In “The Open Boat” Stephen Crane uses the sea and four men adrift in a dinghy as a framework for communicating his ideas about life. The story, in my opinion, is a metaphor for life. The four men are helpless against the indifferent, yet overwhelming forces of nature. In “The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane not only comments on the role of nature and God in the life of man, but the importance of community and brotherhood, and the nature of an individual’s journey to knowledge.
“The Open Boat” was written following Stephen Crane’s real life experience when a ship he was aboard, The Commodore, sunk on January 22, 1897 off the coast of Florida on its way to Cuba. He and three others, the captain, oiler and cook, as in his fictional account, were able to make their way back to shore after a harrowing thirty hour journey. Billy Higgins, reflected in the story as the oiler, died close to shore (Schaefer 296).
Some commentators have proposed that because the story so closely mirrors his real life experience, it crosses from fiction to nonfiction.
Stefanie Bates Eye states that “‘The Open Boat’ is not more fictional or invented than Stephen Crane’s ‘Own Story’ and that both narratives follow the historical sequence of events surrounding the Commodore disaster as verified in contemporary newspaper reports, the ship’s log and other shipping records, and accounts by witnesses” (75). Bates presents various opinions about the ongoing debate regarding the status of “The Open Boat” as a fiction or literary nonfiction and comes to the following conclusion: “It is our responsibility to accept the integrity of his vision as consistent with nonfictional truth-telling and consider “The Open Boat” as an early-perhaps one of the first-examples of literary nonfiction” (77).
However, others feel that Crane, perhaps stifled by journalism, sought to write about the philosophical meaning of his shipwreck experience, and creatively used the historical facts as a framework to get his ideas across. Crane also wrote “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” which describes the sinking of the ship that “the history of life in an open boat for 30 hours would no doubt be very instructive for the young, but none is to be told here now” (Schaefer 297). Perhaps this admission regarding the factual account would lead one to assume “The Open Boat” to be for a larger purpose. Many critics rate the story highly because it is both realistic and symbolic.
It is, in Stallman’s words, “a direct transcript of personal experience….transformed into an impersonal and symbolic representation of life: the plight of man tossed upon an indifferent sea” (qtd. in Schaefer 315). Marston La France supports this view by stating thatnothing more clearly illustrates the essential insignificance of external facts in a Crane story than a comparison of ‘The Open Boat’ with his own news report of the disaster, for in the report the reader gets only the literal truth of the fact, whereas Crane’s structure imposed upon the facts in the work of are conveys the moral truth of the human experience (qtd. in Schaefer 299).
Crane uses the sea as a metaphor for life. However, the sea is not a placid, serene, supportive flow whereby people are taken to beautiful places. Rather, the sea is depicted as vicious and hostile. At the start of the story the sea is described as having the intention of swamping the dinghy and drowning its inhabitants (Gibson 129). Crane says the waves are “wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall” and every wave is “just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping the boats” (361).
However as the story progresses, it appears that Crane’s conclusion is rather that nature (and thus God) is indifferent to men. In “The Open Boat,” the correspondent sees a windmill on the shore. He saysThis tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual-nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, or beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent (381).
It seems that nature and also this windmill are representative of God and his indifference to what happens to people. The high, cold star that the correspondent notices in the sky later in the story also communicates his idea of the indifference of nature and the idea that there is not a personal God involved in the affairs of men. Gibson states, “In short, nature here means God, and to the men in the boat, who despite His indifference, desire to live, He is like ‘a high cold star,’ unfeeling and aloof from the affairs of men” (134).
In an important sequence that is repeated in the story the correspondent rails about the absurdity of his plight and the discovery that there is no temple (and thus no God). This passage clearly communicates Crane’s idea that man is of no concern to the “gods” and his very existence is inconsequential to any higher power.
‘If I am going to be drowned-if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name if the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?’ … When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and or temples (377).
The second broad idea that Crane communicates in “The Open Boat” is man’s need to deal with the indifference of nature through community or brotherhood. Solomon says:One aspect of the knowledge that slowly comes to him during the silent, hopeless, long night makes up the philosophical core of “The Open Boat.” Man is not important. Nevertheless, while the correspondent realizes the dehumanizing pathos of his situation, he also learns that in his wretched isolation he becomes a part of mankind (169).
Not only does the correspondent identify with all of humankind in a kind of fatalistic realization that all humans are “in the same boat,” but he also understands that there is unity in the struggle. Dooley states, “As in Crane’s western stories, the setting for “The Open Boat” is natural-the ocean. However, in place of solitary, or unorchestrated efforts, the four men struggle in unison. They find their shared trial produces human solidarity as each of them encounters an efficacious social self” (15).
Crane makes an allusion to a common and somewhat trite poem from his childhood about a soldier of the legion dying in Algiers. Perhaps he, as others, had grown indifferent to the rote sentimentality of the poem. In “The Open Boat” he quotes the poem about the soldier dying, learned at a time when he little understood the meaning or identified with its pathos. Solomom says:While the correspondent is alone and embittered by nature’s indifference, he is also developing, growing through his ordeal to an understanding of other men’s sorrows, lives, and deaths … The correspondent is moved by ‘perfectly impersonal comprehension’ and is sorry for the dying soldier. This is why the experience is the finest of the correspondent’s life. In “The Open Boat” he does suffer a sea change that makes him at once a better and a more sensitive man, capable of understanding his isolation in the face of nature and of reading, in the faces of men, the signs of comradeship (170-171).
