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Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” Review

“A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. After that, he knows the pathos of this situation.” In his short story, “The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane’s Naturalist view shows us a Universe unconcerned with the affairs of humankind; it is an indifferent Universe in which Man has to struggle to survive.  The characters in the story come face to face with this indifference and are nearly overcome by Nature’s lack of concern. They survive only through persistence and cooperation.

The passage, “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. after that he knows the pathos of this situation,” found in paragraph 177, describes that point when the human spirit feels utterly alone. Once Man has reached this breaking point, the only place to turn is the person next to them. I support Crane’s belief that in the end, all we have is sympathy and support from others. It is the harshness of nature that creates a bond between humans. Without this kindness of the human spirit, the world would be a much more miserable place to live.

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The story revolves around four men, known simply as the captain, the oiler, the correspondent, and the cook, stranded in the ocean in a small boat. Crane’s descriptions in these opening scenes show right away the antagonism of the men and the sea and nature’s lack of concern for their tragedy: “The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dingey, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland” (paragraph 30). The men are in a desperate situation, but nature continues in its ways regardless of what might happen to them. The Sun continues to rise and set every day.

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The shore is lonely and indifferent. They are even regarded by a shark, who finds no use for them. The men, however, seem removed from the clockwork of their surroundings; separate, but somehow amid everything happening around them. This indifference causes the men to feel specific isolation from nature. They even go as far as to think of the Universe as being hostile: “[The waves were] nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats” (paragraph 10). This is, however, just regular activity of nature, not an act of aggression against Man.

Although the men are pitted against a cold sea, they still at this point seem to think their destinies are controlled by some outside force. Their collective thoughts are revealed in paragraph 71: ‘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?… If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes.’ It soon dawns on them, though, that there is no “fate,” no purpose for their being where they are.

It is the realization of this fact that brings the men to the brink of despair in paragraph 175: “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” It seems to them that their situation is hopeless. At one point, one of the men asks the captain if he thinks they will make it, to which the captain replies ‘If this wind holds and the boat don’t swamp, we can’t do much else'(paragraph 40). Statements like these show the futility that the men feel in the face of indifference.

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When faced with a Universe that has no sympathy for Man the only way to survive is to seek comfort in our compassion for other human beings. We cannot survive alone against nature, as the characters in the story come to realize. The fact is most fully realized in the character of the correspondent. Crane tells us that he had been taught to be cynical of men, but his shared tragedy with the other three men on the boat forced him to form a friendship that goes beyond mere associations. Halfway through the story, in paragraph 44, Crane tells us, “there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life.”

A change is undergone when he and the other men realize that all they have is each other. The correspondent, recalling a childhood verse, feels sympathy for a dying soldier, one who does not even exist. In his current situation, the correspondent can finally understand the tragedy of the dying soldier. He knows what it is like to be alone in a cruel world, and more importantly, he realizes he doesn’t have to be alone. “It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality–stern, mournful, and fine” (paragraph 185). He now understands what it is to be human, and that need for others that ultimately none of us can deny.

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In conclusion, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” gives us a dose of reality. I agree with Crane’s Naturalist view of nature’s cruelty. While the story depicts nature as being harsh and bitter at first, I believe in the end it stands as a testament to the human nature and spirit of mankind. His claim that the Universe will never bend to the will of man is outweighed by his reassurances that we will always have each other. Though Crane’s short story is viewed as negative and hopeless at the beginning, I feel the understanding of the human spirit that is portrayed at the end changes the undertones of the writing from that of hopelessness to hope.

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Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" Review. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved January 30, 2023, from