Style and Technique

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“The Open Boat” is characteristic of Crane’s naturalistic style. Naturalism in literature is a point of view that often emphasizes the material, the physical environment as a determinant in human behavior. Crane had already shown the detrimental effect of slum life on the character of Maggie, for example, in his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), regarded by some critics as America’s first naturalistic novel. In that work, Crane had used precise detail and an objective tone to record Maggie’s fate. In “The Open Boat,” one of the finest short stories in the language, Crane relies on tone and imagery to portray the heartless indifference of nature. The famous opening line, “None of them knew the color of the sky,” establishes an immediate bleakness, a world void of the emotional value of color. The sea is described as gray and the only green, suggestive of hope, is that of the land that the men cannot reach.

In support of the theme of indifference, the tone is consistently maintained by the men’s having no names. They are merely “the correspondent,” “the captain,” “the cook”—trades, occupations, things, not persons; they are anonymous, like so much flotsam. Ironically, only the oiler has a name, “Billy,” and he alone does not survive, as if having a name has marked him.

Finally, imagery is consistently employed, almost as in a poem, to reinforce meaning. The men are belittled by the sea, their boat compared to “a bathtub,” the waves “slate walls” or “snarling” crests. When the correspondent fears drowning, he regrets the injustice of his fate, dying before he could “nibble at the sacred cheese of life”—as if he were a mouse, a puny thing, more of a pest than a noble creature.

The Open Boat

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The main conflict is the classic one of man against nature--in this case, the sea. Crane gives a detailed account of thirty hours spent in a ten-foot dinghy by four men--a cook, a correspondent, the Captain, and Billy Higgens, the oiler, who is the only character called by name, though the correspondent is obviously Crane himself.

The four men make up the entire cast of characters; there is no single protagonist. The point of view is that of an omniscient narrator, and the use of plural pronouns through much of the story enforces the impression that their predicament is a collective experience.

While the men are adrift off the coast of Florida, they learn two important lessons. First, the natural world is at best indifferent to man, if not hostile, as the high, cold winter star, the roaring waves, and a menacing shark symbolically suggest. Second, if they are to survive, they will have to rely on themselves alone since they can expect no benevolent intervention from either God or nature.

Even though Crane writes that “shipwrecks are apropos of nothing,” he conveys with almost poetic prose a conception that was at the heart of his vision as an artist: The true nature of man’s perilous position in the naturalistic universe dictates that he must form “a subtle brotherhood,” composed of those who truly understand the way things are. The men in the open boat show us that compassion for one’s fellows, stoic endurance, and courage are the true moral standards in an amoral cosmos.

The cynical view of human society reflected in Crane’s earlier story “THE BLUE HOTEL” is here replaced by a more optimistic outlook; although Crane still regards the universe as inhospitable, he sees hope in human solidarity as a means of mutual salvation.

Historical Context

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Social Darwinism
Every field of thought in the late nineteenth-century was impacted by the theories of Charles Darwin. Although Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, its influence was felt most strongly in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. A variety of thinkers in the social sciences began to apply Darwin's evolutionary theories to explain the development of human societies. Known as the ‘‘Social Darwinists,’’ these thinkers posited the existence of a process of evolution based on hereditary traits that predetermined the behavior of human beings. The most famous of these thinkers, an English social scientist named Herbert Spencer, popularized the phrase ‘‘survival of the fittest’’ to describe the omnipotent law of"natural selection'' which determines the natural evolution of society. Most Social Darwinists adapted the idea of natural selection to existing racial theories, using this hereditary or evolutionary reasoning to explain the condition of the different races in their own time. The Social Darwinists were divided over the issue of whether humans could shape the direction of their own evolution for the better, or if they were powerless to influence the process of natural selection. While many resisted the arguments of all other Social Darwinists, their highly-publicized controversies led to the subtle spread and popularity of evolutionary reasoning in society at large.

