The Open Boat Themes
by Stephen Crane

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Open Boat” is not simply a realistic account of the ordeal of four men on the open sea. The story is, indeed, largely autobiographical, based on the sinking of the USS Commodore, on which Stephen Crane was en route to Cuba as a reporter covering the Spanish-American War; the character of the correspondent is an obvious persona for Crane himself. Nevertheless, the story goes beyond mere journalistic accuracy and makes a statement about man’s relationship to nature, his place in the universe.

The overwhelming theme of the story is the conflict between the men and the cold indifference of the sea. The sea, in fact, is a character in its own right, an elemental force, unmindful of the human struggle to survive. The sea, as an analogue to nature, is cruel or sportive, taunting, menacing, or easeful, having no other motive but the exercise of its own power.

When, for example, the correspondent remembers the childhood verse about the soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers, he realizes that as a child he had no interest in the soldier. Now, on the verge of death himself, the correspondent understands that nature, the sea, has no interest in him. He and the soldier are thus brothers, sharing in the total apathy of fate. Survival on the sea or in Algiers is a matter of chance, of accident, of complete indifference.

Man’s struggles in the face of this elemental indifference are often marked by a grim irony. The oiler, the strongest of the group, drowns, but the sea leaves unclaimed the wounded captain and the cowardly cook.

In the concluding passage, the survivors stand on the beach looking at the sea. They “felt they could be interpreters.” What they interpret is the sheer accident of their existence, the arrant tenuousness of life.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"The Open Boat" is a discourse on man's relationship to nature. Crane never tired of this theme, but rarely had an opportunity to discuss it so thoroughly. In his earlier fiction, Crane had treated the theme of man versus nature as one of many issues clouding the interactions of humankind. But in "The Open Boat," man versus nature is all encompassing and the survival of the me is physical, emotional, and psychological. Therefore Crane gives nature a depth requiring multiple definitions. Nature is defined as the external elemental forces (wind, ocean, and rain), the basic physiological laws such as gravity, man's inner self, and God Himself.

The correspondent concludes, by the end of the voyage, that the people in the boat are the interpreters of the "sea." Just like nature, Crane is using sea in its most liberal definition. He is talking about the sea of life, mankind, and broadly defined nature rather than just a particular ocean off the coast of Florida.

Crane's all encompassing definition of nature is played against his equally compelling definition of mankind as symbolized by the men in the dinghy. As their emotions vacillate they see Nature differently. When they are angry, Nature dolls out the punishment of an angry deity; when they are hopeful, they regard Nature as a symbol of the unity of people; when they are jubilant, they see Nature as being the best in themselves and each other; when they are disappointed, Nature is disengaged; and when they are in despair, they see Nature as the weaknesses within themselves. It is only after the correspondent is safe that he can recognize his very broad view of the function of Nature in human existence.

Crane's broad definition of Nature required a corollary view of the struggle between Man and Nature. The unity of humankind in any situation is, by Crane's definition, not a natural occurrence. Humankind must will itself to work together against a common enemy—whether the enemy takes its form as the ocean, or poverty, or a warring nation. Individual members of humanity also have to work to control their own emotions, which make them vulnerable to desires, impulses, other people, and the physical elements. Thus the struggle of Man vs. Nature is really more of...

(The entire section is 1,645 words.)