Born in 1871 in New Jersey, Stephen Crane came from a family who took active roles in the fouding of America. Despite his weak health, his travels took him to Greece to report on the Greco – Turkish War, to England, Germany and Cuba to cover the Spanish – American War. During his short life Crane wrote fiction and poetry characterized by his naturalistic perception of man and human condition. He died in 1900, at the young age of twenty-eight.
He began writing at a very young age. At twenty-two he wrote about the condition of the poor in A girl of the Streets (1893) while living in the slums of New York. In 1895 he wrote The Black Riders and Other Lines and his best known work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), a naturalistic novel set during the Civil War. War Is Kind (1899) is Crane’s most famous poetic work.
The Open Boat
“ The Open Boat ” (1897) evolved from Crane’s real-life experience of being stranded in a dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean. On December 31, 1896, Crane sailed out of Jacksonville, Florida, bound For Cuba, to cover the war as a correspondent. His ship sank in the morning of Jenuary 2, and Crane and three crew members spent thirty hours in a dinghy before coming ashore near Daytona Beach. Crane immediately wrote “ Stephen Crane’s Own Story ”, a newspaper account but he waited for years before he turned his experience into “ The Open Boat ”. Wells , Conrad and Hemingway considered Crane the first modern writer in American Literature.
It is just before dawn, not far off the coast of Florida: four men in a dinghy are the only survivors of a shipwreck. Each man works to keep the boat afloat. The correspondent and the oiler share the work of rowing, while the cook huddles on the floor of the dinghy, bailing water. Their leader is the captain, injured during the shipwreck . As day breaks the men begin to make progress towards the land. While they are rowing silently some gulls fly over their heads and one of them lands on the captain’s head.
The men see this as a sinister gesture, but the captain cannot swat the bird off because a sudden movement would likely topple the boat. Suddenly a lighthouse is seen in the distance. Although the cook expresses reservation that the nearby lifesaving station has been abandoned for more than a year, the crew heartens at approaching land, almost taking pleasure in the brotherhood that they have formed.
The correspondent shares with his friends four dry cigars found in a pocket. Their optimism disappears when, unable to master the turbulent waves, they realize that help isn’t coming. Another sign of hope comes from the view of a man on shore. They wrongly think the man can see them. The view of a monstrous shark makes the correspondent think of a poem he learned in childhood about a soldier died in a distant land. When morning comes, they take the boat shoreward until it capsizes, and then they all make a break for it in the icy water. The oiler leads the group, while the cook and correspondent swim more slowly and the captain holds onto the keel of the overturned dinghy. With the help of a life preserver, the correspondent makes good progress, until he is caught in a current that forces him to back to the boat.
Before he can reach the dinghy, a wave hurls him to shallower water, where he is saved by a man who has appeared on shore again. On land, the correspondent drifts in and out of conosciosness, but as he regains his senses, he sees now a large number of people on the shore with rescue gear. He finally realizes that the captain and cook have been saved but the oiler has unluckly died.
He is the central character of the story. A man young and strong who shares rowing duties with the oiler. The correspondent is also, by virtue of his profession, inclined to be cynical. He is surprised to fing his heart warmed by the brotherhood that he and the crew have formed in the boat. Several times, the correspondent curses nature and the gods who rule the sea and wonders whether he is really meant to drown.
The captain of the ship, injured when the ship floods ,is always calm and quiet; he talks for the most part only to give directions and bears the full responsibility of getting everyone to safety. He is always alert and cool even when he might be sleeping.
The Cook The ship’s cook, maintains a positive outlook on the men’s misfortune. The cook is the first to suggest the presence of a lifesaving station and cannot help but turn his mind to the simple pleasures of living on land, such as eating pies and meats. Although he is not good in giving an help with the rowing, the cook makes himself useful to the crew. The Oiler (Billie) In the final attempt at reaching land he is the only man to die. The oiler is obedient to the captain, and generous and polite to the correspondent whenever he is asked to row. The oiler also seems to be the most realistic of the men.
Nature’s indifference to Man
Crane makes clear that nature is ultimately indifferent to the difficulties of man. The narrator highlights this by changing the way he describes the sea . The unaltered activity of gulls, clouds, and tides illustrates that nature does not behave any differently in light of the men’s struggle to survive. Nature is randomly helpful and hurtful towards human beings. Nothing highlights this point so much as the correspondent’s final rescue. He is saved by a freak wave which is, however, also responsible for killing the oiler. These events support two ideas: nature is as much a punisher as it is a benefactor.
Loneliness of man in the universe “ The Open Boat ” conveys a feeling of loneliness coming from man’s understanding that he is alone in the universe and insignificant in its workings. When the correspondent realizes that fate will give him not answer, he settles into despair.
Society: fellowship and cooperation against chaos The men in the dinghy represent a microcosm of mankind, an example of society. When faced with the savage, stormy sea, the men in the dinghy immediately band together because they recognize that staying together is the best defense against the chaos and the indifference of nature. Fellowship among them gives meaning to their existence and warms up their hearts.They have created an obligation to one another that they must honor to survive. The narrator himself observes that the men’s cooperation is “ personal and heartfelt” which suggests that the men derive some spiritual satisfaction from the mutual help .
A ceaseless presence in the story, the ocean waves suggest both the forces of nature and the uncontrollability of life. The men must master them if they want to survive the shipwreck. Crane seems to say that just like the men of the story cannot control the waves ’ flow , man in general cannot affect the outcomes of his life but can only hope to be able to act constructively . Just as the waves are constantly changing, becoming sometimes violent and sometimes favorable, so the pressures in man’s life will continue to jostle his progress towards whatever he seeks.
The boat symbolizes human life among the universe’s uncertainties. It seems even smaller against the vastness of the ocean. The boat is always in danger as humans; it is “open”, unprotected against the turns of fortune.
The Oiler’s Death The oiler’s death and lack of explanation reinforce the concept of the randomness of nature. His death highlights the fact that nature is arbitrary in how it chooses its victims .
The poem about the soldier died in a foreign land, represents the correspondent’s understanding of his own pain.
Just as in youth he never considered it a tragedy, the correspondent realizes that,now, as a grown man, his situation is like the sodier’s .
The Cigars The four wet cigars and four dry cigars are symbols of hope for spiritual salvation and ultimate loss of that salvation. When the correspodent finds them in his pocket, Crane makes it clear that there are two interpretations. First, like the four wet cigars, the four men are physically and spiritually soaked by the forces of nature – they are broken and useless. Second, like the four dry cigars hidden deep inside the correspondent’s pocket, there is something inside the men that remains untouched.
Crane tried to follow his own maxim that “the nearer a writer gets to life the greater he becomes as an artist”. For him, this meant a commitment to reality in life as well as in art.
Despite Crane’s negative point of view, in “ The Open Boat” clearly emerges the importance of social cooperation, love and brotherhood among men in order to face the “whims of nature” and the difficulties of living.