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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Short Stories for Students)

“The Gulf Stream,” a painting by American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910), treats the theme of sea travel and the struggle to survive at sea that is also a feature of Crane’s story “The Open Boat.” Published by Gale Cengage

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...

(The entire section is 5,160 words.)