Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat” (1894) shows a microcosm of social interdependency, which is set against the back-drop of the natural world. The story, at its most basic root, could be considered a “man vs. nature” story, or an adventure story with the sea as a symbol for nature’s essential neutrality and indifference to human life and human aspiration.
Given this central tension in the story, it is important to recognize that Crane, rather than pitting an heroic protagonist against the trial against an indifferent nature, chose to express the heroic capacity of a group of individuals acting in concert for their mutual survival. In this way, the story becomes less about the indifference of nature and more about the ability of human society to function as a “buffer” against nature and a construct which gives not only a degree of safety, but meaning, to human existence.
In order to establish the conflict between humanity and nature, as well as to introduce the persistent idea of communal support, Crane begins the story with the words “”None of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane, 728); while the opening words convey a sense of mystery and danger, they also convey at the same time, a firm understanding on the reader’s behalf that nature has become alien to the characters in the story and that it is “them” rather than nay particular individual with whom the story will be concerned.
The following description of the men who are banded together in a dinghey after a shipwreck informs the reader that Crane, is in fact, determined to offer a social microcosm in order to represent, as fully as possible within the limited confines of the short-story form, the urgency and importance that the communal identity described in the story extends to all walks of life and all levels of society.
By the time the entire story has been studied, the alert reader realizes that not only the makeshift crew of the boat itself, which is comprised of the wounded captain of the sunken ship, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, but the cast of the story altogether — represents a typical Western society at all levels: men and women, workers and executives, thinkers and “doers” as well as the lucky and… unlucky. Both life and death figure prominently in the struggle which is described in the story — with the ability to distinguish between the two an immediate threat which faces the crew of the dinghey.
In order to establish the utter despair of being cut-off from the protection of human society (symbolized by the sunken ship) and left to the devices of uncontrolled and unchecked nature (symbolized by the sea and its wildlife), Crane describes the motion of the dinghey, which can be thought of as a makeshift society, in words which can only be interpreted as showing a descent from social order to the chaos and indifference of nature: ” A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking broncho[… ]the craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal” (Crane, 728).
Additionally, Crane offers a description of the men’s view of the sea from atop one of the great waves, just before the corresponding plunge: “The crest of each of these waves was a hill, from the top of which the men surveyed, for a moment, a broad tumultuous expanse; shining and wind-riven. It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber” (Crane, 729). The word “probably” in this description is the key to injecting the sinister and simultaneously indifferent pose of nature to the men trapped in the dinghey.
In order to drive his point regarding the indifference of nature even more fully home, Crane creates an image which is at once ironic and dramatic; an image which fills the reader with dread and a sense of the absurd all at once. By describing the gulls who flew nearby the drifting craft and showing their ease in the very element which threatened to destroy the men aboard the dinghey, Crane creates a genuinely masterful symbol to demonstrate nature’s indifference to humanity when he describes that a gull “came, and evidently decided to alight on the top of the captain’s head” (Crane, 729).
This image is ironic and compelling and is Crane’s most obvious articulation of his theme that is given in the story. Against the backdrop of indifferent nature, none of the men aboard the dinghey as individuals is able to perform a rescue plan or find some heroic solution to their problem. Rather, by increments and by working together, the men eventually begin to regain a sense of determination, which ultimately rises to the level of hope and then — action.
The mutual support of the men is the heroic aspect of the story: “They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common” (Crane, 729). This quite optimistic notion is meant to establish human society as a whole (as expressed through the microcosm of the “open boat”) as both a necessity and a natural outgrowth of human capacity. In other words, the men are out of their element (unlike the gulls) when pitted against the open sea, but in their element — which is human society — they can meet the test which confronts them.
Humanity is meant to build mutually sustaining communities and societies just as gulls are meant to float on open ocean waves. In the long run, the tension between nature and man which is created at the beginning of the story finds fulfilling closure in the story’s post-climax where Crane writes “the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters” (Crane, 740).
The closure of the story suggests — not a tension or conflict between man and nature — but a resolution through nature — human nature — to the discord offered in the story’s rising action. In other words, man by following his nature to be a social animal, and only by following this impulse, can be as harmoniously at home in the world, despite the indifference of nature, as a seagull which also accepts its rightful place in the natural order. Works Cited Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat,” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library (1999); accessed 2-1-09; http://www2. lib. virginia. edu/etext/index. html