

  3. In this regard a comment from Robert P. Morgan's essay “Spatial Form in Ives” (in H. Wiley Hitchcock and Vivian Perlis, eds. An Ives Celebration: Papers and Panels of the Charles Ives Centennial Festival-Conference, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977) is pertinent: “Whereas in the classical recapitulation there is a confirmation and regeneration of motion, in Ives the repetition is its negation. The piece, at this stage, is not going anywhere: it is over, yet its ending is also its beginning. The musical significance of this seems considerable to me: if the material which initiates a motion can also terminate it, then relative to traditional musical concepts the meaning of motion has been fundamentally altered. Indeed, so have the meanings of beginning and ending, for there is a strong suggestion at the close of these movements that the whole process could begin over again—that is, that they could become truly circular and unending” (pp. 148-9).

  4. Allen Forte prefers the term atonality to describe Ives' work: “The very word atonality was, of course, unknown to Ives until long after he had stopped composing. In the past the term has been used to characterize all the post-tonal music of Schoenberg and the music of his students, Webern and Berg. In the present paper the term will be used in the meaning it customarily has now, to refer to the post-tonal and pre-twelve-tone music of Schoenberg and others. … An atonal work is characterized, first of all, by the occurrence of musical configurations that are reducible to note collections or sets that normally are not found in traditional music. … Did Ives compose atonal music in accord with the description of atonality given? Indeed he did, and the major part of his mature output can be described as atonal.” (“Ives and Atonality,” in An Ives Celebration, pp. 160-2).

  5. Charles E. Ives, Memos, ed. by John Kirkpatrick (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972), p. 67.

  6. Essays before a Sonata and Other Writings, ed. by Howard Boatwright (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961), p. 41.

  7. An example of the pre-romantic use of the nightingale (Philomel) is found in Sections 26-28 of Anne Bradstreet's long poem “Contemplations.”

    While musing thus with contemplation fed,
    And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
    The sweet-tongued Philomel perched o'er my head
    And chanted forth a most melodious strain
    Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,’
    I judged my hearing better than my sight,
    And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight.
    “O Merry Bird,” said I, “that fears no snares,
    That neither toils nor hoards up in thy barn,
    Feels no sad thoughts nor cruciating cares
    To gain more good or shun what might thee harm.
    Thy clothes ne'er wear, thy meat is everywhere,
    Thy bed a bough, thy drink the water clear,
    Reminds not what is past, nor what's to come dost fear.”
    “The dawning morn with songs thou dost prevent,
    Sets hundred notes unto thy feathered crew,
    So each one tunes his pretty instrument,
    And warbling out the old, begin anew,
    And thus they pass their youth in summer season,
    Then follow thee into a better region,
    Where winter's never felt by that sweet airy legion.”

    While Bradstreet's thoughts are “buzzing in [her] brain,” the nightingale directs her thoughts to the “better region” which is beyond time and the subjective consciousness. The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. by Jeannine Hensley (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1967), pp. 211-2.

  8. Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p. 893.

  9. The semantic content of literature, of course, depends heavily on figurative and symbolic language as well as literal reference. But figurative and symbolic meanings are usually internal to a work and are not analogous to what we have called referential structures in music. If we were to analyze the similes, metaphors, and symbols in “The Open Boat,” for example, we would be examining structural patterns which probably do not find analogues in music and painting, though the question whether symbolism developed within a piece of music per se is comparable to the symbolism developed within a piece of literature is an interesting one. If there are such analogies, they are not dealt with in this essay.

  10. MacKinley Helm, John Marin (New York: DeCapo Press, 1948, 1970), p. 47.

  11. John Marin by John Marin, ed. by Cleve Gray (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, n.d.).

  12. “Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy” (1932) is in the Whitney Museum of American Art. Example 2 is reproduced from Emily Wasserman, The American Scene—Early Twentieth Century (New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1970), p. 25.

John Ditsky (essay date winter 1988)

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SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “The Music in ‘The Open Boat’.” NDQ: North Dakota Quarterly 56, no. 1 (winter 1988): 119-30.

[In the following essay, Ditsky delineates the musical qualities of “The Open Boat.”]

The interrelationship of music and literature is a subject that has long fascinated both laymen and the critics of both disciplines. Perhaps the fact that the two arts are so palpably similar in so many respects has been responsible for the difficulty of going beyond the patent without in the process becoming entangled in the technical verbiage peculiar to each form of expression. And yet, though the number of creative talents adept in both forms has always been relatively small, it has been common enough for practitioners in the one to dabble in the other: Shaw, we know, wrote music criticism, and Pound tried his hand at opera; while Ned Rorem and Virgil Thompson have been accepted as masters of the essay form. For the most part, however, writers and composers have held one another in rhapsodic if uninformed esteem, a romantic transport resembling awe—though on occasion, it proves critically useful to see what metaphorical and literal uses a writer (for instance) may make of the notion of music.1 But when specific mention of music and its usages fails to appear in a literary text, there are still opportunities for constructive discussion of the “musicality” of that text, particularly when the clues are so numerous as they are in so celebrated a piece of fiction as that short story which some have considered America's finest, Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat.”2

For the purposes of this essay, I will respect the intelligences of my readers not only by assuming familiarity with Crane's text, but also by not indulging in the application to it of a highly technical, cookie-cutter jargon meant to wrench “The Open Boat” into a posture never intended by its author. Rather, I mean to move through the story as written, pointing out resemblances and insights when they seem clearly valid and appropriate. In so doing, I wish to move out of some initial understandings for which I am indebted to Anthony Burgess, who is of course not only an accomplished composer of music and writer of fiction—and an excellent critic of both—but who has also published a novelistic emulation of the structure (and, in certain places, even the notation) of Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony, Napoleon Symphony (1974).3 I had myself considered expanding a conference paper on the relationship between the Beethoven work and the Burgess—until, that is, I read Burgess's own concise accounting of the case in his essay-volume This Man and Music.4 I refer the reader to this volume for a thorough, if personalized, examination of the implications of the sort of analysis just undertaken here; but what I want to take from Burgess, by way of starting point, are his statements of certain truisms about the music-literature interrelationship that need—even as truisms—to be accepted as true, and yet inadequate, before “The Open Boat” can actually be climbed into.

To begin with, Burgess observes that “Music and literature have this in common—that the dimension they work in is time” (41). Having said as much, he considers the fact that literature—as visible letters—seems to be an attempt to conquer space as well; yet Burgess concludes that “The reality of literature, as opposed to its appearance in written or printed records, is the organization of speech sounds, and this makes literature a temporal art, a twin of music” (41). Later on, Burgess repeats the truism that music is a matter of “tension and resolution,” then expresses the hope that his readers will have tired of a simplification that “leads us only to the prenatal experience of the maternal heartbeat and, in infancy, the presence or withdrawal of the maternal voice” (83). Music, as a system of signs, must presumably be more than that. Finally, there is his repeated avowal of the importance of repetition in music, as in: “Sonata form depends on repetition, and repetition is what neither fictional nor historical narrative can accommodate—at least, not in the literal manner of music” (182). I would like to apply Burgess's remarks to Crane, at least by way of a beginning, by noting that Crane's story is “musical” in the way in which it “works” in time: that is, it not only unfolds over a period of described time, clock time, but also delineates the ways in which a psychological predicament can alter one's time sense, and thus teach a person to tell time differently. Moreover, literature may well be, as Burgess puts it, an “organization of speech sounds” that makes it “a twin of music,” but “The Open Boat” goes even further: it shows human speech, and human thought processes, being trained through experience to adopt the tempi set by a metronome of nature—the sea itself. Perhaps no writer before Crane has shown quite such an exquisitely sustained “tension and resolution” in his story, in other words, but if as a result we are led “only” to something like the “prenatal experience of the maternal heartbeat and, in infancy, the presence or withdrawal of the maternal voice,” it might also be valid to observe that this time, the tension and resolution are carried out within and upon the medium of an amniotic sea. And finally, it will be argued that Stephen Crane's way of handling repetition—even “literal” repetition—is not only “musical” but also successfully narrational in both the “fictional” and “historical” senses.

“None of them knew the color of the sky” (885) begins Crane's story—one of the most famous beginning sentences in American literature. But only at the end of the third sentence, as formally construed, comes the completion of the remark: “… and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.” These phrases—actually, a phrase and its inversion—establish as do musical themes the material out of which a movement (there will be seven in all) of a composition will be formed. (The composition will in fact be more than a suite of haphazardly joined numbers, of course, since overall thematic unity will obtain even as rhythm and mood are allowed to vary.) Between the statement and its inversion, however, there appears the phrase “hue of slate” to describe the color of the sea, a phrase which—though on occasion shaded to “amber” and “emerald-green” and “foaming white”—becomes the motif for the first “movement,” whether as “slate,” “slaty,” “gray,” or “grays” (885-87). The tonality—the key, if you will—of this color of the sea establishes more than its objective selfhood; it also creates the subjective mood of four men who have not the time to check out the state of the weather overall.

