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The Open Boat

Stephen Crane

Shifting Frames of Reference and Impressionism

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Existentialism and Irony

Although Crane was foremost a realist and naturalist writer who valued firsthand, close-up experience as the key to understanding, Crane in “The Open Boat” relies on impressionism to communicate the gulf between objective reality and what his characters perceive as reality. Whereas the logic of realism and naturalism calls for experience and perception to be nearly identical, impressionism differs from the other two in that it allows for the fact that a character’s grasp of reality is at best fleeting or even impossible. Crane’s impressionistic technique in “The Open Boat” is ideal for placing his readers into the same frame of reference as his characters. The story’s first sentence, “No one knew the color of the sky,” thrusts the reader into the position of his characters, who have a limited perspective of the world. Each character lives alone in his own reality, as does the narrator, whose lack of omniscience (the ability to be all-knowing) underscores one of the story’s central messages: no one truly knows anything.

Crane enriches his impressionistic technique by juxtaposing close-up, sensory descriptions of the men’s experience in the dinghy with the narrator’s detached perspective. The narrator says that the mountainous gray waters obstruct the men’s view of everything outside the boat, but in the next sentence the narrator comments on how the whole scene would have been picturesque if viewed from afar. The point of shifting the frame of reference is to convey that the significance of intense moments, such as the men’s experience in the dinghy, depends on the perspective from which they are seen. This idea becomes relevant to the characters themselves as they realize that, from a cosmic perspective, their lives are inconsequential.

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