For Crane, each crewmember is an archetype that, when joined with his fellow castaways, constitutes part of a microcosm of society. The captain represents the leaders; the cook the followers; the oiler the good, working men; and the correspondent the observers and thinkers. As his profession as a reporter suggests, the correspondent functions as the eyes and voice of the story. Crane underlines this point in his introduction of the characters in the first section. While the cook is cowering on the boat’s floor and the oiler is silently working at his oar, the correspondent watches the waves and wonders why he is caught on the ocean, a question that reveals the correspondent’s search for purpose in life. With this question alone, the correspondent begins to shape our perceptions of the ordeal the men are undergoing.
In the first five sections of “The Open Boat,” the correspondent’s challenges to the sea, which he associates with nature and fate, reveal his desire to make sense of surviving the ship only to drown in the dinghy. Although he understands that nature and fate do not act and think as men do, the correspondent nevertheless goads them because he believes that there is a purpose to nature, that it in some way validates his struggle for survival. The correspondent initially thinks he finds the answer when he considers the “subtle brotherhood of men” that develops among the crew in response to the overwhelming cruelty of nature. At this point, he takes pleasure in the pain caused by rowing in the rough sea because he believes that this pain is the healthy byproduct of his effort at community, which nature has forced them to create and is the only thing that really matters. As the men realize that no one is coming to save them, however, the correspondent comes to lose hope in the “subtle brotherhood” that had seemed to be the noble purpose of submitting to nature’s punishment.
The captain is the consummate leader, a man who never shirks from the responsibility he takes for those who have entrusted their safety to him. When he loses his ship to the sea at the beginning of the story, the captain suffers infinitely more than the other survivors. Deprived of his ship, he becomes a broken man who has lost the very thing that grants him his authority. Yet the captain, through his dedication to guiding the men to safety, retains a degree of dignity to go with the ineffable sense of loss he feels at having failed in his charge. In this sense, the captain is at once a majestic and tragic figure, one who has not measured up to the standards he has set for himself but continues to fight for his fellow men. His quiet, steady efforts in the boat are not self-motivated and afford him no personal redemption. Instead, his actions are directed toward the others.
Of the four characters in the boat, the oiler represents the everyman, the one whom Crane intends to resemble the average person most closely. The oiler functions as the lynchpin of the crew, holding everyone together through his staunch heroism. He has the fewest delusions about the men’s physical plight, but he never gives in to the hopelessness that the others mask with idle talk about nonexistent opportunities for rescue or meditations about the cruelty of nature. Instead, the oiler maintains an image of strength, warmth, and integrity. He echoes the captain’s orders, reinforcing the social structure of the crew and instilling confidence in the others, whose outlook rises and falls with the waves.