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The Open Boat by Stephen Crane. Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021


The term naturalism describes a type of literature that uses scientific principles in its study of human beings. Naturalism is more of a philosophical position in which characters are studied through their relationship with their surroundings. According to naturalistic writers, human beings are ruled by their instincts and passions and by forces of heredity and environment. One of the major naturalist writers of 19th century America is Stephen Crane. Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was strongly influenced by naturalism, and his writings show a great respect for environment as controlling force. Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat revolves around four shipwrecked men: the captain, the cook, the correspondent, and the oiler. Nature is the main character in the story because each of the four men tries hard not to make it angry or to disturb it. The men would ask the sea for mercy, pleading with it to let them pass safely. The story is about coming to terms with the harsh universe. Thesis: In his short story “The Open Boat” Stephen Crane expresses naturalism through three characteristics: portraying nature as all powerful, showing the sea as uncaring and by making use of natural things as animals and birds as metaphors and similes in his prose.


Throughout the story, Stephen Crane seems to suggest that the fate of the four men is pre-determined by nature and that they had no control over their own lives. The story begins amidst hopelessness and chaos. The sea is stormy and the waves are dashing. The four men could only look in awe. They could not navigate the ship to their desires. When the captain of the ship asks whether they have much of a show, the three remain silent, expressing no optimism at all. “Oh, well,” said the captain, soothing his children, “we’ll get ashore all right” (Crane 5). But there was that in his tone which made them think; so the oiler quoth, “Yes! if this wind holds.” The cook was bailing. “Yes! if we don’t catch hell in the surf.”” (Crane 5).

This line indicates that there is no help from God. According to Naturalism, someone born or thrown into a desperate circumstance must rely solely upon themselves to survive. Here, when the captain expresses an optimistic statement, he tells it in a depressed voice. In fact, he is only trying to reduce the fears of the other three men in the boat like a father trying to soothe his children. But the tone of his voice raises doubts in the minds of the other men. The oiler says they might reach the shore if the wind holds and the cook adds if they don’t get caught in the waves. Thus the danger of the wind and the waves – natural forces – are so awesome – that without their help, the men feel there is no hope of getting to the shore. These lines show the indifference of nature, the forces of environment and an indifferent, deterministic universe. Together, these factors imply a sense of hopelessness in overcoming fate which is a major trait of naturalism.

As naturalist writers write, Crane portrays nature as uncaring in his descriptions of the unforgiving and relentless sea. He states at one point in his story that, “A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats” (Crane 1). Despite the fact that the men in the lifeboat are tired and that their death seems imminent if the sea does not let up, the sea continues on in wave after wave of relentless fatigue.

Nature, in this case the sea, is portrayed as uncaring. Even the tower is not simply “a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants” (Crane 2). It is God, standing with his back to men. To be “impressed with the unconcern of the universe” (Crane 2) implies that there is no kind God or religion resting at the center of the world. Man is alone, Crane says, having to depend solely on his own resources. Under such conditions man learns to rely on fellow human beings for survival. Crane tells us that though he had been taught to be cynical of men, his shared tragedy with the other three men forces him to form a comradeship. So sensitive they become to human suffering that the correspondent, recalling a childhood verse, feels sympathy for a dying soldier, one who does not even exist. All of this is the outcome of the uncaring sea that is a powerful symbol of naturalism.

Finally, true to the writing style of literary naturalism, Stephen Crane, in his story “The Open Boat” uses a number of figures of speech involving images drawn from nature make comparisons with land animals or objects. “Canton-flannel gulls flew near and far. Sometimes they sat down on the sea, near patches of brown seaweed that rolled over the waves with a movement like carpets on a line in a gale. The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dinghy, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland. Often they came very close and stared at the men with black bead-like eyes” (Crane 4).The waves seen against the horizon appear like jagged rocks. The bucking broncho comparison compares the ride in the boat to a wild ride on a horse (Crane 2). The snarling waves suggest a land animal of any kind that snarls. The crest of each wave is a hill. The sea gulls are like prairie chickens, and “it is easier to steal eggs from under a hen than it was to change seats in the dinghy” (Crane 2). These figures drawn from external nature serve to broaden the scope of the tale. What the men know at the end of the tale they learn from the sea, but the lesson is a lesson about the whole of life, about man’s relation to man and to nature.


Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” is a good example of a story using a classical definition of literary naturalism. His story contains multiple situations and examples where the forces of nature are shown as being very powerful and uncaring. Crane does this effectively by using elements of nature in his writing style. He portrays the forces of nature as unconquerable to human beings who can only silently accept their fate. Second, he portrays the sea and hence nature as uncaring. It does not care about the suffering of the men. This is evident in the rare kind of comradeship the men develop in the absence of care from the universe. Third, the metaphors and similes Crane uses in narration are birds and animals. Thus Stephen Crane proves he is a naturalistic writer in his well known story “The Open Boat”.

Works Cited

Crane, Stephen (1897). The Open Boat. Scribner’s Magazine, XXI.

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