The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

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The Open Boat (1897) is a Stephen Crane’s work of literature that is inherently based on his life experiences. The narrative illustrates the plight of four men, namely the captain, cook, oiler and correspondent who are trapped in an open boat in precarious waters of the sea (Crane). Though the four men can see the land, they are incapable of reaching it due to dangerous waves they might face in the stormy sea. It is evident that though the men can see the shore where their salvation lies, it is impossible to reach it given the current conditions in the sea. Crane carefully elicits the fact that the four men’s plight has the eventual outcome of their potential deaths. On the one hand, if they choose to move the boat towards the shore, there is a high likelihood that the waves will crash their boat and sink them. On the other hand, if they remain in the sea, the stormy ocean will capsize their open boat killing them. It is evident that Crane intends to illustrate the struggle of the four men to stay alive, survive and avoid the jaws of death.

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The threat of danger or death compels a person to revisit their life, what was, is or could have been through an array of thoughts. They consider unaccomplished goals and a life not fully lived, miss lost love and think about the impending untimely demise. These are the issues that Crane depicts in the narrative as the four protagonists come to terms with their predicament and the possible outcomes. Death becomes a prospect that haunts the characters; here Crane employs dark imagery, language and atmospheric undertones to illustrate the characters’ position, feelings and fears as they consider their potential deaths in the face of a stormy sea (Crane).

The captain is inherently an invalid in the open boat since his injury incapacitates him and makes him unable to aid his fellow passengers. His primary contribution to their attempt to avoid death is his orders to the oiler, correspondent and cook; they, as a consequence, become his crew in an open boat that faces the danger of destruction in the sea that hurls them around violently and threateningly. “Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning and of a quality beyond oration or tears” (Crane). The captain does not have the ability to physically aid in steering the boat; consequently, his injury renders him helpless, desperate and hopeless at the survival of the crew. 

Crane employs imagery, dialogue and dark undertones in the narrative to depict the inevitability of death. He illustrates the sea’s wrath as characterized by black waves that are made of sad, tragic and cold waters (Crane). Evidently, steering the boat through and rowing in the dark waters is perceived as a crime against the back or a diabolical punishment. The reason is that the person rowing the boat suffers significantly in their back; thus, rowing for sport and leisure is subjected to critique. The men took turns to row the boat while the others slept waiting for their turn to row. Crane describes this sleeping as “the dead sleep” since the men are extremely exhausted and continue to become weak; therefore, their slumber is heavy and characteristic to the image of a dead person.

 “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? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?” (Crane). The four men seem to be contemplating their own fate each time this passage appears in the text. The word “drowned” is reiterated three times, and since it is such a long and drawn out word, to be drowned is a tragic death. It is clear to them that the sea is angry and violent, and it seems to them that whether they live or die is up to the “seven gods of the sea” (Crane). They feel they are being teased with the thought of survival, rescue, life, and another chance. They exchange addresses in case they do not get ashore, and there is a great deal of “rage” in them (Crane). They are most likely angry at the chances that they may drown and die at sea, when the shore can only be so close. They are possibly angry that death looks them so closely in the face when they are so unprepared.

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Crane integrates a god-like characterization of nature to illustrate its indifference to the well-being and safety of man since its machination is devoid of conscious that a man can comprehend. As the four characters struggle in their journey to survive, it is evident that nature does not share their concern. In fact, nature demonstrates its power, force and indifference towards them through the violent stormy sea and threatening waves.

Crane illustrates this through altering the description of the sea. Initially, he describes the sea as one that hisses and snarls; however, this characterization of the sea as directly participating in the four men’s dilemma changes since he describes the sea as pacing to and from (Crane). Though the men do all they can in an attempt to avoid death, nature is oblivious of their struggles as Crane describes the unchanged behavior of the tides, clouds and gulls. It is despite the fact that the men’s predicament is a consequence of nature’s activities.