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Who Are You in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane? Essay

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Updated: Feb 23rd, 2022

If I were any of the characters in Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” I think I would want to be the correspondent. This is partly because I would not want to be involved in a profession that would require me, at some point in my future, to return to the sea after having had this experience. Analyzing the positions of the other men in the boat helps to narrow my decision although there are perhaps some things I would change about this character, while understanding more about the history of the story helps me determine whether I’d really like to be a part of this story or just be content with living in my own time.

A good part of my decision regarding which character to be is based on the descriptions of the other characters. For example, while the cook might also discover a different venue for his profession other than onboard a boat, the description of the cook is not desirable to me. “His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and the two flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the boat” (Crane). As the story continues, it becomes clear that bailing out the boat is about the only job the cook is suited for in this situation. “Later in the night they took the boat farther out to sea, and the captain directed the cook to take one oar at the stern and keep the boat facing the seas. He was to call out if he should hear the thunder of the surf” (Crane). I would want to be able to make my living on land, but be of use in saving myself and others while at sea. Meanwhile, the captain, who might be of an age to retire, is injured, which is also not a position I would want to have as I’d like to think I was useful in helping everyone get to shore safely and wouldn’t want the sorrow of a sunk ship and drowned crewmen on my mind while I was busy trying to survive. I also wouldn’t want to be the oiler because he dies before he gets to shore. This leaves only the correspondent left as a possible character to be. Although I would change some things about this character’s personality, such as his tendency to dwell on the same thoughts (“If I am going to be drowned–if I am going to be drowned–if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?”), I can’t really say that I would actually be thinking about anything significantly different if I were in his actual situation. However, it is important to remember that this character is treated most sympathetically because it is taken from Crane’s own experience and perspective.

It must be acknowledged that I may identify with the correspondent most because he is the perspective from which the story is told, even though Crane attempts to disguise this fact. The story comes from a real-life event that occurred in Crane’s life. According to a biography on the author, “His first attempt in 1897 to report on the insurrection in Cuba ended in near disaster; the ship Commodore on which he was traveling sank with $5,000 worth of ammunition, and Crane—reported drowned—finally rowed into shore in a dinghy with the captain, cook, and oiler, Crane scuttling his money belt of gold before swimming through dangerous surf” (Crane, Stephen, 2008). Another writer attempts to discover whether the story was a true-life account or a fictionalized re-telling of the event using elements of the real thing. “The entire action of the narrative reveals the correspondent’s contemplation and resigned acceptance of his (humankind’s) insignificance and isolation in the face of an environment that simply does not care” (Adams, 1954). As is pointed out by Bates Eye (1998), the very literary observations included in the descriptions of the men’s thoughts as well as the repetitive nature of some of them are hard to envision within the vocabulary of the cook or the concerns of the oiler.

While the time period in which the story is set, the late 1800s, seems as if it were a more relaxed and idyllic time in which to live, after reading this story I find I am profoundly grateful for the benefits of modern technology. A steamer about to go down might require all hands to take to the rowboats, but radio receivers would ensure that helicopters and rescue boats would be well on the way before the ship even dropped beneath the waves. Even if the steamer had gone down before the distress call could be made, loss of radio contact might have sent rescue boats out or, at the very outside edge of connection, the first people onshore to have seen the dinghy bouncing on the waves would have been able to call the Coast Guard to send in help. Floatation devises today are also much better, being lighter weight, more buoyant and less cumbersome than what is described in Crane’s time. “The cook had tied a life-belt around himself in order to get even the warmth which this clumsy cork contrivance could donate” (Crane, 1897). Finally, the lifeboat itself would be of different construction, perhaps even including a trolling motor that would make it easier to get back to shore and a shape that would enable it to reach the shore without totally swamping under.

Works Cited

  1. Adams, Richard P. “Naturalistic Fiction: ‘The Open Boat.” Tulane Studies in English. Reprinted in Stephen Crane’s Career: Perspectives and Evaluations. Thomas A. Gullason (Ed.). New York: New York, 1972.
  2. Bates Eye, Stefanie. “Fact, Not Fiction: Questioning Our Assumptions About Crane’s ‘The Open Boat.’” Studies in Short Fiction. Vol. 35, I. 1, (1998).
  3. “Crane, Stephen.” Britannica Biographies. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008.
  4. Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” (1897).
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