The second paragraph establishes the tonality of the prose itself—by now pre-set for us, since the story is being told in the past tense:

Many a man ought to have a bathtub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.


This tonality is a matter of ironic distancing from the immediacy of the situation being described, an achievement already in place when the story begins. The absurd disproportionality of the remarks about the bathtub and small-boat navigation is being excused, at this point in the story, by no more than the “most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall” quality of the waves—as though dispassion can only be explicated through pathetic fallacy. The existential situation is quite other, as we are reminded in our look through the cook's eyes “at the six inches of gunwale which separated him from the ocean” (885).

But by now we are into our separate introductions to the four voices of this chamber piece. (Of course, we are welcome to call it a concerto for quartet and orchestra, the sea serving as tutti. Or we can consider the voice of the narrator as a fifth chamber instrument—one holding all the retrospective cards—and treat the whole as, say, a piano quintet.) The cook is given to habitual pronouncements, habitual reflex actions. The oiler, on the other hand, is although adept at handling himself at sea no less precariously positioned: his “thin little oar” is no greater a guarantee than the cook's “six inches of gunwale.” The captain, who is “buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy-nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down,” has already taken on the coloration of a specific memory: the sinking of his ship in the “grays of dawn.” Now his very voice has been altered by “something strange”: “Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears” (885-86). The correspondent, who as yet has not spoken, is described as watching and wondering. But the captain has already taken on the colors of the sea.

I have suggested that the voice of the narrator might be termed the fifth chamber instrument in this piece; but in fact, the past-tense narrational voice is identical with that of the correspondent—except that the voice of the narrator is able to recollect a learning process which the correspondent, as we observe him, is just beginning to endure. They are, in effect, two stages of the same attitude, separated only by the sinking-in of the meaning of the story's climax. The correspondent, we might say, is riveted in his attention by his existential plight; the narrator, with his limited-omniscient point of view, has passed beyond all caring and has learned what he and all of us are worth in the scheme of things. Of course, we must agree that Crane is correspondent and narrator both, since that is the way things really happened after the scuttling of the Commodore; but what “really” happened is less important than the fact that Crane identified his art as fictionist with his role as reporter. Four voices, in this story, emerge from a single narrational matrix—like arias, if you will, from recitative, except that they are always so brief—but that matrix comes to a single focus in one of them, if we turn our attentions that way, and it also takes its cues from the universal Ocean, should we turn about.

Throughout Section I of the story, then, the precariousness of the situation of the shipwrecked men is emphasized by their near-engulfment by a sea still seen as “nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats” (886), and yet the narrator's retrospective voice both maintains this fiction of the anthropomorphic enemy in nature while simultaneously evidencing the effects of the overall experience through a tonality beyond all urgency; beyond concern, even: “A singular disadvantage of the sea” is being considered—nothing to get all that worried about. “In the wan light, the faces of the men must have been gray. Their eyes must have glinted in strange ways …” (886); but this supposition presumes the leisure of observation from “a balcony,” whereas for the men in the open boat such painterly nuances can only be posited from the fact of the sea itself, which just as it lends its coloration to the faces of the men is also teaching them a new method, a new rhythm, of thinking and speaking.

Section II changes the notion of precariousness for one of relativity of experience. Section I's key of “must have been,” “must have,” is slightly altered to a degree that does not diminish the continuity of movements: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber” (887). The dispassionate narrator has to keep himself from seeing what his imagination makes it perfectly possible for him to “see,” but which his emphathetic presentation forbids him to enjoy. Hence Crane hedges; the sea's glories are presented as probabilities, like Debussy in the subjunctive. The captain's responsibility has already taken him further along the road to indifference than the other men in the boat, and we are told that he “chuckled in a way that expressed humor, contempt, tragedy, all in one” in asking the others if they thought they had a chance—which causes the others to answer cautiously, eschewing optimism as “childish.” Yet the captain, “soothing his children,” himself assures them that they will indeed “‘get ashore all right’” (887-88). But implicit in the captain's reassurance is an indifference to what state they will be in when they arrive ashore; they may be like sparrows which fall under the eye of the Creator, but which fall nonetheless.

And speaking of birds, we might here allude to the gulls which settle on the sea in sight of the uneasy passengers of the open boat. They are part of a pattern of imagery Crane sustains throughout this section especially, one which contrasts the men's situation with various pockets of relative safety. The gulls are envied by the men, “for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland” (888). The gulls are easy in their environment because it is their own, and because they recognize no “wrath of the sea”; therefore, they might as well be safely inland, since they admit no personal peril. The oiler tells one gull, which lands atop the captain's head, that it is an “‘Ugly brute’” which might have been, from all appearances, “‘made with a jack-knife’” (888). When the captain gets the gull to fly away, the other men are relieved because they had found the bird “gruesome and ominous,” but the by-now-imperturbable captain has been concerned about nothing more weighty than his hair (888). Relativity, then, and the dulling effects of repetition, are the main themes of this section: “In the meantime the oiler and the correspondent rowed. And also they rowed. … They rowed and they rowed” (889). A lighthouse appears, so specklike that only a desperate person would even be able to see it; the captain orders the cook to bail, “serenely,” and the “cheerful” cook accepts his orders.

What Burgess has described as mere “tension and resolution” is being carried out here, but with a difference. The “prenatal experience of the maternal heartbeat” is being applied, by the unthinking sea, to the situation on which these uneasy men find themselves; they grow, in Section III, to a discovery of their commonality, rather than their uniqueness. A “subtle brotherhood of men” is being established “on the seas” (890). As the distant lighthouse grows so much that “It had now almost assumed color” (891), the captain casually suggests—from the calmness into which he has retreated—that they use his overcoat on an oar as a kind of sail, and so off they fly towards the coastline. When the cook tells the captain that he thinks that the life-saving station they are headed towards has been abandoned, the captain replies with bland acceptance, “‘Did they?’” (891). The captain's resignation—as though he were blissed-out on some sort of drugs—is beginning to spread to his men; and of course the narrator is already on-site beforehand. He recites the problems attendant upon shipwrecks: the lack of training therefor, and so on; the fact that in their “excitement” the crew would have also “forgotten to eat heartily” (891). In this particular movement, there is interruption from an unexpected source: “Finally, a new sound struck the ears of the men in the boat. It was the low thunder of the surf on the shore” (892). But this interruptive chord does not intrude upon the men's “cheerfulness” for long; the correspondent discovers that he possesses eight cigars, a fitting four of which are still worth smoking, and the section ends in a male sacrament of sorts, a kind of child's first communion:

After a search, somebody produced three dry matches; and thereupon the four waifs rode impudently in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water.


Section III thus ends with the foursome having formed some sort of quasi-religious congregation, a superficial harmony having been established as the men head towards the new menace of the unattended surf.

For there is in fact no life-saving station there or anywhere nearby, and the narrator reminds us of this truth in the midst of recounting the men's ritual repeatings of “‘Funny they don't see us’” early into Section IV of the narrative. By this time, it is evident that Stephen Crane is not making any attempt to divide his story into sections naturally structured in purely naturalistic, temporal terms. His fully cinematic, blackout-based divisions are wholly arbitrary, and are always based upon exigencies of tone and theme rather than those of time. In this sense, Crane is clearly trying to supplant time's dominance in narrative with one based upon mood; it is shifts of mood which regulate the tonalities of Crane's seven sections, not those attendant upon narrative chunks merely. Crane's movements are musical ones. They follow upon announcements of new changes in approach, attitude, or angle. They depend heavily for effect upon repetition, often of an exact, literal sort; and if they establish internal coherence for themselves as movements, they are also part of an overall system determined not only by the main plot line—in which much and yet surprisingly little manages to occur—but also by the dominant image of the open boat itself.

