Open Boat Research Paper

“The Open Boat” is based on Stephen Crane’s own experience of a shipwreck in 1897. Crane had been working as a war correspondent when he sailed for Cuba on the ship Commodore. He was stranded in a lifeboat with three other men for thirty hours. Three of the men made it to land, but as in the story, the fourth, an oiler, drowned while attempting to swim to shore.

Crane’s depiction of the harsh forces arrayed against the shipwrecked men marks the story as an example of literary naturalism, a genre closely related to literary realism. Both schools champion realistic detail over idealized pictures of the world. Naturalism, specifically, tends to focus on the plight of humans in the face of larger forces—often society, but also the overwhelming, indifferent forces of nature.

The correspondent’s sense of this indifference is one of the key developments in “The Open Boat.” One thought returns to the correspondent again and again as the ordeal continues: Why should he (and the others) have to endure so much, to come within sight of land, only to drown just before reaching shore? The devastating injustice of this haunts him. This feeling might just be a temporary loss of faith in providence, but it is proven apt in the case of the oiler, who indeed drowns just on the brink of making it to shore. The story meditates on these questions further when the correspondent comes to the conviction that nature does not care about his personal fate. Nature’s indifference cannot, however, take away the correspondent’s own sense of his ineluctable importance: Unimportant though he may be, he loves himself.

Crane’s style of realism is also distinctive and groundbreaking in the way in which it focuses on the minute-by-minute thoughts and emotions of the men, particularly of the viewpoint character, the correspondent. In this way the story resembles Crane’s most famous work, the novel The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895). Like “The Open Boat,” The Red Badge of Courage follows the reactions of a single man, a soldier, under extreme duress. In both stories, Crane traces the sometimes contradictory, sometimes unheroic inner life of a person who might outwardly appear to be resolute and unemotional.

Although Crane does not similarly enter into the minds of the other men in “The Open Boat,” he allows their seemingly casual remarks to reveal their inner states. The men’s conversations about the house of refuge, the likelihood of rescue, and the chances of making it to shore veer between alarm and casual certainty. After one man expresses an opinion, the others contradict him, revealing the continuing tension between the two states of mind. Near the end of the novel, the correspondent becomes so exhausted that he says that drowning would be easy and comfortable; only then can he admit to himself that throughout this ordeal he has been terrified that drowning would be agony. Crane’s observations on the mental and emotional processes of men in desperate trouble are acute. The story also brings home the tragic ironies of such situations, such as the correspondent’s studied casual remark on being saved, as if he is unmoved by his ordeal, only to have his casual demeanor made wholly inappropriate by the discovery of the death of the oiler. Such incisive observation and trenchant irony makes “The Open Boat” a landmark of literary naturalism.

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Essay On Stephen Crane's The Open Boat - With A Free Essay Review




In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”, Crane demonstrates his idea that man cannot even attempt to best nature by the isolation and trials of the men in nature, the hardships that even the best of men face, and the lack of understanding of nature while isolated in the sea.

Stephen Crane starts off the story by leaving the men in isolation from the world, a test, which they fail, if they could best nature without help except for their abilities as humans not connected to nature. The men, from the beginning of the journey feel despair. Even though they rowed for so long all the men discovered “that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it” (Crane 604). The men knew from the beginning of the journey towards safety, that the waves in the sea, an example of nature, would best the men from its endurance. The men depended on the wind that nature provided them because they rode in a dingy that “man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which” (603) they rode in. Second, the men cannot reach the shore by any means. Even though the “light-house had been growing slowly larger” (607), the men never reach the light-house. The lack of ability to reach the light-house shows that the men are not in touch with nature, in this case the sea, leading to their inability to reach the island. Lastly, the man cannot converse with the other men on shore, showing nature’s ability to disrupt man’s methods for communication. The men seemed dazzled and confused by the “fellow waving a little black flag” (611). Although the men could see the man on the island signaling to them, they did not understand what the man on the island told them. The sea, nature, caused this miscommunication because of the distance that it put between them. Thus, Crane uses isolation by nature to prove that man stood no chance to best nature.

Not only does Crane use the sea as a tool of isolation to test the men’s chance to best nature, but he also provides many hardships that the men faced, proving that they cannot best nature. First of all the men faced the hardship that they could not even protect themselves from the both the sea and the sun while out in the boat. Often they “glinted in strange ways” (604) and their eyes “must have been gray” (604) because of staying out in the sun all day. The men had no protection from nature, they could not stop the sun from penetrating their skin, symbolizing that nature can overpower man’s forces. Second, not only were all of the men stranded on the boat, but a captain, a man of great strength and character, was injured. Although the captain could have been a great help to the other men in reaching safety, he was “lying in the bow” (604) and could only “command for a day” (604). Symbolically, the captain, not connected to nature, was useless, just as man is useless without his connection to nature. Lastly, nature showed no kindness to the men, killing the most honorable of them all. Of all the men that died, the oiler who “plied the oars until his head drooped forward, and the overpowering sleep blinded him” (613), may have been the greatest of them all. He tried his hardest to keep the men together and bring them to safety, but “in the shallows, faced downward, lay the oiler” (619). Thus, Crane uses’ the hardships of fighting against nature to exhibit his outlook that man can never overcome the power of nature.