The correspondent in the story realizes that he is not alone. The captain stays awake with his men, also sees the shark, and thus reduces feelings of isolation for the others. The oiler and the correspondent share the work of rowing and ask for relief only when utter fatigue overtakes them. Even when the boat finally swamps, the correspondent is aware and concerned about his companions. Solomon states that here in lies the lesson of the open boat-the fellowship and comradeship, which overtake the ego of each individual (172). The captain calls to the correspondent not to go it alone, but come back to the boat. All three, the captain, the correspondent, and the cook hold onto part of the boat, which, as Solomon states is “a relic of their fellowship” (172). Only the oiler, the strongest of the four, who uses his own individual strength as a swimmer to save himself, dies. It was “…the others, those who retained solidarity and trusted in each other rather than in themselves,” that survived (Solomon 173).
A third theme that “The Open Boat” projects in the nature of, and path to, knowledge. The story begins with the statement, “Know one knew the color of the sky” (360). It ends with “When it came night, the white waves paste to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great seas voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters” (386). They began not having even basic awareness and ended with being not just aware but interpreters. It appears that the experience between those two statements enabled them to gain knowledge. Bergon states “In ‘The Open Boat,’ Crane fixes his attention so closely on immediate experience that the story becomes a step by step process of acquiring ‘new eyes'” (150). What knowledge do the men in the open boat acquire? Bergon states that “To say only that the men learn of nature’s indifference and of their own bonds of brotherhood is to diminish that experience” (151).
Besides the color of the sky statement, there are other parts of the story where knowledge is not available to the crew. At the end of Section I, the cook and the correspondent argue about the house of refuge and its function. Does it have a crew? Is it a life-saving station? The problem of this lack of knowledge is brought up again when the house presents itself, and their lack of knowledge is cause for frustration. Metress makes the case that the lack of knowledge (knowing the color of the sky) in the beginning is of no consequence, since the crew does not care and this lack of knowledge does not affect their ability to survive at that moment. He calls this epistemological indifference. The lack of knowledge about the house in Section IV does, however, affect their ability to survive and is a cause for frustration and conjecture. Metress then states that epistemological indifference moves to epistemological anxiety (47). First, the cook and the correspondent argue as to the life saving capacity of the house of refuge near Mosquito Inlet. This information is of no interest, but not of utmost concern considering their distance from it.
As they get close enough to actually see a house, they need to know the status of the house. Their lack of knowledge here causes anxiety and frustration (Metress 50). Soon, however, the narrator of the story shares with the reader that there are no life-saving stations along the coast in that area (Metress 50). The reader’s anxieties are thus relieved (Metress 50). This anxiety is heightened when the men in the boat are able to see a man on shore waving his jacket. They discuss the meaning of his “signals.” In this case, the reader never learns their meaning either. The narrator does not choose to share with the reader any knowledge about the man on shore and thus, “… seeking anticipated knowledge from the narrator, and never receiving it, the reader remains frustrated, and is thus once again realigned with the crew and its posture of epistemological uncertainty” (Metress 51).
In addition, it appears that Crane does not really allow the reader to understand how to be an interpreter at the end of the story. The reader is left to wonder how to be an interpreter and what the interpretation is. The characters in the story, however, are interpreters because of their experience-something the reader cannot really share. Metress states “he (Crane) has placed us in such a position that we must shed our casual indifference to our epistemological failures and embrace unwillingly perhaps, the anxiety that will attend all of our efforts to ‘read’ life’s impenetrable meanings” (57). Perhaps the story is teaching that it is through experience that we come to our richest understanding of life. Denny argues that “it is rude and elemental experience itself, life willingly faced and committed to, that can establish the moral bearings that will have any real significance for us” (qtd. in Schaefer 322).
The change that the correspondent undergoes in his attitude about the Legionnaire who dies in the childhood poem, is one example of the kind of knowledge that is gained through the life and death harrowing experience on the boat. He had cared very little about that death as a child. “Less than the breaking of a pencil point,” the correspondent states in the story (379). As he remembers the story, however, his sympathy is stimulated. “Only through his own experiencing of outrageous fortune and the imminence of death has the correspondent gained maturity enough to feel the compassion for the universal human condition” (Gullason 414).
Similarly, Crane does allow the reader to see some of the knowledge that is imparted to the correspondent. He learns that man is at the mercy of an indifferent universe, that through experience with others man obtains meaning and safety, and that through this experience man can reach a higher moral ground of compassion. But, it also appears that some tension is left for the reader, who is unsure of exactly what he or she is interpreter of, and that since there are “no bricks and no temples” what was thought to be the seat of knowledge in human institutions is not just faults, but seemingly nonexistent. Gerstenberger calls this “epistemological existentialism” that is revealed in “The Open Boat” as “man’s inability to know anything about the complex whole of existence” (qtd. in Wolford 131).
Crane’s story, “The Open Boat” is rich with symbols, imagery, and meaning. The surface was only barely scratched here. Maurice Bassan states that “The Open Boat” is among Crane’s “most perfect tales because of its well-thought-out-and deft handling of point of view, the charity and precision of the pros as it clips and swells with the horizon and with the anxieties of men, and the muted, symbolic atmosphere” (qtd. in Schaefer 315). Crane’s account of this shipwreck in “The Open Boat” certainly transcends the facts of the occasion and communicates a rich tapestry in theme and symbolism.