And yet a reader might quite properly object that Crane's construction is as dramtic as it is musical: that his sections resemble blackout episodes in some existential play. Indeed, the language is frequently ironic enough, as it deals almost comically with issues of life and death, to remind one of Beckett. But by the same token, the unifying device of the open boat is so ideal a symbol of the naturalists' view of the human condition that it also appears, if I remember rightly, in the work of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. Specifically—to return to the internal development of the lengthy, central Section IV—Crane uses the repetition of “‘Funny they don't see us’” to heighten the men's growing awareness of the extremity of their plight, or rather to stave off the admission of its true nature. The “slim” lighthouse shows its “little gray length,” while the “surf's roar was here dulled, but its tone was, nevertheless, thunderous and mighty.” The men agree, chorally, “‘We'll swamp sure,’” but though they are said to invent epithets separately the reader is left to imagine the sound of this aleatory passage. The passages we do “hear” tend to be such repetitions as the captain's double-beginning (“‘If we don't all get ashore’”) or, more remarkably, the narrator's imputation to the foursome of thoughts which begin with repetition (“‘If I am going to be drowned …’”) and continues with such patent silliness (“‘… as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?’”) that the conclusion (“‘The whole affair is absurd’”) acquires special poignancy; there is a sad comedy, Crane shows, about a man wanting “to shake his fist at the clouds” (893-94).

Now the billows of the offshore surf are heard: “There was a preparatory and long growl in the speech of them” (894). The oiler, who is to die at the story's ending, hears this voice and understands its meaning, for he is “a wily surfman.” As the boat returns to open sea, the men become embroiled in an argument over the meaning of the activities taking place ashore where life goes on in seeming unconcern for the men's situation—a situation now again defined through repetition, first of the word “rowed” (895, 898), then of the word “coat” (897)—the word is subjected to a Pinteresque deprivation of meaning as the men try to interpret what a man's waving a coat to them from a distance must mean. As visible colors change from “yellow” to “saffron” to “black,” the men retreat into an ironic tension between their spoken conversation, which is carefully restricted to the rigors of saving their own lives, and their interior thoughts, which are expressed through absurd, obsessive repetition:

“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?”


Both unspoken thoughts and spoken, ritual utterances have long since taken on the cadences of the sea itself, as well as of the corollary of that rhythm, the endless necessity to row, and row, and row. At the end of Section V, however, the cook has the temerity to break with the mood of obsessive concentration upon the efforts at survival by bringing up a subject out of his own private musings: “‘Billie,’ he murmured, dreamfully, ‘what kind of pie do you like best?’” (899).

This “wrong” note ends the section, and its successor begins at once—“played without pause,” as the musical equivalent would be described. The oiler and the correspondent react “agitatedly” by shouting “‘Pie!’” back at the cook and demanding that he not talk about “‘those things’”—the things of normal existence. But the cook compounds the offense by answering, in a Stan Laurel manner, “‘Well, … I was just thinking about ham sandwiches, and—’” (899). The topic of this section is the growing sense of shared predicament that comes to pervade the men's consciousnesses—shared fate, to put it more strongly. Yet it begins with musical irony—in discord, like the musical “sneeze” that begins Kodály's Háry János Suite. It is a discord quickly set aside, as the cook lapses into a silence that becomes general. Indeed, the narrator takes over, radically altering the mood and the rhythm at once: “A night on the sea in an open boat is a long night” (899). The succession of long vowels banishes all frivolity, as the quartet (c-, c-, c-, and o-, according to occupational initials) settles into a rhythm of effort, the rules of which require a willing acquiescence in requests that one man “spell” another (899-900). Eventually, the brotherhood of effort seems to falter when, with all the others seemingly asleep, the correspondent finds himself apparently “the one man afloat on all the oceans. The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end” (900).

Out of this ominous soundscape comes a sight, that of a shark (though Crane heightens the effect by not naming it, but rather showing us simply its fin cutting through the water in the vicinity of the boat), almost as if the correspondent, left alone with his fears, has projected them by means of visual soliloquy—as often happens to Shakespeare's tragic heroes. There is also an eerie accompanying sound—a “whirroo.” As abandoned by his sleeping comrades as Christ at Gethsemene, the correspondent looks at the shark with a certain objective admiration, and “The presence of this bidding thing did not affect the man with the same horror that it would if he had been a picnicker. He simply looked at the sea dully and swore in an undertone.” Still, he would rather not have had to “be alone with the thing” (901).

Section VI begins abruptly, turning the events that conclude its predecessor into matter for thought. The opening paragraph is a recapitulation of the “theme” from Section IV (“‘If I am going to be drowned …’”), minus its “‘sacred cheese’” reduction of man to mouse. The thought pattern, apparently that of the correspondent, is summarized by the narrator: dying, after so much strenuous effort, would simply be unfair, if not indeed an affront. If nature were to show herself, she would be greeted with jeering, hooting—and with pleas. Whereupon an answer is given, or felt to have been given: “A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation” (902). Reversing music's procedures, a sight (a presumptive one at that) is taken for a sound; Crane again takes the critical experience of one of the four men and harmonizes four voices upon it—in the process echoing the substance of his own poetry. For the foursome, “Speech was devoted to the business of the boat”; but in the mind of the correspondent there arises, “To chime the notes of his emotion,” a long-forgotten verse: a quote from someone else's music and recognized as such, but also known as apposite in its new context as never before. Aria-like, it is a change of texture palpable as the one in Whitman's “Lilacs” elegy, but instead of being a rising to the sublime, it represents a sudden identification with a standard bit of popular verse, Caroline Sheridan Norton's “Bingen on the Rhine.” The plight of the “soldier of the Legion” dying alone in Algiers without any hope of seeing his native land again had entered his memory in the context of the “dinning” of his schoolmates, but now, it strikes him as “a human, living thing,” “stern, mournful, and fine” (902-03). Art, even a banal popular variety, can provide a release of human sympathy which nature herself denies. The correspondent finds that “He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers” (903).

As if to tally his new note of human solidarity, the captain rouses, making it evident that the correspondent had not in fact been alone with the shark after all. The rhythm of the “‘Will you spell me?’” question and answer resumes; indeed, this reappearance of a theme from Section V helps move the narrative to its climax of action (its climax of meaning having already been largely achieved). Sound buttresses event, as the “ominous slash of the wind and water” and “the crash of the toppled crests” bring the presence of the shoreline—and its attendant dangers, the boat being as highly likely to be swamped as it is—into the flow of sound. The section ends with a final repetition of the ritual reinforcement of existential mutuality:

“Billie! … Billie, will you spell me?”
“Sure,” said the oiler.


Section VII begins with both sea and sky having returned to the “gray” of the beginning of the story. The correspondent sees a windmill on shore, and his writer's mind converts it into a symbol for “the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual.” A “giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants,” the tower was, like nature, neither “cruel,” “nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (905). Seeing nature as no antagonist—editing the pathetic fallacy out of his thinking—the correspondent now looks at the possibility of his own drowning as little more than a potential “shame” (906). The experience of attending nature's concert, as I would like to put it, which he has just about finished going through, has left him humming nature's tune. We hear a brief allusion to a theme from Section II, the captain's instruction to the cook to bail, and the cook's assenting reply (906). Then the men jump into the surf; a paragraph begins and ends in a manner formally reminiscent of the story's opening: “The January water was icy … The water was cold.” And briefly, nothing is heard but the “noisy” water, but then, the correspondent is able to observe his companions, with the oiler “ahead in the race,” and the cook—still placidly taking the captain's orders—turning himself into a living “canoe” by riding in on his back and using his oar once again, thus making a triumph out of a learned tempo (907).

The correspondent sees the shore ahead spread out like a picture, and is impressed by it the way a gallery-goer might be by “a scene from Brittany or Holland”—the latter sometimes printed as “Algiers” (908). He finds himself still tempted to think of his own death as “the final phenomenon of nature,” and surely does not wish to be hurt even in the act of dying; but he also pays reflex heed to the captain's injunction to “‘Come to the boat!’”—the story's last-introduced refrain (908). Obeying this call, answering the demands of its motif, saves the correspondent's life, for he is subsequently thrown over the foundering boat and into the surf—where he is helped to stand by a naked man whose fortuitous appearance makes him seem not the indifferent natural phenomenon he might otherwise seem—“naked as a tree in winter” as he is—but rather other: “… a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint” (909). The correspondent expresses gratitude in one of the “minor formulae”: “‘Thanks, old man’”; then he sends his savior after the oiler, who by some paradox into which one would otherwise have been tempted to read meaning, has been drowned in the surf as if his wiliness did not exist. Interestingly, the oiler's body is described as lying along the shoreline in such a posture that the forehead lies upon “sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea.” It is as if the narrator, or the correspondent, or the reader, is being offered one last chance to read intentional irony into the death of the oiler at the “hands” of the sea; it is as if (for things happen this way in literature) the sea is either making final mock of the “wily” oiler's knowledge of the surf, or granting him an arrival ashore on its own terms, that is, by subjecting the seat of his intelligence to the implacable rhythms of its own great factuality. The land, for its part, can offer (if offer it can) “only … the different and sinister hospitality of the grave” (909).

So much for the penultimate paragraph of “The Open Boat.” This, rather famously, is the final one:

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.


