Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat".
Background: A note prefixed to the story explains that it is purported to tell the actual experience of four men after the sinking of the steamer Commodore. The author himself survived a similar accident when he travelled as a correspondent to Cuba and his ship sank off the coast of Florida. One of the four men, an oiler named Billy Higgins, drowned while trying to swim to the shore.
I. The Stranded Four: A small boat is stranded at a stormy ocean. Inside of the ten-foot dingy four men struggle to keep the boat from overturning in the midst of massive waves. The boat is occupied by the cook, the oiler, the correspondent and the injured captain. Of the men only the oiler is known by his name, Billie, the rest is referred to by their functions only. The men are trying to navigate to the shore at the Mosquito Inlet Light where they believe either a life-saving station or a house of refuge is located.
II. Gulls and Waves: The break of the day brings on-shore wind, which is welcome by the men handling the oars. There are two oars and the men take their turns at them. The men are bothered by a group of flannel gulls that fly near the boat and are obviously unaffected by the raging waves. Their presence strikes the stranded men as ominous but they do not dare to wave them away for fear than an emphatic movement could overturn the boat. The captain eventually manages to frighten away one particularly bold gull which soars above his head. The withdrawal of the gulls as well as their spotting of the light-house at Mosquito Inlet fills the men with hope.
III. Brotherhood: There is an unspoken brotherhood existing among men on the seas. The four men join their powers to pursue a common goal, to keep the boat going and to reach the shore. They derive strength from the company of one another. The captain suggests making a sail while the favourable wind lasts, his overcoat is spread and successfully turned into one. The men can now see the shore line. They are drenched, weak and exhausted as none of them ate or slept very much during the last two days and nights preceding the foundering of the ship. The correspondent finds four dry cigars on himself and he shares them with the others.
IV. Not Waving but Drowning: The men think that the other boats from the sunk ship probably have not made it to the shore, otherwise rescuers would be searching them. They wonder how comes that they were not yet spotted from the shore but they were mistaken about the life-saving station, there is actually none. The captain asks the others to refer about his death if he does not survive and the other men make similar arrangements. In the afternoon the four spot a man on the shore. Another man joins him. They think that they see a life-boat but it turns out to be an omnibus. The men on the shore are waving at the men in the boat vehemently but the stranded men do not know what they are trying to signal. It grows dark, the men on the shore disappear from view and it becomes clear that the wavers did not recognize the danger of those in the boat.
V. Sleep and Sharks: In the night the correspondent and the oiler take turns rowing while the others are sleeping. The men are exhausted to such a degree that they do not mind lying in the cold water which creates a pool in the bottom of the boat. The correspondent spots a large fin near the boat, probably that of a shark. He wishes that someone else were awake, too, so that he could win sympathy and share his fear, but everyone is asleep.
VI. Drifting and Thinking: Later in the night the captain orders to take the boat farther out to sea and makes the cook steer the boat with one oar so that it would keep facing seas. This allows for the correspondent and the oiler to take a rest from the rowing and have some sleep, too. During his lonely rowing the correspondent thought of a verse about a soldier dying in Algiers. The fate of the soldier never struck him really until this very night. The correspondent suddenly feels profoundly sorry for the soldier.
VII. Surviving and Dying: In the morning the captain decides not to wait any longer, to get the boat as close to the shore as possible and then to swim for the land. All the men manage to jump out into the cold January water just in time before the boat overturns. The captain stays behind, holding with his one good hand the keel of the overturned boat, while the others are swimming. The captain keeps on encouraging the men. The correspondent struggles with a current, he is on the verge of drowning. The captain urges him to come to the boat and he obeys. A man can be seen on the beach, undressing himself rapidly and coming for help. The man drags the cook ashore and is about to help the captain but the captain sends him to help the correspondent first. The stranded men are rescued, only the oiler remains lying with his face downwards in the shallows, apparently dead.
Naturalistic Features: The story deals with the classic naturalistic theme of a human being struggling for survival against nature or society. Also in the vein of naturalism is the idea of determinism which is supported in the story by the references to pagan deities that choose for a seaman to die or to survive independently from his own wish or will. Such a deliberate arrangement naturally seems unfair to the stranded men:
‘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?’ (p. 177)
None of the men is willing to die and each of them struggles for his life. Their attitudes to facing the impending death shift with the shifting situation. They alternately feel hope and despair, pity and rage. What they seem to find especially frustrating is the impersonal character of their enemy, the natural forces:
‘[The wind-tower] 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.’ (p. 183)
Poetic Qualities: Unlike with much other naturalistic writing, the story employs rich poetic language and contains many fine passages of lyric description. Despite the occasional lyricism the struggle for survival dominates the story and the nature is never seen as simply beautiful in the romantic sense but rather awe inspiring:
‘It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.’ (p. 167)
The gulls mentioned in the story are in union with nature, therefore its forces do not present any threat to them. This is not the case of the stranded men, they are ignorant of the workings of the nature and seem to wonder at its enormous strength and their own frailty in the face of it. Their ignorance changes to knowledge only at the end of the story, as follows from the comparison of its very first and its very last sentence:
‘None of them knew the color of the sky.’ (p. 165) -- ‘... 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.’ (p. 187)
AuthorCrane, Stephen. (1871 - 1900).
Full Title"The Open Boat".
Crane, Stephen. ‘The Open Boat’. 1897. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Short Fiction. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.