The Theme of Naturalism in The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

In Stephen Crane‘s short story The Open Boat, the crew of a tragically small dinghy attempt to maintain their humanity and assert the significance of their existence as they are subjected to the cruel indifference of the sea that threatens their lives Crane’s poem above, titled A Man Said to the Universe, expresses the very human fear that nature and fate have no regard for human life, a concept that Crane presents likewise in his short story through the use of dynamic, relatable characters and a tragic, unforgiving plotline, Each character in The Open Boat is conveyed sympathetically and realistically through the expression of their complex psyche in the face of impending death.

However, the strategic course of action that the men take in trying to survive, their great effort in the face of sheer exhaustion, and the brotherhood that they form through their nightmarish maritime adventure are all met with an insensitive nature as the waves continue to pummel their boat despite their will to survive.

While the sea tosses the men to and fro without notice of their plight and indifferent to their presence, the men know the sea very wellithey become exhaustingly familiar with its every cold, insensitive characteristic throughout their journey. They must be aware of its every move; throughout the story they track its actions and are aware of when it is angry or passive. The sea and its characteristics become very lifelike to them, for they are at the mercy of this force that is much more powerful than they could ever be, As the men do all that they can in their human power to keep their insignificantly small man-made boat upright through the unrelenting waves, these great forces against them become in a way personified in their minds, as if the waves are explicitly acting against them in spite: “As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all else from the View of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water”.

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The men come to know the waves so well they learn the patterns of their movements and the feel of the spray and the cold water that overcomes the boat, everything about the sea—and yet the sea remains indifferent to them as it acts of its own accord. While the sea remains grimly unsympathetic, however, the reader comes to know each of the characters in the boat very well through the expression of their personality in their vulnerable position. Though Crane interweaves their similar perspectives in order to capture the brotherhood of these men with the common goal of survival, each character seems to display a specific reaction to their plight. This concept of the individuality and the expression of a complex psyche in the face of danger essentially forms part of the anonymous man‘s exclamation in the poem, “Sir, I exist!”

This uniqueness in character, and the will to survive, form man’s voice towards the universe—a silent cry to nature bearing the significance of his existence. The effect of the situation on the injured captain provides an especially poignant view of the pathos tied to the crew’s emotional condition: “Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears”. As the ship is taken down by the forces of nature, the captain attempts to remain brave and grounded for his crew. He is learned of the ways of the sea and knows the reality of their dire predicament, as well as the sheer chance that plays into their survival. However his exterior and behavior are staged as he attempts to remain calm for his men, It seems that at this point he has truly realized that he has no voice to confront the universe with.

An extension of the difficulty of addressing an indifferent nature that the men must face is the notion that there exists no listening ear, no tangible perpetrator of their sorrows, to confront: “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. This statement parallels the lack of response that the men receive for their constant reflection on the “abominable injustice” of allowing them to come this far if they are to be drowned Then, when they become weary of no answer from the universe, they resort to bargaining with any active element of nature that they can identify: “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’”.

The men attempt to block from their minds their present condition as powerless creatures at the mercy of nature’s hands by acknowledging their significance through the individuality of their emotions and phenomenon of their capacity for empathy and a connection to each other through an expression of humanity that nature will never be capable of. However, while they are up against the callous forces of nature, they are also countered by the concept of naturalism that is inherent in the back of the human mind as a resort for when the fight to assert significance becomes a losing battle to the crushing hopelessness of a cruel world, Thus, the untold final response of the man to the universe in Crane’s poem could be predicted through Crane’s conclusion of this argument in the story: “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”.

Though the men put up a true fight physically as well as emotionally, nature shows a disregard for justice, and thus their survival becomes a mere game of chance in the end. Eventually, the harshness of nature and apparent hopelessness of their condition upon no answer from the shore begins to show through their behaviors and speech The final, refined illustration of nature is provided by the correspondent as he contemplates the injustice of his situation, compounded by the lack of aid from his potential rescuers: “This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. lt represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent”.

The picture that Crane leaves the reader with at the story’s end when the men reach the shore feels incomplete, as if a significant perspective or sense of closure is missing. This seems to stem from the lack of answer that the men receive from nature in regards to why they were forced to suffer, why their strongest man did not make it ashore, and why their journey ended the way it did. One can only expect that the man in Crane’s poem, through his short exchange with the universe, feels the same way about the negative answer to his question. In fact, in the end, there is no true answer, only the sound of the continuous crashing of the waves that threaten man’s life.

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The Theme of Naturalism in The Open Boat by Stephen Crane. (2023, May 14). Retrieved from

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