The story ends with a sound, a musical note. What is more, that sound is not unexplained as to source, as is the mysterious noise that ends Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, but specifically credited to the sea as its “voice,” just as its waves are given the anthropomorphic quality of having “paced to and fro” a line above. In this paper dedicated to the examination of the musical qualities of “The Open Boat,” it is of course fortunate that the story as an entity concludes aurally. But does Crane imply a sustained note? A chord? A bit of noise one could supply by means of magnetic tape? Crane does not make the nature of this final, resolving note clear, and that would seem to be part of his strategy. After all, we might be as determined as Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage to read an augury of divine promise into an appearance of the sun, and we might therefore scramble as assiduously as possible—like teachers of literature, perhaps—to “interpret.” But what in fact has the sea “said” in the end? No more, one suspects, than “I am.” Or, what is more to what seems to be Crane's own point, “Am.” In any event, there is no denying the musical quality of Crane's ending upon a resolving tone.

The seven sections of “The Open Boat,” then, evince a relationship with musical structure even beyond the natural resemblances cited by Burgess, and they are certainly more sophisticated and original than those literary works which are simply about the world of music, or which merely allude to it (e.g., certain volumes by Mann, Cather, Steinbeck, etc.). Burgess's own Napoleon Symphony, for that matter, is both ingenious and slavishly imitative of its model, yet it is not as daring in its use of repetition as Crane's story is. Moreover, Crane's alternation of moods and themes throughout his seven sections, together with the ways in which he interrelates those sections through recurrences of materials, is evidence of considerable constructional ingenuity. We may never be able to agree on the degree to which Crane consciously and deliberately pursued the informing of literature by means of borrowings from another art form, then, but we can at least acknowledge that the literary craftsman Stephen Crane was also by instinct a creator of music.


  1. I attempted as much in two articles published in The Journal of Narrative Technique: “Music from a Dark Cave: Organic Form in Steinbeck's Fiction,” 1, 1 (Jan. 1971) 59-67; “‘Listening with Supersensual Ear’: Music in the Novels of Willa Cather,” 13, 3 (Fall 1983) 154-63.

  2. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 885-909.

  3. New York: Knopf, 1974.

  4. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983. As with Crane's work, page references are contained parenthetically within my text.

Christopher Benfey (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Benfey, Christopher. “Shipwrecks.” Pequod 32 (1991): 134-45.

[In the following essay, Benfey traces Crane's interest in shipwrecks, which culminated in his personal experience on the Commodore and his story “The Open Boat.”]

Throughout the Dora Clark affair, Stephen Crane had portrayed himself as a man to whom things happen. The “reluctant witness” was willing to testify, but his testimony revealed little of his effort to be where things were likely to happen, and nothing at all of his complicity in prolonging events once they had occurred. Crane's journalism allowed him to educate himself in the phenomenology of disaster—fires, murders, mining accidents, shipwrecks. When he found himself in the midst of such events, he was prepared to make the most of them. Three months after the Dora Clark affair had run its course, Crane plunged into another highly visible and ambiguous episode, and again he found it professionally useful to conceal his own hand in its unfolding.

“Shipwrecks,” he would write in ‘The Open Boat,’ “are apropos of nothing. If men could only train for them and have them occur when the men had reached peak condition, there would be less drowning at sea.” It will be my argument here that Crane in certain specific ways did train himself for the sinking of the Commodore in January 1897, not to avoid drowning but to prevent the literary equivalent: the fate of having nothing to say. The shipwreck in this case was apropos of plenty; as so often in his life, Crane had written the story before he lived it. For Crane, the Commodore disaster was merely the culminating episode in a lifelong involvement with shipwrecks, actual and metaphorical. In some of his earliest journalism Crane had written about shipwrecks on the Jersey Shore, developing techniques of style and emphasis that he would use to advantage in drafting “The Open Boat.” Metaphors of shipwreck recurred in his father's sermons, and gave an evangelical cast to Crane's own writings about disasters at sea. Something in the fact of shipwreck ran so deep in Crane's imagination that it seemed only a matter of time before he found himself lost at sea.

The New Jersey coast, Crane wrote in an unpublished sketch of 1891, was “the land of shipwrecks and summer resorts, of horror at sea and hilarity on land.” In the late fall of 1896, Crane found himself in another coastal resort littered with wreckage and lined with hilarious hotels. Eager to avoid the New York City police, whose wrath he had incurred with his testimony against Officer Charles Becker, Crane accepted an offer to cover the nationalist uprising in Cuba. The Bacheller Syndicate outfitted him with a money belt and $700 in Spanish gold, and he travelled by train to Jacksonville, Florida, the port for vessels running the naval blockade to provide arms and men to the insurgents in Cuba. He was accompanied as far as Washington by his lover, Amy Leslie, drama critic for the Chicago Daily News, with whom he'd had an affair in New York during the previous summer. Though details remain hazy, there is reason to believe that she was pregnant with their child.

Crane's first days in Jacksonville were laced with intrigue. Sometime during the last week of November, he registered at the classy Saint James Hotel under the name Samuel Carleton, joining other correspondents there in search of passage to Cuba. The filibustering business—the illegal transport of guns to the nationalist rebels—was at its height in the fall of 1896. Despite official U.S. neutrality, American sentiments were strongly in favor of the Cuban insurgents against Spanish rule. The U.S. Navy winked at the not-so-secret re-supply operations, while the tabloids of Pulitzer and Hearst drummed up support for the Cuban cause.

Crane was aware of the risks involved. A filibustering vessel had sunk the year before, and another had recently been fired upon by the Spanish. While several American correspondents were already working in Cuba, they were assumed by the Spanish to be spies, and treated accordingly when captured. Crane hastily composed a will, assuring his brother William in a cover letter that he had “acted like a man of honor and a gentleman” in the Dora Clark case. Then, in a sort of private will, he arranged payments to Amy Leslie through an intermediary. By late December he'd found a ship willing to take him, the Commodore, which had made several successful trips to Cuba; Crane signed on as a seaman at twenty dollars a month. He dined with its captain, Edward Murphy, at the Hotel de Dream, a house of assignation run on the New Orleans model by Cora Stewart, an attractive and sophisticated woman who was pleased to entertain the author of Maggie and George's Mother.

After some delays, the Commodore was loaded with a cargo of guns, and readied for departure on New Year's Eve. Twenty-seven men were aboard, including sixteen Cubans. Motoring downriver from Jacksonville in a thick fog, it ran aground twice, and once had to be tugged off a sandbar by a U.S. customs ship, the Boutwell, suggesting complicity between the Navy and the management of the Commodore. Early the following morning, as the ship continued, with the Boutwell's blessing, out to sea, something went wrong in the engine room. The cause is still a mystery: whether the hull was damaged in the groundings, or whether an explosion had occurred, due perhaps to sabotage, the boat was drawing water fast and the seas were high. Three life boats were released and filled; two of them, with the Cuban passengers aboard, made land safely the following morning. The third foundered, and seven men drowned. Crane joined the captain, the oiler, and the cook in the last boat to leave the Commodore, an open ten-foot dinghy. The nearest land, the area near Daytona Beach, was fifteen miles away.

Crane wrote two accounts of the Commodore disaster; both are highly selective, as interesting for what they exclude as for their contents. The major source for details of the shipwreck is Crane's newspaper version, written during the days immediately following the disaster and published in the New York Press on January 7, 1897, with the title “Stephen Crane's Own Story.” It is usually regarded as the “factual” account, as opposed to the “after the fact” narrative of the subsequent and far more famous “The Open Boat.” But “Stephen Crane's Own Story” is no less “literary” than the later story; in some ways it is more openly mythical and allusive. It describes an episode more harrowing and morally ambiguous than any recorded in “The Open Boat.”

“Stephen Crane's Own Story” is full of omen and augury, New Year's resolve and disappointment. The narrative begins with a scene of feeding, as though the ship is taking its holiday dinner:

It was the afternoon of New Year's [actually New Year's Eve]. The Commodore lay at her dock in Jacksonville and negro stevedores processioned steadily towards her with box after box of ammunition and bundle after bundle of rifles. Her hatch, like the mouth of a monster, engulfed them. It might have been the feeding time of some legendary creature of the sea.

But the monster is quiet: “She loaded up as placidly as if she were going to carry oranges to New York, instead of Remingtons to Cuba.”

Crane surrounds the launching of the Commodore with portents. As the boat leaves the dock, she gives “three long blasts of her whistle, which even to this time impressed me with their sadness. Somehow they sounded as wails.” The cook tells Crane that he doesn't “feel right about the ship somehow,” while an old seaman in the pilot house murmurs that he is “about through with [filibustering].” And of course the Commodore, after ominously running aground twice, goes down, all omens fulfilled.

