Naturalism in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

Categories: Naturalism

Stephen Crane remains one of the most influential naturalist writers in the United States. Scholars credit him for the establishment of modern U.S. naturalism. The author uses the book to recount a real-life story, when one of the ships he was travelling in went afloat in high seas and left everyone stranded. The naturalism concept argues that literary works should detach themselves from scientific objectivity when defining society and humanity. Naturalist writers consider the significance of family, environment, and socio-economic conditions in shaping people’s character.

Accordingly, they argue that the environment determines an individual’s behavior. The treatise argues that nature predetermines individuals’ situation and makes them respond in a particular way, which is against their wishes.

Crane uses various symbols such as the sea to reveal human’s hopelessness and despair. The use of characters stranded in the sea shows the crude indifference that exists in life. The story has a somber mood and the characters encounter various adversities throughout the story.

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The sea faces the characters situation without offering any assistance or mocking them; instead, it maintains its indifference. The author uses the changing colors of the sea to portray the way real life situations change and humans struggle to survive in hostile environments (Crane 615). Crane also uses the pronoun 'she' to describe the sea in several statements to demonstrate the way people have differing notions regarding the sea. Similar to society, individuals not only depend on her but also face destruction and frustration from her.

Crane relies on tone and imagery to depict the heartless indifference of the natural environment.

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The opening line “None of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane 614), reveals a world that does not have emotional value of color. The does not assign names to his characters apart from the oiler who is identified as Billy who does not survive as if having identity has marked him. Further, the author employs imagery to reinforce meaning. He explains precisely the way the sea belittles the crew by comparing their boat to a bathtub (Crane 614). The crew such as the Correspondent fear drowning in the sea and blames himself for the injustice of his fate.

Each of the characters roles in The Open Boat represents part of life in the society. For example, the captain may represent those in authority by providing instructions and encouragement to the other crewmembers. His paternal and leadership roles are evident when he gives instructions to the oiler concerning paddling skills such as boat balancing and comforts the correspondent and the cook (Crane 620). The oiler shows the way this community values masculinity by displaying strength and doing a majority of the hard work in the story. In contrast, the cook displays children’s innocence, friendliness, and curiosity in society (Crane 621). The correspondent represents humans inner world and romance. Consequently, the characters demonstrate various external forces that humans fight, eventually lose to irrespective of the situation.

Crane also uses objectivity aspects of naturalism to paint human beings as victims of destiny. He discusses the situation of the characters without considering the morality of their predicament. Fate makes the characters to find themselves in an open boat in a vast sea where nobody knows their existence, but they must find a solution to their problems. The characters think of ways of finding a run through the surf instead of waiting for help (Crane 629). The author only concentrates on what the characters can do to stay alive in the small boat. Emphasis on their struggles to sail safely to the shore reveals humans place in the world and their helplessness over nature.

Evidently, nature predetermines people's situation and makes them respond in a particular way, against their wishes. In The Open Boat, Crane uses symbolism and objectivity to expose humans helplessness over nature. The discussions above indicate that social factors and moral beliefs have little influence on the characters fate. The story brings out naturalism through the characters loss of control over their free will to make decisions regarding their life and death. The story shows the way people struggle to survive against a hostile and indifferent nature. Despite the terrible experiences, the characters hold on their survival instinct and believe they can sail to the shore safely.

Work Cited

Crane, Stephen. 'The Open Boat'. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Robert S. Levine. 9th ed. V II. New York: W. W Norton & Company, 2017. 614-30. Print.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
Cite this page

Naturalism in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane. (2024, Feb 09). Retrieved from

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