Realism and Naturalism
he pervasiveness of Darwinism in the late nineteenth century was related to a trend in social thought away from abstract idealism toward the investigation of concrete reality. With the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, the prestige of science and the experimental method had reached an all-time high. In literature, this cultural context was reflected in a new literary movement called Realism, which sought to construct a "photographically" vivid depiction of life as it is. Their preference for "hard facts'' mimicked the scientific method. The Realists shared a mission to banish sentimentality and genteel conventions from their fiction. William Dean Howells preached the doctrine of Realism which gained the support of such authors as Mark Twain and Henry James. As the movement spread, Realism became more controversial when some practitioners began to shock their readers with "objective" depictions of sexuality, brutality, vulgarity, and unredeemed injustice. They deliberately dispensed with the tone of moral condemnation that characterized most nineteenth-century fiction dealing with such themes. In the 1890s, Realism took on a newly philosophical character in the writings of the Naturalists. Influenced by French novelist Emile Zola, the leading Naturalist, some American authors sought to integrate deterministic philosophies into their literature. The Naturalists were intensely concerned with the question of whether human beings could exercise control over their fate or whether their fate was determined by their environment. Influenced by deterministic philosophies such as those of Darwin or Marx, the Naturalists analyzed the "natural" forces or "scientific" laws that affected the ‘‘struggle for life." One of the most successful Naturalists Stephen Crane, said that we live in "a world full of fists'' in which the survivors are not necessarily the most"fit'' but only the most fortunate.

The Spanish-American War
When Cuban revolutionaries began a war for independence against Spain in 1895, the United States lent financial and moral support to the uprising. American newspapers covered the rebellion closely and ran anti-Spanish stories on a daily basis. Crane, in fact, was employed as a newspaper correspondent on an assignment covering the uprising when the ship he was traveling on, carrying a cargo of arms for the revolutionaries, sank off the coast of Florida. The experience led him soon afterward to pen the story ‘‘The Open Boat.’’ In February 1898, Spanish forces sank the American battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, killing 260 American seamen. On April 24, the United States declared war on Spain with the overwhelming support of the American people. The Spanish-American War was an extremely popular war that tapped into a glorification of masculine bravado that dominated society at the turn of the century. Theodore Roosevelt's "Rough Riders,’’ who led the attack on San Juan Hill, became one of the most enduring symbols of courage and masculinity of the times. The reporting of the Spanish-American War reflected a dominant preoccupation with the human struggle to survive amid brutal circumstances.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Perhaps the literary technique most remarked upon by critics of ‘‘The Open Boat’’ is Crane's unusual use of a shifting point of view. The story is told alternatively from the perspective of each of the crew members, as well as from the vantage point of an objective observer. Often, it is not clear whose viewpoint is predominant at a given time. There are passages of dialogue, too, in which the different speakers are never identified. In these ways, the reader is given the sense that all of the crew members share similar feelings about their predicament. There is also the suggestion that their reactions are archetypal and universal; that is, that anyone would respond the same way to what they are going through. The correspondent is the only character whose inner thoughts are clearly identified—perhaps because he, being a writer, has the ability to articulate their experience best. Some critics have viewed Crane's shifting perspectives as a flaw, because it hinders independent character development. But, arguably, the story does not need its characters to develop as much as to experience the same fear and anger. Crane captures the sights, sounds, and emotions of a near-death experience so powerful that is denies the characters the ability to comprehend. For each of the characters the possibility of death seems unjust and senseless. Only in the end can they begin to "interpret'' their experience, yet the reader is not privy to their conclusions. Thus, the shifting point of view appears to emphasize the failure of interpretation by all of the characters, rather than the knowledge that each has gained.

Realism
Stephen Crane is considered one of the foremost American authors of the Realistic and Naturalistic movements of the late nineteenth century. The Realists shared a mission to banish sentimentality and genteel conventions from their fiction. They sought to depict life as it is by constructing a "photographically'' vivid description of familiar or harsh circumstances. Crane's precise rendering of the sea-tossed men in "The Open Boat'' is a prime example of realist technique. He succeeds in making the reader feel as though he or she could understand exactly what it was like to live the experience. The Realists often shocked their readers with "objective'' depictions of sexual indiscretion, brutality, vulgarity, and unredeemed injustice. Their fiction deliberately dispensed with the tone of moral condemnation that characterized most nineteenth-century fiction that addressed such themes.

Crane is usually associated with a particular brand of Realists known as the "Naturalists." In addition to the issue of objective treatment, the Naturalists were also intensely concerned with the question of whether human beings could exercise control over their fate or whether their fate was determined by their environment. Influenced by deterministic philosophies such as those of Charles Darwin or Karl Marx the Naturalists analyzed the omnipotent, "natural" forces that effected the ‘‘struggle for life.’’ These concerns are evident in ‘‘The Open Boat.'' The fate of the four men seems to rest mostly in the hands of forces beyond their control. A prime example of this comes when the correspondent gets caught in a current while trying to swim to the shore. He is trapped by an invisible force—an underwater current—which he can neither understand nor escape. For unknown reasons, the current suddenly frees him and he is washed ashore by a giant wave. Crane attributes the correspondent's survival to the uncontrollable forces of nature, not to his own efforts.

Setting
Since "The Open Boat'' is the fictional treatment of a real-life experience that befell Crane off the coast of Florida, the setting of the story would seem determined by the actual event. However, there is good reason to question what the setting conveys about the themes and symbolic meanings of the story. Even though such an event actually happened, it was still Crane's choice as an artist to write about it. For Crane, the event must have held some deep meaning that was inseparable from the setting, or else he might have transformed it into a fictional account of a near-death experience in some other context. The experience of being in an open boat, adrift on the rough sea, seems to have communicated to Crane a sense of helplessness in the face of nature's indifference. Symbolically, nature is perfectly represented by the sea, the wind, the cold, and even the shark that periodically swims near the boat. These elements pose a great danger to the men, who have little they can do to protect themselves beyond rowing toward the shore and hoping for assistance.The nearly helpless men in the boat can been seen as a metaphor for all people before the forces of nature. Their power to act on their own behalf is small indeed when compared against the natural forces that allow them to exist, yet could strike them down at any moment.

Literary Techniques

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The story came from Crane's real-life experience of being one of four men in a dinghy attempting to survive the sinking of the ship The Commodore. Crane found that a factual account of the sinking and survival was almost impossible to write. Each man on the sinking ship and in the dinghy noticed and highlighted different points. Thus Crane's factual version of the sinking was different from the Captain's. (In fact, the Captain himself had some factual differences between the two accounts he gave.) Yet if Crane made the story totally fictional he would not be able to bring an interpretation that had the power and verisimilitude he wanted.

The story told is focused on the correspondent from a third-person distance, enabling the narrator to interpret events. All of the information we are given is presented through the thoughts and emotions of the correspondent. The correspondent's beliefs about the navigation of the dinghy, the size and power of the waves, the interpretation of what the men saw on the land, and the men's actual physical actions are given in a knowledgeable matter of fact manner. Yet the meaning of these items and of the interaction among the men in the boat are given to us as interpretations of the correspondent's thoughts.

These interpretations do not ring false to the reader because as an ironic, totally unintentional reality check, the interpretations the correspondent makes are all land based. We have a land-based person interpreting the events of sea with land based comparisons. We are told that the difficulty of changing seats in the dinghy is similar to stealing eggs from a hen. The sea gulls' ease in the sea is compared to a covey of prairie chickens. The care the men take in moving about the dinghy is equated to Sevres china. The problems the correspondent faced on the ocean did not make the correspondent a seaman; so that the land-based comparisons ring true.

In addition Crane presents the sea in various, enigmatic forms. The correspondent interacts with nature through his understanding of the elements and physical laws. He epitomizes fear and despair:

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.

From this point of despair the correspondent's thinking moves back to a protective mixture of anger, and hope:

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.

Crane uses abbreviated versions of the above paragraph to show the cyclical thinking done by the men and their recognition of the need to control their thoughts. The reader is given to understand that most of the time the men did not share their thoughts or explore their own thoughts too deeply. The men could destroy themselves by dwelling on their own thoughts, good or bad.

At one time the cook mentions the pies he was thinking of and was immediately rebuked by the correspondent and the oiler. Thus, when the correspondent continually thinks of the seven mad gods, he does not mention them. The seven mad gods are very likely the seven men who attempted to get to shore on three makeshift rafts, and they greatly concern the men in the dinghy. (In the actual incident three of these men were rescued.) In "The Open Boat," we never hear directly about any of the men on the rafts. Our attention is kept logically focused on the dinghy's immediate survival. While the fate of the men on the rafts causes worry and grief to the men in the dinghy, spending physical or emotional energy on something they can do nothing about would endanger their own chance for survival. Each man on the raft owes it to the others to work toward the common effort.