Crane's “own story” is a newspaper account, and it's worth asking what purpose all this impending doom is meant to serve. Is it just for literary effect—“foreshadowing” artfully added after the fact? Surely it serves that function, and was intended to do so. But might it not have another purpose too, as a story Crane is telling about himself, hence its title “Stephen Crane's Own Story”? The omens would then be Crane's way of confessing his own readiness—even appetite—for disaster. And the shipwreck would merely be the fulfillment of that preparation.

But the straightforward narration of the shipwreck is complicated by a moral dilemma. As the captain and the other three men in the dinghy look back at the abandoned Commodore, they watch her “floating with such an air of buoyancy” that they joke about whether she might not sink after all. Suddenly they are shocked to see that there are men aboard her. “There were five white men and two negroes. This scene in the gray light of morning impressed one as would a view into some place where ghosts move slowly.” Their reappearance makes them seem like revenants, come to accuse the men in the dinghy.

The men on board were a mystery to us, of course, as we had seen all the boats leave the ship. We rowed back to the ship, but did not approach too near, because we were four men in a ten-foot boat, and we knew that the touch of a hand on our gunwale would assuredly swamp us.

That's the reasoning of the crew in Lord Jim; it is not the way a captain is supposed to reason. For can it truly be said that Captain Murphy really was, as the code of the sea demands, the last man to leave the Commodore? Of course the situation was anomalous: the men have apparently returned to the ship. But the reason the captain leaves last is so that all others aboard are accounted for and provided for before he is. In the case of the Commodore the men on the deck were manifestly not provided for. (Do the captain's responsibilities to his passengers and crew end the moment all have the left the ship, he last?)

Crane explains the situation as follows. The seven men had returned to the ship when their lifeboat foundered alongside. They had made makeshift rafts in the meantime and wanted the dinghy to tow them. The captain acquiesces to this impossible request. Two men jump to a raft, but the first mate, apparently understanding the situation as one in which the sacrifice of the chief officers is called for, “threw his hands over his head and plunged into the sea.”

He had no life belt [Crane writes], and for my part, even when he did this horrible thing, I somehow felt that I could see in the expression of his hands, and in the very toss of his head, as he leaped thus to death, that it was rage, rage, rage unspeakable that was in his heart at the time.

Meanwhile, at the captain's urging, the other men jump onto rafts, and Crane is struck by their entreating faces. He watches one man jump down “and turn his face towards us. On board the Commodore three men strode, still in silence and with their faces turned toward us … There they stood gazing at us.”

The men on the foremost raft throw a line to the dinghy, although the impossibility of the task is clear to everyone:

But we tried it, and would have continued to try it indefinitely, but that something critical came to pass. I was at an oar and so faced the rafts. The cook controlled the line. Suddenly the boat began to go backward, and then we saw this negro on the first raft pulling on the line hand over hand and drawing us to him.

He had turned into a demon. He was wild, wild as a tiger. He was crouched on this raft and ready to spring. Every muscle of him seemed to be turned into an elastic spring. His eyes were almost white. His face was the face of a lost man reaching upward, and we knew that the weight of his hand on our gunwale doomed us. The cook let go of the line … and the rafts were suddenly swallowed by this frightful maw of the ocean.

It is a nightmare passage, its horror enhanced by the Last Judgment coloring Crane casts it in, with its demons and its doomed men consigned to the pit (“the frightful maw of the ocean”). The lost look longingly at the saved, while the guilt of the saved is assuaged only by the overstepping gesture of “the demon.”

“Stephen Crane's Own Story” comes to a close with the remark 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.” Already Crane is saving the best, or the least problematic, for “The Open Boat,” which would take him not days but months to write.

Stories of disaster and survival at sea were a popular genre in the nineteenth century, particularly up to the Civil War, before sails gave way to steam and the whaling fleets of New England were destroyed. After the War such stories took on an elegiac air, lamenting the lost days of wooden ships. Anthologies of shipwrecks, of which R. Thomas' Narratives of Remarkable Shipwrecks (1835) was probably the most popular in America, served as sources for Poe and Melville, and probably for Crane as well. These anthologies generally repeated the same well-known stories, adding recent disasters to the familiar names: the Phoenix (1780); the Earl of Abergavenny (1805), in which the captain, Wordsworth's brother John, lost his life; the Medusa (1816), which provided the subject for Géricault's famous painting. Long before the Commodore disaster Crane had explored the possibilities of this genre, in some of his Jersey shore journalism, as though in preparation for the work he would put into “The Open Boat.”

We know little about Crane's activities while he worked on “The Open Boat” during the month or so after the shipwreck, and some of the reports are conflicting. Robert Stallman, author of the “standard” biography of Crane, confidently states that Crane wrote the story “in waterfront cafes, at the St. James Hotel, and at the Hotel de Dream”, but this is conjecture, probably fueled by images of Hemingway. There are reports of a visit to Port Jervis a week after the shipwreck: “In Hartwood he frenziedly wrote ‘The Open Boat,’” the editors of Crane's letters claim. Ralph Paine, reporter for the Journal later remembered Crane reading the story aloud to Captain Edward Murphy at the Hotel de Dream, and to have heard the following exchange:

“Listen, Ed. I want to have this right, from your point of view. How does it sound so far?”

“You've got it right, Steve”—said the other man, “That is just how it happened, and how we felt. Read me some more of it.”

Crane, who was still trying to get to Cuba, had other reasons for talking to Captain Murphy.

And there were other complications. We can safely conjecture that during the writing of “The Open Boat” Crane was courting (or being courted by) Cora Stewart, and his thoughts about shipwreck began to intermingle with his thoughts about love. Sometime in late January or February Crane wrote on a strip of paper saved by Cora:

Love comes like the tall swift shadow of a ship at night. There is for a moment the music of water's turmoil, a bell, perhaps, a man's shout, a row of gleaming yellow lights. Then the slow sinking of this mystic shape. Then silence and a bitter silence—the silence of the sea at night.

I suspect that this passage may have more to do with Amy Leslie than with Cora. While certainty about such things is impossible, it seems likely that Crane's sense of guilt at abandoning Amy Leslie joined with his guilt at abandoning the men on the rafts. In any case, romantic entanglements provide the backdrop for Crane's great story of disaster at sea.

If “Stephen Crane's Own Story” is a portrait of the lost, “The Open Boat” is a portrait of the saved. In the way it excludes moral ambiguity from its narrative it resembles the most famous representation of shipwreck in the nineteenth century. Before Géricault painted his Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), he had considered, and made sketches of, other moments of the shipwreck narrative, including the notorious episode in which the treacherous Captain and officers of the ship, safe in their lifeboats as they headed for the North African coast, let drop one by one the ropes with which they had agreed to tow the raft to shore. He chose instead to depict the survivors at the moment when they spot a ship on the horizon. Géricault minimized the historical specificity of the wreck; the original title of the painting was simply “Scene of a Shipwreck.” By letting the raft take up almost the whole painting, Géricault focussed all his attention on making the viewer feel that he or she was on the raft, participating in the ordeal. “His composition,” as the leading Géricault scholar Lorenz Either has noted, “does not invite contemplation, but participation.”

Crane, like Géricault, worked by a process of negation in order to increase the immediacy of his account. He eliminated the whole horrifying episode of the raft and the tow rope—so similar to the Medusa narrative—from “The Open Boat”; the only trace is the “scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces” that haunts the captain. He said nothing about the Commodore's mission. As in The Red Badge of Courage, he called the men in the boat by their profession—the captain, the oiler, the cook, the correspondent—not by their proper names. As The Red Badge of Courage could be a description of any soldier's fate, so “The Open Boat” could be a story of anyone lost at sea.

Crane's main challenge (like Géricault's) was to find techniques to put the reader into the open boat. His solution was to manipulate point of view so that any perspective from outside the boat was rejected. The story's famous opening is meant to accomplish this:

None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of them knew the colors of the sea.

A few paragraphs later Crane entertains an outside perspective only to reject it:

In the wan light, the faces of the men must have been gray. Their eyes must have glinted in strange ways as they gazed steadily astern. Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque. But the men in the boat had no time to see it, and if they had had leisure there were other things to occupy their minds. The sun swung steadily up the sky, and they knew it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald-green, streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow. The process of the breaking day was unknown to them. They were aware only of this effect upon the color of the waves that rolled toward them.

Complete absorption is what Crane is after, hence the emphasis on color and the men's knowledge of it.

