The Open Boat
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Nature’s Indifference to Man
Despite the narrator’s profusion of animistic (animal-like), humanistic (manlike), and deistic (godlike) characterizations of nature, Crane makes clear that nature is ultimately indifferent to the plight of man, possessing no consciousness that we can understand. As the stranded men progress through the story, the reality of nature’s lack of concern for them becomes increasingly clear. The narrator highlights this development by changing the way he describes the sea. Early in the story, the sea snarls, hisses, and bucks like a bronco; later, it merely “paces to and fro,” no longer an actor in the men’s drama. In reality, the sea does not change at all; only the men’s perception of the sea changes. The unaltered activity of the gulls, clouds, and tides illustrates that nature does not behave any differently in light of the men’s struggle to survive.
Crane strengthens the idea that nature is indifferent to man by showing that it is as randomly helpful as it is hurtful. For every malevolent whim that the men suffer, they experience an unexpected good turn in the form of a favorable wind or calm night. The fact that the men almost seem to get assistance from nature destroys the notion of nature as an entirely hostile force. Nothing highlights this point so much as the correspondent’s final rescue. Plowed to shore and saved by a freak wave, the correspondent must embrace the fact that the very thing that has put him in harm’s way has saved him. This freak wave, however, may also be responsible for killing the much hardier oiler, a turn of events that demonstrates two ideas: nature is as much a harsh punisher as it is a benefactor, and nature does not act out of any motivation that can be understood in human terms.
Man’s Insignificance in the Universe
“The Open Boat” conveys a feeling of loneliness that comes from man’s understanding that he is alone in the universe and insignificant in its workings. Underneath the men’s and narrator’s collective rants at fate and the universe is the fear of nothingness. They have an egotistical belief that they should have a role in the universe, that their existence should mean something. When the correspondent realizes by section VI that fate will not answer his pleas, he settles into despair. His subsequent recollection of the poem about the soldier who lies dying in Algiers reflects his feelings of alienation at being displaced from his position in the universe. Like the soldier who dies in alien territory, the correspondent fears that he too will perish without a connection to whatever gives him his sense of self.
Throughout “The Open Boat,” the correspondent understands pain to be the necessary byproduct of his efforts to overcome nature, the willful enemy. He comes to value his suffering because it is nobly derived; in the earlier sections, the correspondent, whom the narrator says is cynical, is often cheerful and talkative in his descriptions of the physical pain he experiences. By the end of the story, however, the correspondent’s new awareness that the universe is unconcerned with the situation’s outcome makes him physically and spiritually weary. He decides that there is no higher purpose to surviving other than prolonging a life that is meaningless. His comment in section VII that the coldness of the water is simply “sad” underscores this despair. At this point, all sensations of pain and pleasure are merely physical and have no spiritual meaning.
Society as Meaning in a Harsh World
In assembling the men in the dinghy and creating a microcosm of mankind, Crane sets up man’s greatest invention, society, against what first seems to be a cruel, unrelenting nature. When faced with the savage, stormy sea, the men in the dinghy immediately band together because they recognize that society is the best defense against the chaos of nature. The men derive meaning from their fellowship, created to oppose nature, which they view as the force that seeks to undo them. Even when they become disheartened by the fact that nature shows no regard for them, they can still turn to one another. In creating society, they have created an obligation to one another that they must honor to survive. The narrator observes that the men’s cooperation is “personal and heartfelt,” which suggests that the men derive some spiritual satisfaction from the arrangement. Although they are shut out of the realm of cosmic importance, these men nevertheless construct something that is meaningful to them.
As the narrator attempts to capture the men’s thoughts as they endure many demoralizing episodes, he inserts a refrain into the text three times that suggests that the men’s general fear of death is exacerbated by the unconcern of nature. The refrain is a rant against fate, which the narrator personifies as an incompetent fool unable to govern men’s lives. The narrator is not really trying to tell us that fate is cruel. Instead, he is suggesting that the men are furious because they believe that fate has toyed with their lives. The men consider their situation unfair, and in the refrain, they protest against it. The fact that the narrator intrudes on the story with this refrain at the moments when fate seems to have let the men down creates the impression that this is, in fact, the men’s reaction. The refrain acts as the narrator’s interpretation of how the men themselves interpret their situation
Hidden deeper in the refrain is the narrator’s conviction that a higher power does not exist to weigh in on men’s affairs. By making outright references to “the seven mad gods who rule the sea,” the narrator clues us in to the mythical implications of the story, insinuating that these pagan gods, who are traditionally involved in men’s lives, have abandoned the stranded men. More important, the narrator hints at the absence of an overseeing God through a subtle use of numerology. The thrice-repeated phrase “If I am going to be drowned” in the refrain alludes to the New Testament Gethsemane scene in which Peter denies Jesus three times. In the Bible, man denies God, but Crane inverts the scene so that it is God denying man.