To a lesser extent Crane discussed the issue of man reaching in himself for untapped resources and reaching beyond himself to "nature as God" for help in delivering all that is needed. A portion of what was needed was clearly courage and physical endurance, but more subtly Crane has the correspondent deal with "the ethics" of easing the other men's emotional burdens and maintaining his own emotional stability. An example of this comes when the correspondent is rowing during the night. A shark begins to circle the boat. The shark is large enough that if it attacked it would upset the dinghy. The correspondent stares fascinated and afraid, yet he never asks any of the other men to wake up and share the fear. Crane states, "A young man thinks doggedly at such times. On the other hand, the ethics of their condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of helplessness."

Ultimately the correspondent will recognize that elemental and physiological Nature is not malevolent, but rather neutral. The same wind that stirred up the waves pushed their dinghy when they rigged a sail. The waves that washed over their boat brought them the stick they used to rig the sail. Nature did not allow or hinder the men's survival, she only did what she always does. "She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."

In some of his earlier writings Crane identified the moods, emotions, and desires of individual people as a 'malevolent' intrusion of Nature. Because people are totally controlled by their environment, individual desires can only cause despair. The desires of the poor are certainly different from the desires of the affluent, but they are both trapped by their desires.

In his earlier writings, such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane believes that individuals are totally helpless and can be helped only by the larger society. The wickedness of people in the slums was wrong, but it was not punishable because the environment had trapped that person into his/her actions. Crane condemned only social wickedness, especially when the larger society failed to help those who were trapped. In "The Open Boat," Crane modifies this position: members of the dinghy are capable of controlling themselves. Personal indulgence is no longer tolerated, and social wickedness is defined as the collective personal shortcomings. No longer does one group of people need another group to rescue it, and Nature is not regarded as the common foe. Failure to identify and work toward a goal is the fault of humankind, not of Nature.

The tone and flow of "The Open Boat" is smooth and even. This is somewhat unusual in Crane's writing and might have had a great deal to do with both the basic reality of the story and Crane's consistent interpretation of his characters. The technique of using real events as a basis for a fictional story does not always succeed. This same technique did not work as well when Crane fictionalized an account of his encounter with and escape from soldiers during the Spanish war. So why does "The Open Boat" work? Potentially because Crane limited himself to interpreting the truly complex "man versus nature" struggle that exists in all our lives—with or without a sinking ship.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Naturalism vs. individual responsibility is the key issue in "The Open Boat." The group may question whether the men have been stranded in the dinghy because of the forces of nature or of society. Having found themselves adrift on the open seas, do they respond realistically or are they simply symbols for Crane's thesis? The group may also compare "The Open Boat" with Joseph Conrad's sea stories written about the same time, especially Lord Jim (1900; see separate entry) and "Youth" (1902; see separate entry).

1. Discuss how Crane reveals the personalities of each of the men. Look for definite quotes or actions revealing these personalities.

2. What Crane omits from the story is as important as what he includes. What elements, ideas, or issues would you have expected in a story about a ship wreck? Why does Crane eliminate those elements?

3. Identify several places in the story where the correspondent defines a different facet of nature, then discuss how the meteorological information corresponds with the action of the story.

4. Why doesn't Crane address what happens to the men once they reach shore? What does arriving on shore mean?

5. As a philosophy, Naturalism argues that individuals are totally trapped by their immediate society. Discuss whether this philosophy has applications in contemporary society.

6. How do Crane's images and style affect the realism of the story?

7. Crane himself was raised in a religious environment, but moved into secular literary circles, took mistresses from bordellos, traveled to exotic places for his reporting assignments, and covered the action of three different wars. Do you think that Crane was a victim of his society? Did he have free will to choose the path of his life?

8. In 1897 Crane survived the wreck of the Commodore, which is thought to form the basis of "The Open Boat." Writing stories based on real incidents is not always successful. Find the elements that Crane uses to make this real life incident come to life as a story.

9. As the correspondent narrates this story in hindsight, he reveals the effect that survival has had on him. Discuss how he has changed.

Social Concerns

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"The Open Boat" represents one of the few Stephen Crane stories where he is entirely positive about his characters. Right from the beginning the characters are united in a brotherhood of humankind against nature, which is uncaring and capricious, and against death. As the men battle the sea and their impending death, they come to understand themselves and each other. They were "friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common."

Although the men care about each other, their primary goal is survival, and Crane keeps his focus on the common effort. Through the changes in the correspondent, Crane mirrors the changes in the other men. The correspondent moves from desperation, to hope in their teamwork, to resignation, to hope in rescue, to despair, to anger, to renewed hope in their teamwork. In order to move through these emotions without over burdening the others in the life boat, the correspondent keeps all his feelings within himself, places great trust in the captain, and has a total equality with the crew members. Crane never has the correspondent or any other member of the group in the dinghy commit an act of individual heroism. Heroism is defined as willing interdependence. Thus each man becomes a hero.

The interdependence of humankind is a quality Crane questions in most of his work. "The Open Boat" creates definitions of heroism and bonding that strike one as real, even if different from the expected. Crane uses a mixture of social positions to support his definitions of brotherhood and heroism. To create this mixture, he names only one of his characters, and the rest are known only by their jobs: captain, oiler, cook, and correspondent. All of the people in the dinghy (representing all of humanity) are known by how they contribute to the struggle against nature, not by who they are.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: The Cuban struggle for independence from Spain becomes a unified political movement under the leadership of Jose Marti, following unsuccessful, small-scale revolts. American intervention in the war is followed by Cuba's independence from Spain and a period of U.S. occupation.

1997: Cuba is now a communist nation under the leadership of Fidel Castro. In October, Cuba receives the remains of Castro's fellow revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Guevara had been killed in Bolivia thirty years earlier.

1896: The United States' s foreign policy is marked by aggressive imperialism, an approach advocated by the Republicans and the newly elected president, William McKinley. Alaska is purchased by the government in 1867, and Hawaii is annexed in 1898. Following the Spanish-American War in 1898-1899, the United States extends its influence to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

1990s: U.S. foreign policy is characterized as interventionist. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States helps to mediate conflicts around the world, including the Middle East and Bosnia. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 is fought by the United States to prevent Iraq from invading Kuwait.

Literary Precedents

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Naturalism grew out of a rejection of the Victorian sense of propriety. Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie, 1900) and others wrote stories revealing how people really lived, spoke, and thought. This group of writers tended to believe that people are helpless in the grip of instincts and social forces. The majority of Crane's writing is naturalistic, yet "The Open Boat" moves away from pure Naturalism into psychological analysis. In "The Open Boat," Crane is confronted with real people with varying personalities confronting a larger force. They do not become slaves to instinct; rather, they use a great deal of reasoning and effort to solve the problem. Crane later brought this clash of larger forces and choice into a humorous perspective in "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1900).

Media Adaptations

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"The Open Boat’’ is available on video from Film Video Library. Produced by the University of Michigan, this 29-minute black-and-white film was created in 1965 as part of the ‘‘American Story Classics’’ series.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Berryman, John. ‘‘Stephen Crane: 'The OpenBoat'.’’ In The Freedom of the Poet, pp. 168-84. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

Buitenhuis, Peter. ‘‘The Essentials of Life: 'The Open Boat' as Existentialist Fiction,’’ Modern Fiction Studies Vol. 3, 1959, pp. 243-50.

Crane, Stephen. ‘‘Stephen Crane's Own Story.’’ In American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology, Elliott, Emory, editor, Prentice Hall, 1991.

Further Reading
Halliburton, David. The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Provocative study of Crane's entire body of work which emphasizes its philosophical aspects and is organized by themes rather than chronology or works. The title is taken from the opening line of"The Open Boat.’’

Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Fascinating study which suggests that Crane applied concepts derived from the impressionist school of painting to his fiction.

Bibliography

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Benfey, Christopher E. G. The Double Life of Stephen Crane. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.

Cady, Edwin H. Stephen Crane. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Gullason, Thomas A., ed. Stephen Crane’s Literary Family: A Garland of Writings. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Hayes, Kevin J. Stephen Crane. Tavistock, Northumberland, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2004.

Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding “The Red Badge of Courage”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane: Journalism and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Weatherford, Richard M., ed. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

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