While “The Open Boat” is often considered Crane's best story, there is something a bit evasive and overdone about much of the performance. Its man-against-nature grandiloquence, so dear to English teachers, is often compared to Greek tragedy, as some sort of ultimate statement of the human condition. (As Lord Jim says, “Weren't we all in the same boat?”) The story is probably overrated, though its splendid beginning and ending make this easy to do. The complex interweaving of irony and sublimity in its opening paragraphs is justly admired:

The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each forth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.

The opening paragraphs establish the oscillating moods of the story, from sublime description to ironic, almost amused detachment. The brilliant detail of the bathtub—with its homely image of domestic safety opposing, and yet prefiguring, the perils of the swamped boat—is characteristic of Crane's later prose.

But it is the story's ending that will occupy us here, not only for its summing up of the pattern of guilt and expiation in “The Open Boat,” but also for the way it echoes and builds on Crane's earlier, pre-Jacksonville accounts of disasters at sea. After holding the boat offshore during the night, with the oiler and the correspondent taking turns at the oars, the men in the dinghy prepare to run the boat through the surf toward shore, jumping free when the boat swamps. “An overturned boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man.” Three men make it safely to land, with the help of a man on shore.

But suddenly the man cried: “What's that?” He pointed a swift finger. The correspondent said: “Go.”

In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea.

And a few lines later, as the survivors are warmed with blankets, coffee, “and all the remedies sacred to their minds”:

The welcome of the land to the men free from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land's welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave.

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.

Interpreters, that is, of the rightness of this particular ending, with the sacrifice of one, and he the strongest, of the four men. The appropriateness of the sacrifice depends, however, on an episode of which there remains barely a trace in the story: the abandonment of the men on the raft.

The closing image of a drowned man washed up in the surf had a long foreground in Crane's career. The juxtaposition of sea and shore had early come to seem, in Crane's view, an emblem for the lost and the saved, with the pounding surf as the dividing line. His language, as he wrote of shipwrecks, had taken on some of the cadences of his father's sermons, in which shipwreck figured as the fate of the lost sinner. In his Arts of Intoxication (1869), for example. J. T. Crane used shipwreck as an image of those lost to drink and calling for help, “while all through the night, one after another, men, women, and little innocent children are dropping, dropping from the icy wreck, and the busy waves are piling the dead along the shore …”

Crane's education in the lore of shipwrecks had begun early. “On many parts of the [Jersey] shore the rotting timbers of wrecked vessels lie thick,” Crane had written in 1891, after accepting a commission to memorialize one of these wrecks, that of the New Era of 1854. The ship had come from Bremen with 380 passengers in steerage, many of them German emigrants. It hit a sandbar north of Asbury Park and foundered within view of spectators on shore. “Men fought with each other like wild beasts for the possession of stray spars or casks,” while men on shore got a line out to passengers on a lifeboat. The boat capsized three times in the heavy surf and “but five of the fourteen who started reached the shore alive.” “When dawn came,” Crane wrote, “the storm cleared and the bright sun-rays fell upon the grey up-turned faces of many corpses.”

The image of bodies washed up in the surf recurs in Crane's interesting sketch, “The Ghostly Sphinx of Metedeconk,” published two years before “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” and in the same paper, the New York Press. “The Ghostly Sphinx of Metedeconk” is a love story in the guise of a shipwreck narrative. Its plot, briefly, is a love affair between a sea captain and a maiden. He must leave for a voyage to South America; she pouts. When the ship returns it founders off the coast in a storm, while the woman watches on the beach.

From time to time seamen tried to swim to the shore … A monstrous wave hurled the thing to her feet and she saw that her lover had come back from Buenos Ayres.

A corpse washed up on the shore is the ending of both Crane's versions of the wreck of the Commodore, with the love interest replaced by a vision of “brotherhood”: “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 the Commodore episode would have a happy ending for Crane. It's the oiler who dies, a substitute sacrifice to the monstrous sea, and Crane is reunited on shore with his lover, Cora Stewart of Jacksonville. Just as Crane's literary accounts of shipwrecks are fulfilled, as it were, in a real one, another pattern in his life goes from literary to literal. His long fascination with prostitutes and fallen women—from the fantasies of Maggie to the Dora affair—reaches its fulfillment in the worldly Cora, Madame of the Hotel de Dream. It is as though a pun hidden in three names had been worked out: Cora is like Dora. Cora como Dora. Commodore.

Stefanie Bates Eye (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Eye, Stefanie Bates. “Fact, Not Fiction: Questioning Our Assumptions about Crane's ‘The Open Boat’.” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 1 (fall 1998): 65-76.

[In the following essay, Eye questions the prevailing critical opinion of “The Open Boat” as a work of fiction, viewing it as a prime example of literary nonfiction.]

In January 1897, Stephen Crane was shipwrecked and lost at sea on a 10-foot lifeboat for 30 hours. Once rescued, he produced three separate accounts of the same event. “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” which functions as a journalistic piece, was published in the New York Press a few days after he was rescued. “The Open Boat,” written several weeks later, has been hailed as literature and anthologized as a short story in countless collections of American fiction. The third, little-known work is another short story entitled “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure,” which was published a few months after “The Open Boat.” As one of Crane's most important works, “The Open Boat” has received a great amount of critical attention not only for its contribution to the field of literature, but also with regard to its autobiographical content. Surprisingly, there has been a great deal of controversy over the factuality of this work. Is “The Open Boat” a work of fiction or a true account?

Because the story is so steeped in fact and was published on the heels of “Own Story,” the debate has become monumental; responses range from assertions that his experience served as only a “germ” of an idea for the story to statements that “The Open Boat” is no more or less fictional than the newspaper account. Who is right: those who say “fact” or those who say “fiction”? Among scholars, the consensus seems to be that, while “The Open Boat” is based in fact and served as an outlet for Crane's creative impulses, it is a work of fiction, one that has had great impact on the study of American literature and, in particular, the short story.

Given the recent emphasis on and critical attention to the genre of literary nonfiction, however, looking back at “The Open Boat” through the lens of this emerging category of narrative may give scholars reason to pause. What, specifically, were Crane's intentions in writing this story? Did he intend to write fiction or nonfiction? Examining the factual content, the narrative style, and the literary value of this work in contrast with “Own Story” and “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” calls into question our current treatment of “The Open Boat” as a work of fiction. In the light of a new genre, we must consider the possibility that, no matter the category in which it was published, Crane's story is entirely factual with no element of fiction whatsoever. In fact, had “The Open Boat” been published in 1965 rather than in 1897, it would have certainly qualified as literary nonfiction. As it happened, however, Crane had only two basic genres from which to choose: the journalistic form of nonfiction or the more literary form of fiction. How might we now view this work if his choices had been more broad? I argue that “The Open Boat” is actually a work of literary nonfiction, that Crane chose nonfiction disguised as fiction as the ideal medium through which he could tell a true story in a literary way, a story of his own experience that embodied the very concepts he spent his writing career contemplating: nature and fate, life and death, brotherhood and the strength of man.

What is literary nonfiction and how does it function separately from its predecessors? According to Michael Pearson, “until recently the genre of literary nonfiction went undefined” (29). This type of writing has been evolving for quite some time; we see traces of it in memoir and autobiography. But it wasn't until the 1965 publication of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood that the form took root and began to attract great numbers of writers, readers, critics, and scholars. Since then, it has become increasingly popular with the American reading public because its “timeliness [gives] the form a special edge, a way of confronting a rapidly changing and confusing reality” (Pearson 27). The modern audience seems to be intrigued with its literary approach to controversial political, social, and cultural issues that are often subjective and ambiguous. Ronald Weber explains that

with the new nonfiction, the audience received information but received it entertainingly, with familiar literary trimmings. It received an up-to-date factual fiction that abandoned the dreariness of day-to-day journalism yet did not fly off in the strange and complex ways of Barth, Borges, Barthelme, and other fabulists.

(Weber 36)

Yet even now, some 30 years after its semi-official birthdate, scholars do not agree on specific criteria for a work of literary nonfiction. There does not seem to be “absolute agreement among scholars concerning the nature, limits, and effects” of the genre, and, consequently, the parameters remain vague (Pearson 29). In the face of such uncertainty, however, we can still safely stipulate that this form of writing, which by its very nature encompasses journalistic fact and literary style, must be completely accurate and must employ some of the traditional literary devices. And while opinions about the particular elements required for such narrative vary, there does seem to be a consensus that literary nonfiction must achieve much more than simply being informative; it must also, in the face of its insistence upon complete accuracy, be “essentially a work of the imagination, a reshaping of a voluminous body of fact” (Landa xxxix).

Literary nonfiction is often seen as an elevated form of journalism; so, since “The Open Boat” has already been credited with being literary, why bother with this type of exploration? Why confront the issue of its classification when it is already safely ensconced under the honorary, albeit quite subjective, category of “literature”? As Phyllis Frus states,

Not only do the separate categories into which we put short stories and journalism—usually fiction and nonfiction, or literature and “other”—affect the way we perceive them, but these perceived differences affect our evaluation of each.


