Existential Reflections in Stephen Crane's 'The Open Boat'

Categories: Conflict

Stephen Crane's short story, "The Open Boat," delves into the profound theme of nature's indifference towards human life. Through a gripping narrative, Crane paints a vivid picture of four men stranded in a small boat, battling the unforgiving forces of the open sea. The story serves as a poignant exploration of the existential struggle faced by the characters and the lessons of resilience in the face of an indifferent natural world.

Characters and Struggle for Survival

The tale opens with the introduction of four main characters: the captain, the oiler, the correspondent, and the cook.

Placed in a small boat at the mercy of the relentless sea, these men grapple with the dire circumstances, vividly portrayed by Crane's descriptions. The struggle for survival is palpable as the sea's relentless assault threatens to tear them apart. Despite their desperate situation, nature continues its course - the sun rises and sets indifferently, and the shore remains "lonely and indifferent."

The presence of a shark further underscores the indifferent nature of the sea.

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Crane's description of the shark's trail of phosphorescence, resembling a monstrous knife, illustrates the potential dangers lurking in the ocean. Importantly, this aggression is not a deliberate act against man but a manifestation of the normal activities of nature.

Symbolism in Nature

The symbolic elements in the story, such as sharks and birds, serve to emphasize the overarching theme of nature's indifference. The birds, sitting comfortably in groups, become symbols of nature's control. The men in the dinghy can only watch as these creatures, untouched by the sea's wrath, fly so close that they can see the black of each other's eyes.

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This symbolic testing of the men emotionally underscores their helplessness as mere objects adrift in the vastness of the ocean.

Emotional Testing through Birds

The birds, seemingly unaffected by the sea's fury, play a crucial role in emotionally testing the men. Their calm flight contrasts sharply with the men's desperate situation. The birds become witnesses to the men's struggle, highlighting the stark difference between the human experience and the indifferent rhythms of the natural world.

Recollection of Childhood and Empathy

The correspondent, in a moment of reflection, recalls a childhood verse and expresses empathy for a dying soldier who doesn't even exist. This poignant moment showcases the profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension experienced by the correspondent. He, in his current situation, can grasp the true meaning of the dying soldier's predicament. This revelation leads to a broader understanding of the isolation and cruelty that can exist in the world.

Understanding the soldier's plight, the correspondent realizes that he does not have to be alone in this cruel world. The once distant image of the dying soldier in Algiers becomes an actuality, stern, mournful, and fine. The correspondent's connection to a poem transforms into a visceral understanding of the potential fate that awaits them if they do not return from the sea.

Understanding Cruelty and Isolation

The correspondent's revelation about being alone in a cruel world becomes a poignant theme in the narrative. He comprehends the soldier's fate and recognizes that, if they never return from the sea, they will not die in their homeland but in an uncanny world. Crane, through this exploration, adds depth to the characters' experiences, making the narrative more than a mere survival story.

Contemplation and Decision

The story prompts contemplation about the unfolding events and the different outcomes that might occur. In the end, faced with the impossibility of getting any closer to the shore, the four men decide to swim for it. The decision, marked by a resigned acknowledgment that the next wave might be their last, encapsulates the persistent struggle against an indifferent nature.

The poignant line, "Now boys, the next one will do for us sure. Mind to jump clear of the boat," captures the essence of their decision. The narrative concludes with an outcome that leaves all but one of the men reaching the shore, emphasizing the unpredictability of life in the face of indifferent natural forces.


In conclusion, Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" masterfully explores the theme of nature's indifference, weaving a tale of survival, resilience, and existential contemplation. The narrative's richness lies not only in the struggles of the characters but in the profound connections drawn between the human experience and the indifferent, sometimes harsh, rhythms of the natural world.

Updated: Jan 02, 2024
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Existential Reflections in Stephen Crane's 'The Open Boat'. (2016, Jul 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-open-boat-conflict-essay

Existential Reflections in Stephen Crane's 'The Open Boat' essay
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