The Open Boat Themes

The three main themes of “The Open Boat” are the individual versus nature, perspective, and death.

  • The individual versus nature: The men in the story recognize that they are helpless in the face of nature.
  • Perspective: One of the main themes of the story is the limitations of any one perspective, or point of view.
  • Death: The story is about four men who are shipwrecked and must confront the possibility of their own imminent death.

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Individual vs. Nature
During the late nineteenth century, Americans had come to expect that they could control and conquer their environment. With the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution humankind appeared to have demonstrated its ability to both understand and to dominate the forces of nature. In "The Open Boat,'' Crane questions these self-confident assumptions by describing the precarious situation of four shipwrecked men as they are tossed about on the sea. The men seem to recognize that they are helpless in the face of nature. Their lives could be lost at any moment by the most common of natural phenomena: a wave, a current, the wind, a shark, or even simple starvation and exposure. The men are at the mercy of mere chance. This realization profoundly affects the correspondent, who is angered that he might be drowned despite all of his efforts to save himself. In a passage that drips with irony, Crane writes of the correspondent: "He thought: 'Am I going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?' Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.’’ This passage suggests the absurdity of an individual's sense of self-importance against the mindless power of nature.

One of the main themes of the story concerns the limitations of any one perspective, or point of view. Crane's famous first sentence of the story presents this theme immediately: "None of them knew the color of the sky.'' The men in the boat are so focused on the danger presented to them by the waves that they are oblivious to all else. The story continually emphasizes the limitations of a single perspective. When the shipwrecked men are first spotted from the shore, they are mistaken for fishermen. The people on shore do not perceive their distress and only wave cheerfully to the men.

Crane writes of the men in the boat that if they were viewed ‘‘from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque.’’ This serene perspective contrasts markedly with the frightening and violent reality the men in the boat are experiencing. Crane's point seems to be that humans can never fully comprehend the true quality of reality, but only their own limited view of it. Throughout the story, the situation of the men in the boat seems to them "absurd," "preposterous," and without any underlying reason or meaning. Yet once the three survivors are safely on shore at the end of the story, they believe that they can look back and "interpret'' the import or meaning of what has happened to them. The reader is left to wonder whether anything can ever be truly understood, or if all understanding is simply an agreed-upon, limited perspective that provides the illusion of unity to the chaos of lived events.

The drama of the story comes from the men's realization that they are likely to drown. Having to confront the probability of their own imminent death, each of the characters accepts what Crane calls a ‘‘new ignorance of the grave-edge.’’ It is interesting that Crane refers to this understanding as "ignorance" rather than "knowledge." Being at the mercy of fate has demonstrated to them how wrong their previous beliefs about their own importance had been. The correspondent, in particular, is troubled by the senselessness of his predicament, and he thinks about a poem in which a French soldier dies, unceremoniously, far from his home and family. Facing senseless death, the universe suddenly seems deprived of the meaning he had previously attached to it. Thus, he is overtaken by a new "ignorance" about life, rather than a new "knowledge.'' Crane seems to endorse the idea that nature is random and senseless by having the oiler drown in the surf. Of all the men, the oiler seemed the most likely to survive, being the most physically fit. His death implies that the others' survival was merely the result of good fortune. Once the survivors are safe from danger, however, death's senselessness is quickly forgotten.

Free Will
Crane was regarded as a leading member of the Realist or Naturalist movement in his time. One of the main concerns of the Naturalists involved the dilemma of whether human beings could exercise control over their fate or whether their fate was predetermined by their environment. To state it differently, they asked whether humans possess a free will or were powerless to shape external events. Drawing upon deterministic philosophies such as those of Charles Darwin, Auguste Comte, or Karl Marx the Naturalists analyzed the various natural forces that effected the ‘‘struggle for life.’’ These concerns are evident in ‘‘The Open Boat.’’ Although the four men are clearly making the best effort to get to shore, it is never certain until the end whether they will drown. Their fate 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. It seems clear that Crane attributes the correspondent's survival more to uncontrollable forces than to his own efforts.


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"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 a struggle of individuals vs. themselves and their inner demons than it is a struggle against the physical world.

In "The Open Boat" the men's very survival demands that they work together; there is no time or place for individuals to exert their emotions. Thus, when one or more of the men threaten to rock the equilibrium required to mentally combat the physical conditions, the other men silence the offender.

Themes and Meanings

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“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.

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