Naturalism in The Open Boat

by Jason Voegele

Copyright © Jason Voegele


To the Universe I don't mean a thing, And there's just one word that I still believe, and it's love.

-- Eddie Vedder, "Love Boat Captain"

Humanity often tends to see itself as being somehow important in the grand scheme of the Universe. We speak of "fate" as if we were put here for some reason, or perhaps purpose. We have our religions, which often serve as an engine to drive our lives and as a means to attribute meaning to them. But why do we think of ourselves in such a lofty fashion? Do we really matter at all? Would the Universe give pause if we were suddenly plucked away? In his short story, "The Open Boat," Stephen Crane shows us a Universe totally 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. All we have, