In his short story “The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane tells a tale that centers around four men in a small dinghy, attempting to reach land after a shipwreck. Sura Rath and Mary Shaw write that “[a] commonplace of Crane criticism is to read ‘The Open Boat’ as a classic story of man’s battle against the malevolent, indifferent, and unpredictable forces of nature” (3). Many of the elements in Crane’s story, including the indifference of nature, are common to naturalistic literature. The events of the story, based on this literary pattern, argue for the indifference of nature and man’s need to comply to nature in order to survive. In studying Crane’s naturalistic themes in “The Open Boat,” one notices how the indifference of nature is representative of the indifference of God. Thus, Crane depicts the necessity of men working together to survive in nature since God will not act on their behalf.
The main struggle for the characters in the story of “The Open Boat” is their inability to defeat the waves and reach the shore. In order to develop the story, Crane vividly describes the setting and the danger that nature presents for the four men. For example, he writes: “[n]one of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them” (903). Karen Bernardo posits that this passage expresses the severe nature of the waves; none knew the color of the sky because they dared not look away from the waves, fearing instant death (1). The characters initially view these waves as hostile, seeking the death of each man. However, they soon begin to regard nature not as hostile, but as indifferent. Crane portrays the correspondent’s thoughts in the following manner: “She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (917). Crane furthers the theme of nature’s indifference with a star. Unlike the seemingly hostile waves, the star is a cold, gentle representation of the indifference. Crane writes that “[a] high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation” (914). Richard P. Adams explains the importance of the star, suggesting that “[t]he feeling of extreme coldness and remoteness embodied in this second metaphor is a logical concomitant of naturalism” (423). The distance between the star and the men reflects nature’s vastness, while the symbolic coldness of the star suggests nature’s indifference.
Another manner in which Crane pushes his naturalistic themes is through the very language he uses in writing the story. In her article, “Interpretation Through Language: A Study of the Metaphors in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat,’” Leedice Kissane asserts that “Crane’s use of metaphorical language in The Open Boat performs a function beyond the aesthetic. It reinforces his theme by stressing the puniness of man in contrast to the vastness of the physical universe” (412). Thus, the purpose of his metaphors is to produce contrast. Looking again at the star, one sees other contrasts than its distance and coldness. For example, in setting the bright star against the blackness of the sky, Crane succeeds in producing a contrast of light and darkness that alludes to other naturalistic ideas: “In general, the contrast between light and darkness corresponds vaguely with such oppositions as knowledge and ignorance, confidence and depression, safety and danger” (Adams 425). The language also succeeds in reducing man in an attempt to emphasize “the unevenness of his struggle against nature” (Kissane 412). One way that Crane reduces man is to compare him to a mouse: “Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?” (909). In comparing man to mouse, Crane also suggests that nature is as overpowering to man as man is to mouse. Another example of how Crane reduces man is to compare him to ants (917). Again, Crane expresses the battle between nature and man, this time using the analogy of a giant against ants. It is a battle that cannot be won; resistance is futile.
While Crane uses references to the indifference of nature and employs metaphors to show the futility of trying to resist a much greater force, he leaves hope for man in each other. Milne Holton writes that the concluding section of the story “is a dramatization of the newly discovered sharing of the human condition in the face of universal absurdity” (165). Karen Bernardo agrees that, while one cannot conquer nature, “one can learn to bob along on its surface, and aid to the best of one’s ability those fellow human beings who are also caught in the grip of nature’s immense indifference” (2).
After reading “The Open Boat” and reviewing Crane’s use of naturalism, one sees how Crane intended to show the indifference of nature and need for man to work with nature and his fellow man to overcome it. Chester Wolford agrees that Crane did not merely write this story as a reproduction of other naturalistic pieces; he wrote a “symbolic tale” in which the four men “compose a microcosm of society or of humanity”(17). “All human beings, Crane would have said, are adrift in an open boat” (Kissane 410). Crane could be suggesting that man is constantly at the mercy of an indifferent nature. However, Crane uses metaphorical language to suggest a different relationship. The distant, cold star is a symbol of the indifference of nature; yet the fact that the star is a heavenly object does not seem to be by accident. Adams suggests that the contrast of light and darkness reflects other contrasts as well (425). It seems as though the contrast of the heavenly object and the earthly men is meant to parallel the other contrasts and therefore suggest that the indifference of nature is a symbolic representation of the indifference of God. Furthermore, the indifference that Crane portrays throughout the story culminates in the men’s understanding that “they will have to rely on themselves alone since they can expect no benevolent intervention from either God or nature” (Magill 1).
Perhaps the most direct evidence for this idea comes in the imagery that
Crane uses to express how man feels when he first understands nature’s indifference.
“When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as 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 no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.” (914)
The temple in this passage is a more overt form of religious imagery than the star, but it serves the same purpose; it shows both God’s indifference and His immense separation from man. The passage suggests that when man first encounters the indifference of God, he abhors His very existence and pelts Him with curses. The fact that there are no bricks shows again the immeasurable power that God and nature have over man, and man is left with only one useless weapon—his jeers. Crane then continues with man’s second reaction to this indifference. “Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: ‘Yes, but I love myself’” (914). Crane suggests that man’s next reaction to God’s indifference of the star, of a God who will not listen and act on man’s behalf, is that “he knows the pathos of his situation” (914). Man is now completely aware of God’s unwavering indifference and must act accordingly.
Through the resolution of his story, then, Crane expresses how man can survive this indifference. Crane shows how the four men, working together, are able to reach land. Just as men must work together with nature and each other to overcome their situation, so men must work together since God will not act on their behalf. Man is at the mercy of an indifferent God, and he can only survive by forming “a subtle brotherhood, composed of those who truly understand the way things are” (Magill 1).
Crane’s literary purpose in “The Open Boat” is not merely to tell a story by copying the style of naturalist writers before him. Instead, he uses metaphorical language and naturalistic themes to show how nature’s indifference is representative of God’s indifference, and how man must work together with nature and other men to succeed.
Adams, Richard P. “Naturalistic Fiction: ‘The Open Boat.’” Stephen Crane’s Career: Perspectives and Evaluations. Ed. Thomas A. Gullason. New York: NYU Press, 1972.
Bernardo, Karen. “An Analysis of Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat.’ Selection accessed from http://www.storybites.com/the-open-boat-by-stephen-crane.html.
Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume C. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Holton, Milne. Cylinder of Vision: The Fiction and Journalistic Writings of Stephen Crane. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.
Kissane, Leedice. “Interpretation through Language: A Study of the Metaphors in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat.’” Stephen Crane’s Career: Perspectives and Evaluations. Ed. Thomas A. Gullason. New York: NYU Press, 1972.
Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw. “The Dialogic Narrative of ‘The Open Boat.’” College Literature 18.2 Literary Theory in the Classroom (June 1991): 94-106.
“‘The Open Boat’—Stephen Crane—1898 Short Story.” Magill Book Reviews. 15 Sept. 1990. Available on Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost.
Wolford, Chester I. Stephen Crane: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.