Our expectations of a certain genre color the way we experience the work. Journalism has a standard, fiction has a standard; and while the standard for literary nonfiction is still being shaped, it is essential that we consider “The Open Boat” in the proper light in order to reap the fullest benefit from the work. Literary nonfiction is a blending of skills, of reporting precision and literary imagination, not with respect to the creation of events but rather to the ways in which those events—intact and unaltered—are conveyed. The dynamic between text and reader inherently changes depending on the preconceptions and expectations that are brought to the reading experience, and those expectations are largely based on what is known or assumed about the writer's purpose and intention. In this case, we need to know if Crane's story, which we readily accept is based in fact, is truly a work of fiction or an account of fact. In his lifetime, Crane proved both his skill as a journalist and his artistry as a fiction writer. This examination of his short story masterpiece sheds light on yet another facet of his creative genius.

The overwhelming majority of acclaimed literary nonfiction writers worked as journalists at some time in their professions. The time each spent in this field “forced [them] to become … precise observer[s], nurtured in [them] a great respect for fact, and taught [them] lessons about style that would shape [their] greatest literary creations” (Fishkin 4). Stephen Crane was one of these journalists. As the youngest son in a family of several journalists, Crane began his career in journalism more by default than by choice, following in his family's footsteps. From the beginning, as Bernard Weinstein notes, Crane proved to be “far from an orthodox journalist … never completely at home in the newspaper world …” (6). He was quite successful and wrote for a number of major newspapers, but he had an unconventional attitude about the ways in which he considered his subjects and the ways in which he presented them in his writing. Weinstein adds that Crane was “far too subtle and ironic, too subjective, for a newspaper representing even liberal traditions” (7). In a notorious article that he wrote for the Tribune in 1892, Crane described a parade of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics in a manner that outwardly seemed to belittle his subjects. He had intended to shed favorable light on these working class men by contrasting their slovenly appearance and impeccable work ethic to members of the leisure class who were, in Crane's opinion, exactly the converse. His style and approach, however, were misunderstood; his “subtle and ironic” tone caught the public off guard and ignited an irate response. Consequently, Crane was forced to give up his job, and

here began the pattern of confrontation that would continue throughout his newspaper career, encouraging the development of themes, the style, and many of the incidents found in his major writings.

(Weinstein 4)

For the remainder of his career, Crane often expressed a distaste for the bureaucracy of journalism, but his love of truth compelled him to keep writing.

Despite Crane's renown as an American writer, knowledge about his personal philosophies is vague; therefore, according to critic Edwin H. Cady, much of what scholars profess to “know” about Stephen Crane is conjectural and unreliable (Cady i). It seems logical to conclude, though, given what we do understand about his journalism and his feelings about the newspaper world, that Crane would have easily been attracted to the style of fiction and the artistic freedom it provided, just as many other American journalists were—Twain, Hemingway, Dreiser, among others. An examination of “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” the news piece that gives the newspaper account of the ship Commodore's sinking, clearly reveals a journalist frustrated with the limits of his profession. Rarely do we find a news piece so inundated with the spurts of literary quality and engaging narrative style as exist in “Own Story.” Crane employs many of the devices traditionally found in literature to support powerful images. For example, he uses poetic language, simile, and foreshadowing when he describes “three long blasts of her whistle, which even to this time impressed me with their sadness … somehow, they sounded as wails” (Crane, “Own Story” 1). This passage evokes emotion and reflects Crane's voice; but, because the writer is confined by the purpose of conveying information, it cannot go much further beyond the scope of journalism. The literary elements are certainly artistic; however, the work as a whole falls short of being truly literary because of the imposed limitations of journalism. In writing “Own Story,” Crane was forced to treat his work more as a craft than as an art, and, while his creative impulses are clearly present, this piece of writing does not embody that which we traditionally deem literary.

Frus, in an article that compares the literary attributes of “The Open Boat” and “Own Story,” deconstructs the ways in which we unwittingly subjugate journalism in the hierarchy of literature. She asserts that “journalism and fiction may be more similar than we usually assume,” and, while her argument is made with regard to journalism, her thesis may easily be appropriated to make a case that emphasizes how naturally literary nonfiction allows for a melding of journalistic and fiction writing skills (Frus 126). In the case of “The Open Boat” and any other work of literary nonfiction written before the early 1960s, “factual” and “literary” no longer have to be mutually exclusive qualities. Before literary nonfiction began to gain recognition as a genre in its own right, it was not actually the writers who catered to this perceived distinction, but, rather, it seems to have been the entrepreneurial segment of the publishing industry that forced these ideologies onto the artists' work. The artists themselves quite often recognized the overlap. Hemingway, in fact, often used “the very same material for both news accounts and short stories … [and] took pieces he first filed with magazines and newspapers and published them with virtually no change in his own books as short stories” (Hemingway xi). Clearly, the line between fact and fiction has a history of being blurred.

This biographical evidence supports the possibility that Crane, feeling both stifled by journalism and compelled to explore the philosophical implications of his shipwreck experience, was intentionally seeking a creative approach to his true story. Turning to textual issues only provides further support. As we have already discussed, “Own Story” was written specifically for publication in a newspaper a mere few days after Crane's rescue. The news piece tells the story of the shipwreck but stops short of relaying Crane's experience in the lifeboat. “The Open Boat” picks up where “Own Story” leaves off and carries the reader through the rescue itself. Additionally, in August of 1897, he published a highly fictionalized story, “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure,” which was also clearly inspired by his experience at sea. This narrative is about the captain and crew of the Foundling, which, like the Commodore, sinks in a squall, but only after it has successfully completed a filibustering expedition and fought off a Spanish gunboat. This short story is acknowledged to be Crane's attempt to capitalize on his real-life experience (Wertheim 281-82) and does not even remotely succeed in approaching the artistry of “The Open Boat.” The fact that Crane wrote one account that is clearly journalistic, one account that is clearly invented, and one account that is decidedly neither broadens the possibilities for “The Open Boat” to be indeed other than fiction.

At the conclusion of “Own Story,” as he closes the narrative and conspicuously leaves out the account of his perilous experience in the lifeboat, Crane explains, “The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here and now. For my part I would prefer to tell the story at once” (Crane, “Own Story” 1). This comment clearly shows his premeditated intention to continue the story as a “history” and as “instruct[ion] for the young,” both terms implying the accuracy of the information he will convey in the continuation, which is ultimately “The Open Boat.” He wants, even yearns, to tell of his experience immediately, but Crane “knew enough not to put too much into a story for the papers; knew enough not to waste what he had to say, or wanted to say, on that most uncomprehending of all readers, the reader of the newspaper” (Hagemann 67). Crane's past experiences had taught him to be cynical about the limitations of journalism and apprehensive about the abilities of readers to comprehend the depth and significance of his reflections.

In keeping with his habit of mentioning his intentions within his writing, Crane includes a disclaimer at the end of “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” that says, “The expedition of the Foundling will never be historic” (“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” 377). In the context of the story, this statement most likely refers to the ethical and legal dilemmas of recognizing in any way the success or heroics of a captain leading an illegal gun-running expedition. Yet, in the context of comparing “Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure” to “The Open Boat” and “Own Story,” the juxtaposition of these works and the delineation of their relationships to “history” (fiction versus nonfiction) underscores Crane's personal distinction among his three accounts of this event. It seems presumptuous and somewhat unreasonable to question his intentions in writing any of the three.

This insight into Crane's thoughts and plans to write of his experience is reinforced by “The Open Boat's” subtitle, which identifies it as “A Tale Intended to be after the Fact: Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore.” The wording of this phrase has generated some controversy and division among Crane scholars. Edwin Cady says that “‘After the Fact’ here may as well be in pursuit of the truth of experience as of the mere exact occurrence … and in Crane it is much more likely to be” (151). Again, the two concepts he juxtaposes—the essence of the truth of the experience versus the facts of the truth of the occurrence—need not be exclusive of one another; Crane could have quite easily been seeking both. Additionally, the careful placement of the word “Fact” after the word “Tale” and the inclusion of the reference to what he “Intended” succeed, as J. C. Levenson stipulates, in illustrating “that the main intent of this subtitle is obviously to say that the author has tried to be accurate, to give an account in accordance with what really happened” (Spofford 316).

