In “The Open Boat” Stephen Crane uses repeating themes of character experience, action, and imagery to convey feelings of the overbearing vulnerability, and seeming futility, of the successful human race when placed in context and in comparison to nature itself. Crane’s depiction of four men in a dinghy that “many a man ought to have a bathtub larger than” guides a reader through alternating themes of hopelessness and hope during a dilemma that lends its support to defining a facet life.
The story is an enchanting jaunt into exploring the establishment of Truth in life. What ‘is’ and what ‘isn’t’ Crane claims is never discernable by those involved at the time, only after the fact – upon recollection – is one given the luxury of time for interpretation.
The depictions of color play a primary role in sanity. Crane plays on our sense of color – as if one could ever fully know the color of the ‘brick’ he likens the clouds as being – to set the stage for stating that all is interpreted by the light objects are seen in, as well as the distance the subject is from the action.
The opening sentence, “None of them knew the color of the sky,” initiates the reader into a world of question. When regarding the storyline the first sentence is quite understandable – the four men had what lie all around them to worry about more than the non-threatening sky. Taken as symbolism for another idea, the line suggests a greater lack of knowledge due to the simplicity of this unknown, normally obvious detail.
By suggesting four capable men could not discern the color of the sky Crane immediately throws the reader into uncertainty – he has us looking for facts along with his characters.
Crane realizes that human existence and storylines benefit from orderliness and repetition, and it is due to this line of reasoning that he starts the story the way he does. The reader begins looking for just what is known in the story while the characters search for what order they can cling to. It is suggested that one, or all four, of the characters, create their repetition (and thus minor comfort) when their reflections were “formulated thus: ‘If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if 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?'(754).” The line is repeated three times while they founder out at sea – suggesting that men create internal solace when little can be found externally
Crane’s search for truth continues with further questioning of existence when he writes: “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,” – to which Crane hints of the philosophy he has concluded; “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.’
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” (755).
Reading those paragraphs as a sign of hope (rather than despair), Crane seems to believe life is significant when goals are identified. The world he depicts is almost too confusing, but one must make their owninsanity way through it by determining and accepting distant truths’ (such as the star) – using them as guidelines in, and affirmation of, life. This small amount of order may not be much, but Crane argues it’s all we have.
Crane’s choices of individual characterizations of the four men lend themselves to being interpreted in several different ways; the men could be understood as separate entities that speak or act their way when the time calls or all four could represent the trials, tribulations, and emotions of what a single man in the situation would experience. Both interpretations seem indicative of Crane believing that perhaps the truth’ of an event can never be discerned nor recollected by a person due to what light (i.e. with what attitude) that person sees the event in, and how distanced the person was from the event. There may be real truth out there, but the best that can be done to shape an understanding of it is to interpret the evidence that points to it. Perhaps the truth is even better defined when multiple viewpoints are taken into consideration. Was Crane using the plight of the oiler to suggest that vigorous efforts to reach a definitive end are futile? Total immersion in the event of experience (required to get to the other side) is, then, an important step that should not be rushed. It did not matter what the oiler’s viewpoint begot him (nor how valuable his interpretation would have been given that he wouldn’t be there in the end to complement the others’ experiences.
Crane compares the boat the men occupy to a bathtub only once, yet this is an important declaration in understanding the theme with which Crane writes the story. Using the premise of finding ‘truth’ as Crane’s goal, a very high proportion of “The Open Boat” deals with the journey rather than the concluded interpreted truths. If one were to envision the men surrounded, even overwhelmed, by the sea (i.e. experience) with the boat protecting them, then it is quite fascinating that he associates the boat with a device specifically meant to hold water in expanses of dryness. Crane is alluding to the small amounts of truth we take with us after the experience – details, and facts abound and overwhelm, yet the amount any man can discern and embrace is small. The small amounts of interpreted truth one take back to the civilized world, added to what one already knows (or believes as truth), are all they have to barricade themselves with as protection from the utter chaos existence seems to embody.
The boat the men rode upon protected them from all of the truth surrounding them. While being able to contemplate the expanse, and at times even being washed with some of it, it isn’t until the upfront immersion in, and the battling of, it that one can claim they’ve arrived at the other side. All fear the possibility of failure, some (though none in this story) may attempt the journey, but for those who do Crane claims the mere decision to do so is still not yet enough. By the oiler’s strenuous, yet vain, effort we are shown that how one approaches and endeavors the process is just as important as deciding to do so. It is only those who reach the other side, intact, who may contribute to the collective interpretation of the truth.
The water soaking them seems to stand for waves of experience that continually hit them disallowing them to, for any usable amount of time, truly contemplate, understand or appreciate their circumstance and momentary point of view. Crane directly addresses distance from a situation as paramount to the comprehension of it when he writes; “Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque” (744).
