“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.
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.
“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.