The Open Boat Essay

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The Open Boat is a fictionalized version of a tragic personal experience in the life of of Stephen Crane. On the surface level, it is a story about the struggle of four men stranded in a wrecked ship and their efforts to come out of the situation but on a deeper level it reflects the constant struggle between man, nature and fate. Stephen Crane shows admiration and sympathy for four men cast adrift in a small boat (and, symbolically, for the plight of humankind generally) and he also exhibits bafflement and mild scorn at the apparent indifference¦ (Roberts 171). This adrift is against all the forces of nature and Crane does not eulogize this struggle or make it heroic but he sees this struggle as the ultimate dilemma of human kind.

He further illustrate that men can not win in his struggle against these natural forces but their effort itself is something valuable. So his (Cranes) treatment of the four men is both appreciative and sympathetic.  The Open Boat also evokes the question of the subjective nature of reality (Wertheim, 248). Crane asserts that absolute reality is a blurred concept and we all interpret reality according to our perception and pre-concieved notions as we are constatnly being told how things seemed or appeared.(Halliburton, 232) So this story is microcosmic representation of human struggle in front of difficulties that nature pose against humnaity and Crane skillfully conveys this theme utilizing subtle symbolism and thematic expressions.

Cranes further illustrates that men tackles gander collectively and Although the men in  and natural hazards. The men in the story are relative strangers but in the face of their common danger, the established an unexpected community, a subtle brotherhood on the sea. (Wertheim, 248) This communal rragnement against the natural danger retells the story of civilization where men learnt to survive collectively and communally. For example, Crane illustates an occasion when we were swamped by the surf and making the best of our way toward the shore. The use of first person plural in not unconscious or without any meaning. It refers to a collective effort by group that shares something in them.

They are we and have something common as our way. Crane further describes; But finally [the correspondent] arrived at a place in the sea where travel was beset with difficulty. He did not pause swimming to inquire what manner of current had caught him, but there his progress ceased. The shore was set before him like a bit of scenery on a stage, and he looked at it and understood with his eyes each detail of it. ” As the cook passed, much farther to the left, the captain was calling to him. Turn over on your back, cook! Turn over on your back and use the oar. ” All right, sir. The cook turned on his back, and paddling with an oar, went ahead as if he were a canoe. So collective efforts yielded into something beneficial.

Theme of free-will and pre-destination is prevalent in world literature but this theme does not relate to a common person all the time. Common person is not in conflict with fate all the time and is quite contended with his present situations. He attributes all his sufferings to the contemporary socio-economic situations instead of blaming destiny. But The Open Boat considers a totally different theme where men show their antagonism to nature in particular and fate in general.

The universe is shown showing an indifferent attitude toward mankind and has a lack of concern about humanity. One can overcome this indifference and cruelty of nature by persistent struggle only but nature is too big as well as impersonal. Crane is of the view that reality is mere perception and therefore is subjective. So interpretation can be independent. Thus is illustrated by the difference of opinion and understanding of the situation by the four men on the boat. Wertheim discuss this perception and interpretation corollary in this way;

There is thematic development in The Open Boat that is evident in the growth of perception from the first statement that [n]one of them knew the color of the sky to the conclusion that surviving men felt that they could be then interpreters. But this ambiguous statement seems to refer only to their increased understanding of perceptual realities and the problematic nature of interpretation; it does not confer any particular meaning on their experience or imply that human beings can achieve a rational understanding of their fate. (Wertheim, 250)

Stephen Crane illustrate in the start of the story that The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dingey, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland.  (Crane) Like birds, there are many human groups that sit contentedly while some others are in animosity with nature. Their concern and struggle is not universal. The coast is lonely and indifferent. But the same beach provides soothing effect for some other and recreation to most of us. Although the waves nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.(Crane)

 But same waves help drifting the ships and boats. So these are normal activities of nature and is not aimed and directed at antagonism toward mankind. So the experience of Stephen Crane and the other characters in the story is totally subjective that is unable to captivate the universal attention.

The extreme thought of one of the characters is illustrated thus; If I am going to be drownedif I am going to be drownedif I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?¦If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of mens fortunes. (Crane) It is exceedingly a subjective approach toward the dilemma faced by him. This dilemma is not of a general nature and this situation and its characteristics can not be applied to general masses as every one does not have the same experience in his/her life.

The technique used by Crane is unusual utilization of rapidly changing view-points. This a manifestation of subjective perception and interpretation as narrative account is included from the perspective of each of the men on the boat. Crane himself acts a narrator with objective observation but his view-point too is either a perception or reflection blurred by his misplaced notions or pre-conceived thoughts.

Neither of the viewpoints is dominant and all augments the themes of the story. Additionally, [c]hance and unconcern of the universe are the dominant motifs in the concluding section of The Open Boat. (Wertheim, 250) So story is a balance mix of thematic expression. The technicalities of the story are subtly present that it produces a dramatic tension within the story that captivates the attention of the reader. Gibson has beautifully summed his style in this way;

Though The Open Boat is of a piece with Cranes major fiction, it stands apart from other works in style, characterization, and tone¦ The fluency of style here, its evenness throughout, gives evidence, especially when compared with the style of Cranes other good pieces, of his having a clear and exact notion of what he was about in executing The Open Boat.(127)

This story does not depict the traditional conception of heroism as four men struggling against nature do not feel heroic in their effort. It is a battle of survival and one has to fight it with or without heroism. So men in the boat are simply doing whatever they can to survive.

They are not capacitated to defeat nature and they do not aim to. Only thing in their mind is survival. All of them are dejected and unhappy due to their own personal reason that have no universality and have no relation to common affairs of mankind. So their characters as well their situations are not recognizable with common interest of humankind.  So these characters and their situations are not of general nature. The captain is dejected due to loss of his ship. The cook is optimistic but his optimism is limited and subjective one. The correspondent and the oiler are of the same type with personal grudges toward nature and fate.

So above-mentioned discussion and supportive evidence clearly suggest that The Open Boat is a microcosm of human struggle against nature and manifests it various basic elements and aspects of general nature in a symbolic way. Furthermore, the theme, environment, and characters are eternal and reflect realties that are perpetual in the universe. The Open Boat takes into consideration the characteristics and thematic expressions that are easily recognizable by every one and it do have a universal character.

It is the story that does correspond to the Johnsonian definition of a successful story as it does not have a general nature. The incidents and situations it presents can be relevent to all as it describes the great experience of pathos and miseries and a close call with death. Although most of humankind have experience of constant struggle for survival but mostly that struggle is restricted to the socio-economic arena and they ocassionally comes across with a face to face struggle with death.

Works Cited

Gibson, Donald B. The Fiction of Stephen Crane. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,

Halliburton, David, and Stephen Crane. The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane.

            Cambridge studies in American literature and culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge

            University Press, 1989.

Roberts, Edgar V. Writing Themes About Literature. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,

Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997.

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