The Open Boat

by: Stephen Crane

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Drowning

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.

Waves

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.