Why does only the oiler die in Crane's "The Open Boat"?

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Billie, the oiler, is hardworking and the most physically capable person in the boat. Used to difficult manual labor, he is strong and can endure hours and hours of rowing in the small boat. The narrator tells us that, prior to the boat's sinking, "the oiler had worked double-watch in the engine-room of the ship." Despite the fact that he does take orders from the captain, he listens to the captain tell him where to row the boat, the oiler seems—in many ways—to be a leader. He helps take charge as their boat gets closer to shore, advising the others how to proceed. Further, after the dingy capsizes, "the oiler was ahead in the race" to swim to shore. "He was swimming strongly and rapidly."

We have every reason to believe that if anyone is going to survive all of these disasters, it will be Billie. He is even the only character to get a name, another way Crane encourages readers to sympathize with him—by decreasing the distance between the audience and this character. We are accustomed to expect that such a character will live: he is good, he does not complain, he works hard, he is in good shape, and he is named, whereas others are not. Therefore, it is especially shocking to us when he dies. This is one way in which Crane conveys his point that it does not matter to Nature who is the nicest or the best worker; we are completely subject to Nature's caprices and what we do or do not do really has little or no effect at all on our fate.

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There isn't a rhyme or reason as to why the oiler dies while the other men survive. As a naturalist author, that is exactly Crane's point. Nature is completely uncaring about humans and the struggles of humans to survive. Crane doesn't exactly hide this notion from readers either. The narrator flat out tells readers this information in section 6 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.

It doesn't matter to nature that the oiler is the strongest and fittest of the men. It doesn't matter that he fights nature harder and longer than any of the other men. Nature is unrelenting in its efforts. There is always another wave coming to threaten the men.

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.

We might think it is unfair that nature kills any of the men, and the men in the boat feel this notion too.

For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard.

However, the oiler does die, and that is how the story viscerally reinforces nature's cold indifference to any of the men.

She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.

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In Crane's short story "The Open Boat," four men are lost at sea in a small boat. At first it seems that none of them will survive, but as the story goes on, the men spy land and have hope that they can make it ashore. Because the captain is injured, the other men must take turns rowing the boat. Since they have virtually no supplies, this physical exertion is exhausting. The oiler is the strongest man--physically--on the boat, so much of the rowing falls to him. Therefore, as he continues to row, the other three men are able to take short rests and conserve their strength.

This becomes important when they decide to make a break for it and swim to shore. The oiler, who is completely depleted of energy because he has been rowing for most of the time, does not have the strength to swim to shore and dies. This story ironically reverses the notion of Darwin's survival of the fittest: while the oiler seemed to be the fittest and strongest of the four men, he used up his energy, which made him the weakest and the mostly likely to die.

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Why does Crane structure "The Open Boat" so that only the oiler dies?

One clue as to why the olier dies--and is the only one to die--lies in the importance of the textual connection between the oiler and the correspondent as seen in light of the Naturalist perspective in literature. Throughout the text, the oiler and correspondent are an inseparable pair:

Then the oiler took both oars; then the correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they rowed.

Again and again, "the oiler rowed, and then the correspondent rowed, and then the oiler rowed." The other variation of the pairing is that while the correspondent rowed, the oiler slept. The oiler "slept once more the dead sleep," as he and the correspondent did together on the occasion when the cook took the oars to spell them.

Since one of the tenets of Naturalism is that nature is supreme and all-powerful and completely arbitrary, Crane may be using the pairing of these two men--the absolute equality of these two men--to illustrate this characteristic of nature, that with nature being all-powerful and destructive, there must be death; being arbitrary, it matters not which must be sacrificed to death. In other words, of two equal men, it matters not which one dies.

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