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 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.