A ceaseless presence in the story and constant nuisance to the refugees, the ocean waves suggest both the forces of nature and uncontrollability of life. At the beginning of the story, the narrator presents the waves as the men’s primary concern, the thing they must master if they are to survive the shipwreck. In this sense, the waves resemble the ever-changing demands of the present, the part of life that demands the most attention but allows for the least reflection. Crane seems to imply that because the men cannot control the waves’ ebb and flow, man in general cannot affect the outcomes of his life and can hope only to respond constructively to what he encounters. Just as the waves are constantly changing, becoming sometimes violent and sometimes favorable, the pressures in man’s life will continue to jostle his progress toward whatever he seeks. The narrator’s final mention of the waves as “pacing to and fro” emphasizes this point by suggesting that the waves, in their motion, are impatiently waiting for the men, who must eventually venture out again onto the seas of fortune.
The boat, to which the men must cling to survive the seas, symbolizes human life bobbing along among the universe’s uncertainties. The boat, no larger than a bathtub, seems even smaller against the vastness of the ocean. The boat is inconsequential and always in danger of capsizing, much as we as humans are inconsequential and frail in the context of the world around us. The fact that the boat is characterized as “open” supports this interpretation: the boat is unprotected and thus open to suffering the unexpected turns of fortune that are unavoidable in life. For the men, being in the open boat becomes the reality of their lives, and they realize from their experience on the boat how little control they have over where they can go and what they can do. Through the boat, Crane implies that life is not something we can control, but rather life is what we must hang onto as we make our way in the world.
The Oiler’s Death
The oiler’s death and lack of explanation surrounding it reinforce the randomness of nature’s whims and symbolize the indifference of nature toward man. Because he is no more deserving of death than any other crew member, and in some cases is less deserving because he has worked the hardest under the most physical strain, his death highlights the fact that nature is arbitrary in how it chooses its victims. The events surrounding the oiler’s death also uncover the fact that the “subtle brotherhood of men” sensed by the crew is nothing more than a delusion. The men make a break for land on their own, and the good-natured oiler leaves everyone behind to reach the shore. In this way, Crane illustrates that there is a limit to what working together can accomplish and that all men ultimately end up alone.
The poem that the correspondent recites about the soldier who pitifully lies dying in a foreign land represents the correspondent’s understanding of his own plight. Just as in youth he never considered it a tragedy that the fictitious soldier dies away from home, the correspondent realizes that, as a grown man, his situation is like the soldier’s and that it is nature that now regards his death as inconsequential. This understanding forces the correspondent to see the soldier’s story as tragic because it is the only way to give his own life weight. The correspondent endows the fictitious soldier with humanity, a gesture that reveals both his maturity at understanding what his life really amounts to and his self-delusion for using fiction to give meaning to his own situation. In truth, the poem does not make the correspondent’s plight any more real. Rather, it only reinforces the meaningless of his struggle, which the narrator later describes as “the plight of the ants.”
The four wet cigars and four dry cigars serve as a complex symbol of hope for spiritual salvation and as the ultimate loss of that salvation. When the correspondent finds these cigars in his pockets, Crane makes it clear that there are two interpretations of the men’s plight. First, like the four sodden cigars, the four men are physically and spiritually soaked by the heavy, demoralizing 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 by the cold, drenching despair that the sea imparts. At the moment when the correspondent digs through his pocket, the men are likely to see themselves optimistically—as the four dry cigars—because their cooperation and hard work has seemingly put them on track to defeat nature. Yet by the end of the story, the men’s optimism is not intact, and they feel misery, not triumph. The wet cigars more aptly illustrate the tragedy of the men’s spirits.