William K. Spofford, who argues against Levenson's statement, asserts that the themes, motifs, and images that exist and work so beautifully in “The Open Boat” had been formulated long before the Commodore sunk, and because of this, he concludes that “his recounting of the thirty hours in an open boat merely provided the vehicle for these materials to come together” (Spofford 316). We could invert Spofford's argument, however, simply by assuming that the pre-existence of his themes makes it even more plausible that he wanted to tell a factual story in a literary way. Just as Capote spent years searching for the perfect subject to use in a work of literary nonfiction, Crane probably realized the literary opportunity of the situation shortly after it began. If he was prone to ponder the relationship between man and nature, why is it unrealistic to think he would do so when stranded in a lifeboat at the mercy of the very nature he so often contemplated?

In Spofford's defense, however, the assumption that Crane's themes necessarily qualify this work as fiction is not an unreasonable mistake. “The Open Boat” was written at a time when the literary world was focused on producing work that reflected the realist or naturalist agendas of the time. Naturalism is a recurrent mode in literature that is based on the thesis that

a human being exists entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any mode of participating in a religious or spiritual world beyond nature; and therefore, that such a being is merely a higher-order animal whose character and behavior are entirely determined by two kinds of forces, heredity and environment.

(Abrams 175)

In fact, Stephen Crane is recognized by the literary community as a prominent American naturalistic writer, and “The Open Boat” is considered “one of the best … documents in the American room of the naturalistic school” (Adams 421). The characters in “The Open Boat” are quite obviously dealing with the kind of forces in which naturalists believe; they face the indifference of nature and the opposition between hope and fear as they struggle for survival on the angry, open sea. Crane describes nature, which functions nearly as a character in this story, as “not … cruel … nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (“The Open Boat” 355). The entire action of the narrative reveals the correspondent's contemplation and resigned acceptance of his (humankind's) insignificance and isolation in the face of an environment that simply does not care (Adams 422). Given that these ideological issues permeated the literature of the time, the presumption that any narrative that encompassed these concerns had to be fiction is not completely absurd, but it is a bit short-sighted.

Many studies have been done to address the authenticity of Crane's claims regarding the ship's sinking, the actions of the survivors, the path of the lifeboat, and the rescue of the four men. In 1987, Newsweek ran an article that recounted the discovery of the wreck of the Commodore. The article is “fascinating confirmation of descriptions from “The Open Boat”; for example, precisely as Crane said, from the wreck sight, ‘The lighthouse of Mosquito Inlet stuck up above the horizon like the point of a pen’” (Dooley 151). There has also been extensive probing of the facts of the shipwreck: who was to blame, who got into the lifeboat first or last, who said what to whom and why. All of these studies have indicated that Crane does not stray from fact with respect to these types of issues. And perhaps most significantly, Crane's recorded correspondence shows that while he was still recovering physically from his shipwreck experience, he also “occupied himself with the revision of “The Open Boat,” consulting with Captain Murphy to assure that his recollection of their experience in the dinghy was accurate” (263). Certainly, this effort indicates that Crane was markedly concerned with relaying the event not according to how it might work best with a fictional agenda, but as it actually happened, as fact.

Frus allows that “The Open Boat” is

not more fictional or invented than Stephen Crane's “Own Story” [and that] both narratives follow the historical sequence of events surrounding the Commodore disaster as verified in contemporary newspaper reports, the ship's log and other shipping records, and accounts by witnesses.

She even goes so far as to say that “neither story invents facts or characters” (Frus 128). Yet, throughout her article, she continues to refer to “The Open Boat” as a “short story.” Other critics assert that the facts are barely changed or that they exist with “very little alteration” (Wertheim 261), but no one ventures to propose which specific facts have been compromised. These examples of scholarly insistence upon categorizing “The Open Boat” as fiction even while acknowledging that the story itself is factual serve as further support for Frus's claim that the various narrative genres we scrutinize have been reified by our hardened perceptions of them (133). We must not allow our habits to shape our perceptions, but rather we should give “The Open Boat” the consideration it deserves as a meritorious work of nonfiction that embodies a timeless literary achievement.

Having dissected Crane's journalistic and fictional work on his Commodore experience and having probed into the social and ideological issues that affect the way we read any work, let us turn now to textual questions within the body of “The Open Boat” itself. In addition to its commitment to fact, literary nonfiction should, according to Pearson, “give the reader the feeling of being inside a given character's mind” (31). Given the necessity for every aspect of a literary nonfiction work to be factual, the difficulty lies in assuring that any insight into a character's thoughts is justified and explained by addressing how the author professes to know what someone else is thinking. Although this seems, at first, problematic in considering “The Open Boat” as a possible example of the genre, a close look at every instance of omniscience reveals that Crane does indeed justify and qualify his knowledge each time.

Rather than telling the story from the first-person point of view, Crane removes himself as author from the action and uses third-person. This approach allows him to embody two perspectives: that of the correspondent while he is in the boat, his reality being shaken by that which he experiences; and that of the correspondent removed from the immediacy of the situation, when he is able to interpret his experience retrospectively. The character of the correspondent indisputably represents Crane's presence in the lifeboat, however, and as we carefully dissect the story, line by line, we quickly realize that Crane limits himself to these two perspectives: it is only the correspondent's mind about which Crane alleges to have intimate knowledge. The other characters—the captain, the cook, and the oiler—are all described in terms of their actions, their physical appearances, and their conversations, all of which may be interpreted in some manner by the correspondent. In section one, as Crane describes their plight, he mentions what each man is doing as they struggle to survive. The cook is bailing; the oiler is steering. With each of these characters, Crane is careful to keep the detail to the visual, and he does not in any way profess to know what they are thinking. With the correspondent, however, he delves immediately into his mind while maintaining the specific narrative action of his description. The correspondent is “pulling at the other oar, watching the waves and wondering why he was there” (“The Open Boat” 340; italics added).

Because the correspondent is Crane, he can tell us of his thoughts without violating the factual parameters of the genre. As he discusses the final character, the captain, he seems to tell of his thoughts, but, in fact, he tells us what a captain would be thinking after seeing his ship go down, not what this particular captain is thinking. Note his careful wording: “The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her … and this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn …” (“The Open Boat” 340). Only by describing his facial expressions, which can be observed, and by comparing the captain's mind to that of any ship's captain, does Crane presume to tell us what this character is thinking in the privacy of his own thoughts. He adheres to this method throughout the work.

Because the many philosophical themes and epistemological agendas of the story are intangible, however, Crane cannot use physical description or actions to discuss them. But consider his treatment of one major theme: “the subtle brotherhood of men” (“The Open Boat” 340). By mentioning the men's friendship, the atmosphere of congeniality and fraternity, the captain's calm voice and the comfort the other's took in it, Crane fully explains how he draws the conclusion that although “no one said that it was so,” the sense of unity was felt by all. Having already presented the urgency of their life-and-death situation (which further alludes to the significant naturalistic underpinnings of the narrative), Crane—through his subtle description of the subtle brotherhood of men—allows us to place ourselves both in the boat and in the men's minds. In a sense, he allows us, too, to become “interpreters.” In arguing that journalism should be considered literary, Frus claims that journalism should be viewed as “an interpretation of events” rather than as “the transcription of reality” (126). In response, we should both acknowledge and remember that an individual's conception of reality is wholly subjective and unique from one person to the next. In addition, interpretation, or perspective, is a significant part of any writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, journalism or narrative. The line between “interpretation” and “reality” is as blurred as the one between “fact” and “fiction.”

The passage in section six in which the correspondent suddenly brings to mind a few lines of verse that lament the plight of “A soldier of the Legion” has raised a significant number of textual questions. Critics have long pondered the purpose and/or symbolism of the poem's inclusion within the narrative. Oddly, the four lines from Caroline Norton's Bingen on the Rhine are misquoted, and there is some evidence that Crane actually wanted it printed as a misquotation. Fredson Bowers believes that Crane “exercised some supervision over the Heinemann edition [of “The Open Boat”] … and provided printer's copy himself.” In addition, the editors of two publishing houses and of McClure's Magazine, all of which printed early copies of “The Open Boat,” assumed he deliberately misquoted it (Jackson 78-79). The poem, as it exists in “The Open Boat,” is not significantly different; it is only a matter of a few missing and rearranged words. In the story, the correspondent recalls the poem from his childhood. Consequently, if we assume that the correspondent represents Crane on the lifeboat, it makes sense that he would record the poem as he remembered it rather than as it is written. If he had included the verse for pure literary impact—symbolism, metaphor, imagery—then certainly he would have put the corrected text in the published work; but since he was recording the events on the lifeboat with strict attention to the facts of those events, he was obligated to transcribe the poem as he had actually recalled it.

Proponents of the fiction thesis might still point out the “choral response” in section five as being highly problematic if “The Open Boat” is to be considered as literary nonfiction. Fate is admonished,

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 prepostero