In addition to using the men’s hardships in nature to prove that nature is greater than man, Crane also uses the men’s lack of understanding nature to prove that they cannot best nature. Crane shows the lack of understanding nature in many ways, starting with the humans lack of ability to understand what is around them . In the first sentence, Crane says that “None of them knew the color of the sky” (603) symbolizing their lack of understanding nature. Crane uses color as symbolism for a basic trait of nature, which the men couldn’t see at all. Next, Crane uses the seagulls surrounding the men as a way to mock their lack of understanding of nature. The seagulls “sat comfortably in groups” (605) while the men were cramped in a small dingy. The “wrath of the sea” (605) did not affect the seagulls, while the men were on a little dingy because of the wrath of the sea. Crane uses seagulls, an animal that men think are inferior to them, to show the men how disconnected from nature they are. He proves to the men that riches and machines aren’t what get on past life, but a true connection to nature. Lastly, the men in the story did not understand the trends and motions of the waves, their last fatal flaw of not understanding nature. Throughout the story, the men try to out hustle the waves, leaving them in a situation where “each wave knocked him into a heap, and the under-tow pulled at him” (619), and the oiler actually dies because of the men’s lack of understanding the waves and nature. Thus, Crane proves that nature will always dominate man through his use of showing the men’s lack of understanding nature, and what happened to them.

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ESSAY REVIEW

For whatever reason, I dislike the use of the word "best" as a verb; you're entitled to like it, of course, and perhaps even use it with a personified Nature as the object, but you really don't need to like it so much that you use it repeatedly. There are other words: defeat, overcome, master, triumph over, conquer, vanquish, subdue, subjugate, and probably a host of others, if I could be bothered to break out the thesaurus, which I usually advise writers not to do.

Despite the repetition of that no longer mentionable word, I like your essay. You articulate a fairly clear and strong thesis in your opening paragraph, and you admirably maintain your focus on trying to demonstrate the truth of that thesis. I say "fairly" clear with respect to the thesis because you're missing a necessary participle (such as “showing”) between the words "by" and "the isolation."

But despite liking your essay because of its admirable focus and its fairly clear thesis (and because it reminds me of a story I read too many years ago), I think you have a couple of serious problems to deal with. The first problem has to do with syntax and grammar, but I cannot deal with that problem. The second problem has to do with the argument of the essay..

The first problem with the argument is that you do not define what it might mean to overcome (this is the synonym I'm going to use for the unmentionable word) nature. I don't think it is fair to say that the story shows that the characters cannot overcome nature without establishing a few criteria by which we could judge what would amount to success in that endeavor. Because you don't define your terms, you leave your reader to deduce your meaning from the progression of your argument. I deduced that you must mean something like "getting to the lighthouse in the boat," or "getting to the shore without much ado." Presumably you don't mean to say that surviving whatever obstacles nature presents to them would amount to defeating nature, for all but one of the characters do survive, although you don't mention that important fact, and seem to suggest at one point that they all perish.

The second problem with the argument is your use of the concept of being "in touch with Nature." Again, you don't define what it means to be in touch with nature, and you don't explain how being or not being in touch with nature is related to the task of overcoming nature or surviving. For instance, you say that "the lack of ability to reach the light-house shows that the men are not in touch with nature, in this case the sea, leading to their inability to reach the island." That argument is very strange. In effect, you say: “The cannot reach the lighthouse; therefore, they are not in touch with nature; therefore, they cannot reach the light-house.” Obviously both of those arguments cannot be correct at the same time, but I don't see how either of them is correct.

The third problem, as I see it, is your argument about the lack of understanding of nature. I think it is probably true that the characters do not really understand nature. But I think your evidence demonstrating that argument is weak. You cite the opening line, for example, which I agree is interesting, but it is to my mind a little obscure. It's obscure, at least, unless it is understood to mean "they didn't know the color of the sky because they were concerned only with looking at the sea." After all, the next sentence, which you don't cite, reads "Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them." I think the important point to keep in mind, however, is that while ultimately it becomes clear that the men are involved in a struggle with nature, the struggle is not originally seen in that light; it seen rather as a struggle against fate or against the "seven mad gods who rule the sea." For that reason it is possible to think that drowning after immense struggle would be an instance of injustice. Not understanding nature means, in other words, not understanding that there is neither justice nor injustice in nature. I don't think that the point of the story is that nature dominates man but that nature is a blind force behind which lurks, well, nothing, or at least nothing that cares.

I have to stop now, before the night drowns me.

Best wishes, EJ.

Submitted by: miskarous

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