In “The Open Boat,” Crane conveys an existential view of humanity: that is, he depicts a human situation in which the individual is insignificant in the universe and yet, through free will and consciousness, must interpret a reality that is essentially unknowable. The men in the dinghy, particularly the correspondent, try desperately to justify their survival in the struggle against the sea, but the values by which they live and the appeals they make to the heavens are inadequate. The universe is indifferent to their courage, valor, and brotherhood, and there is no response to the men’s furious appeals to fate and God to answer for the outrageous misfortune that has befallen them. Crane’s use of the word absurd in the narrator’s refrain challenging fate—“The whole affair is absurd”—resonates well with the existentialist creed that the universe itself is “absurd” and that there is no meaning in the natural order of things. At best, these men can construct their own meanings, such as the “subtle brotherhood of men” they form, but in Crane’s vision, they are shut out from the cosmos.
The irony in Crane’s vision of “The Open Boat” is that, in describing the situation of the correspondent, who has come to understand his insignificant position in the natural universe through the manmade tower, the narrator continues to give human qualities to inhuman things. For example, the narrator calls nature a “she.” For both the narrator and correspondent, nature is an old, inscrutable mistress whose workings are always beyond their grasp. At the end of the story, the captain, correspondent, and cook are no more able to converse with nature than they were at the beginning. Indeed, they finally realize that there is no such thing as conversing with nature. This awareness drives home the irony of the final sentence in the story, in which the narrator says that the three surviving men feel that they can be interpreters of the ocean’s voice. The men’s capacity to interpret nature for other people refers simply to their understanding that the sea’s voice is incoherent and the universe a cosmic void. There is nothing to interpret.