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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.
Read more about the indifference of nature in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.”
“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.
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.
Read about the related theme of will and responsibility in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.