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A short story by Stephen Crane called “The Open Boat” follows four men on a journey through the sea in an attempt to find help. The central characters, the correspondent, the captain, the oiler, and the cook, are all survivors of a shipwreck which left them stranded in the water in a small and flimsy dinghy. Each man has a distinct personality that can be classified into a certain stereotype. The characters of the story also have their differences in their attitude towards nature. The short story “The Open Boat” reveals the naturalistic ideas of the author and shows the attitude of different types of people towards nature.
The central character and narrator, the correspondent, is a man who comes to understand the indifference of nature. This person represents cynical people who prefer to observe and contemplate rather than participate in society’s activities. From the beginning of the novel, his thought process is highlighted as something that separates this character from others. Crane (1897) describes his thoughts by writing “the correspondent … watched the waves and wondered why he was there” (p. 6). His constant desire to find a reason for every situation leads him to believe that this shipwreck has a purpose (Marshall, 2016). Later, however, he loses hope and starts to see nature as cold as he thinks that “she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (Crane, 1897, p. 40). His attitude towards nature changes from cynical but hopeful to disappointed and forlorn.
The captain, a calm and collected leader, does not ruminate about the philosophical questions and offers a more straightforward view. During the course of the novel, all his actions are not directed at helping himself as he is more interested in guiding others. His relationship with nature is also practical as he does not question its course or purpose. Readers do not have the opportunity to understand the captain’s thoughts, and the man does not say much apart from giving commands. However, it is clear that he tries to assess every situation realistically. He is not afraid of talking about death: “if we don’t all get ashore, I suppose you fellows know where to send news of my finish” (Crane, 1897, p. 20). Thus, he is not scared to accept this fate.
The third character, the cook, is the most optimistic and slightly naïve character who interprets nature’s changes as positive signs. For instance, his remark about the wind that states “bully good thing it’s an on-shore wind … If not, where would we be?” shows that he appreciates the good that happens even in the worst situations (Crane, 1897, p. 9). He is also the first to see possible signs of rescue. While he acts in the same way as the other men, he is more inclined to believe that nature may be kind.
The oiler, Billy, represents a type of a hardworking and physically-strong man who does not perceive nature as kind. He is not as optimistic as the cook, but also not as contemplative as the correspondent. He is close to the captain in his realistic views. However, while the captain mostly accepts his surroundings, the oiler can grow frustrated with them. For instance, he is pessimistic during the discussion about the weather, answering the cook: “Yes! If this wind holds!” and showing his anger (Crane, 1897, p. 10). He also comments on the birds being ugly. It is possible that he finds nature cruel and unjust.
The four men of the story “The Open Boat” present completely different points of view towards nature. While the cook is optimistic and enthusiastic and the captain sees nature for what it is, the oiler views his surroundings as harsh. The narrator, on the other hand, tries to look into the meaning of all events and thinks that nature is indifferent to all people.
Crane, S. (1897). The open boat. Web.
Marshall, K. (2016). The old weird. Modernism/Modernity, 23(3), 631-649.