“The Open Boat” is considered by some critics to be Stephen Crane’s masterpiece. Summarizing the rudimentary plot—the struggle of four shipwrecked men to survive in a rough sea in a ten-foot dinghy—suggests little of the story’s abiding interest. At its center lies not the question of who will survive, ultimately revealed as a matter of chance anyway, but rather the progressively revealed nature of human life and the place of humanity in the universe. The theme is not presented as an abstract philosophical statement; it emerges, rather, from a brilliantly compelling rendition of life in an open boat, vividly portrayed and psychologically exact.
The events immediately preceding those of “The Open Boat” are recounted in “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” published January 7, 1897—five days after the Commodore sank—in the New York Press. The short story can be appreciated without reading the journalistic narrative, though knowing the context is useful as background. It is instructive, nevertheless, to compare the openings. “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” begins, after the dateline, “It was the afternoon of New Year’s. The Commodore lay at her dock in Jacksonville”—functional journalistic prose, whose sole purpose is the objective presentation of facts. The opening of “The Open Boat,” on the other hand—“None of them knew the color of the sky” is one of the most famous sentences in modern literature. Arrestingly, with the utmost concision, it reveals the essentials of life in a ten-foot dinghy: One’s world is reduced, one’s attention is focused solely on survival from moment to moment. What the men know about, in frighteningly intimate detail, is the waves that threaten to swamp the boat.
The four men in the dinghy are the captain of the Commodore; the oiler, who worked in the engine room; the ship’s cook; and the correspondent, Stephen Crane himself. They have come together by accident, strangers whose names—except for the oiler’s, given incidentally in...
(The entire section is 838 words.)