At the end of the story Crane soundly states his argument of ‘Truth’ is written after the experience ends when the men had gained distance from their journey; “When it came the night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters” (760).
The overabundance of metaphors and allusions in “The Open Boat” are continuations of the theme of being surrounded by near-infinite amounts of detail, and Crane may be throwing every individual reader into his or her rolling sea to allow them to conclude what they can base on their perceptions. Crane’s style and imagery, then, fully support his goal. Just like the high cold star he wrote about, Crane gives all readers a distant, hard-to-reach yet easily discernable point to keep an eye out for as he guides his audience into an open-ended question of existence and truth.
Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” Rpt. in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 5th Edition. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York. 1979. 743-760. The Interpreters
In 1894, Stephen Crane said, “A man said to the universe: ‘Sir, I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation. This short encounter between man and nature is representative of Crane’s view of nature. However, he did not always see nature as indifferent to man. In 1887, he survived a shipwreck with two other men. “The Open Boat” is his account from an outsider’s point of view of the two days spent in a dinghy. Crane pays special attention to the correspondent. He shares the chore of rowing with the oiler. While rowing, he contemplates his situation and the part that nature plays in it. Mainly through the correspondent’s reflection, Crane shows that only experience has the power to form and reshape views on the reality of nature.
In the beginning, the four men in the boat have a narrow-minded view of nature. First of all, they only pay attention to certain parts of nature, as if they are looking at it from a balcony. They ignore the sky, for “none of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane 245). The reader can also see that they view nature as evil. They describe the waves as “most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall” (245). Later in their journey, the correspondent notices “the tall black waves that (sweep) forward in a most sinister silence, save for an occasional subdued growl of a crest” (254). Each of these examples shows that the men in the boat feel that nature is out to get them. The waves are seen as a living enemy force. Another example of the men’s view on nature is their encounter with the seagulls. They appear “uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny” (247) of the men. When they finally fly away, the men relax “because the bird struck their minds as being somehow gruesome and ominous” (247). In a critique of “The Open Boat”, Donald Gibson explains that as observers we know the sea is not hostile, that the seagulls are not gruesome and ominous. But the men in the boat have this to learn” (Gibson 130). In other words, the men’s view of nature is inaccurate. They are afraid but have not yet considered that nature is not their enemy.
Throughout “The Open Boat”, the men, particularly the correspondent, think that nature is unjust, as well as evil. For example, three times during the story, the correspondent wonders, “If I am going to be drowned–if I am going to be drowned–if 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?” (251). He blames nature for bringing him within sight of safety, only to be “dragged away” from the “sacred cheese of life” (251). Through the repetition of this phrase, the reader finds that the correspondent struggles to find sense in the acts of nature.
As the men’s time in the dinghy continues, the correspondent begins to develop a deeper understanding of the world around him. Crane demonstrates this through symbolism. The correspondent is frustrated when he realizes that “nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him” (256). As he looks up into the sky, he sees “a high cold star on a winter’s night” (256). The star represents the permanence of nature. Despite the activities of humans, the star- or nature itself–will remain unchanged. The correspondent also compares nature to the wind tower on the shore. It is “a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants” and it represents “the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual” (258). Even the shore, which was at one time the men’s salvation, seems “lonely and indifferent” as they approach it (Crane 259). The star, the wind tower, and the shore exemplify the indifference of nature to men. At this point, the correspondent recognizes that nature is indifferent to his plight.
Finally, events take place in “The Open Boat” that proves nature can be just as benevolent as it is evil. At one point, the men use the wind to sail. This gives the correspondent and the oiler a chance to rest from rowing. Another example occurs as the correspondent is swimming for shore. A wave picks him up and flings him over the boat, just as he is about to run into it. He considers this “a true miracle of the sea” (261). These examples show that evaluating nature involves more than “good” and “bad”. For instance, rain can be devastating for a family living near a flooded river. At the same time, it can save a farmer during an arid season.
As a result of their experience, the men’s view of nature is reshaped. At first, natures taunting waves and birds seemed to jeer at them. However, they come to understand that nature is an apathetic force. It is neither good nor evil. Crane said “The Open Boat” is a tale written after the fact. By this, he meant that we do not know it all. A difficult situation, such as a shipwreck, enables us to comprehend the world around us. At the beginning of the story, the men did not even know the color of the sky. However, after the correspondent recognizes nature’s complexity, he begins to see the world differently. He becomes aware of images, such as “carmine and gold…painted upon the waters” (258). Only after two days on a dinghy could the men listen to “the sound of the great sea’s voice” and feel that they could…be interpreters” (Crane 261).