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Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” Essay

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Updated: Jul 18th, 2021

Published in 1898, Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat is generally acknowledged to be among masterpieces of the short story into which the author transformed his near-death experience on the Commodore ship (Wertheim, 1997).

In the story, the author describes four men who were shipwrecked and had to compete with the force of nature to reach the shore. Even though the work is typically categorized as an example of naturalistic fiction, some critics claim that The Open Boat is a rather existentialist fiction (Sorrentino, 2006). The relationship between nature and man is a central theme in the story that reveals Crane’s personal view on the matter. According to the author, people cannot overcome nature that is actually indifferent to them; though they should help each other as they sail in one boat.

In the story, nature is a cruel and powerful force that cannot be perceived and overcome by humans. With his opening sentence, “None of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane, n.d., p. 1), the author emphasizes how insignificant is a place of a man in the world. The storm triggers the whole story and evokes an impression of loneliness on the sea and the danger of forces of nature. Being lost and isolated from the rest of the world, the characters fully depend on nature’s mercy. However, nature seems to be deliberately cruel as it knows no justice for Billie who rowed most of everyone and died in the end.

If at the beginning of the story nature is perceived as cruel, it is then understood as indifferent. Crew’s uncertain future may be compared to the horizon that appears and hides again behind the waves. It it the correspondent who understands “the calm of Nature against the struggles of the individual” (Crane, n.d., p. 12). Therefore, in the story, Crane contrasts powerless and inept humans and omnipotent nature.

In the second part, the author discusses the sense of human existence in the natural world. The correspondent asks himself why he was going to be drowned if he were allowed “to see sands and trees” (Crane, n.d., p. 6). By approaching death, he tries to find sense in his struggle and seems to clearly see “the difference between right and wrong” (Crane, n.d., p.12). He also realizes the mistakes that he did and how he would live life if he were given another chance to start things anew. However, nature is indifferent to people, and from this perspective, human life with one’s hopes and fears does not worth much.

By showing that the correspondent cannot ignore the feeling of sympathy for other people who live in the emptiness of nature, Crane speaks to something that is more powerful than nature. As the situation in the sea gets more desperate, “the secure bond” (Crane, n.d., p. 3) is established among the characters of which they prefer not to talk. Rowing in the night and sensing that the shark is nearby, the correspondent wishes someone to be awake as being alone to him is “sadder than death” (Crane, n.d., p. 11).

The man understands that he means nothing to nature, that is why he is glad that he is not alone in a senseless fight with the force of nature. He even begins to feel sympathy for the dying soldier from a poem that did not mean anything to him before. The author emphasizes that no matter how powerful the force of nature may be, there is still something it cannot affect, that is human feelings.

The Open Boat contains not only Crane’s declaration of the universe’s indifference but also the idea of human solidarity and humanism (Dooley, 1993). The main idea of the story is the development from the perception of nature as vanity to finding sense in living for other people. Initially, the men could not even recognize the color of the sky, though at the end “they felt that they could then understand” the sea (Crane, n.d., p. 15).

Unfair death of Billie who rowed the most and helped others survive may give insight into Crane’s personal view of the relationship between man and nature. One may suggest that Crane thought that only living with others and helping them makes one’s living important and valuable. Nature is “not interested, completely not interested” (Crane, n.d., p. 12), so it does not care for people who died. However, dead people may stay in memories of others due to their deeds. Throughout their lives, people row on one boat, and they have to act as one team to survive. It is humanity and collaboration that are invincible to the cruelty of nature.

To sum up, in the essay the representation of the sea and the four shipwrecked characters have been discussed. To Crane, nature is the uncontrollable and powerful force that is indifferent to people. The four characters could do nothing about the storm but unite their forces and make their way to the shore. It is comradeship and humanity that help people survive; it is caring for other people that make one’s life valuable.


Crane, S. (n.d.). . Web.

Dooley, P. K. (1993). The pluralistic philosophy of Stephen Crane. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sorrentino, P. (2006). Student companion to Stephen Crane. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Wertheim, S. (1997). A Stephen Crane encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Stephen Crane’s "The Open Boat"." July 18, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/stephen-cranes-the-open-boat/.


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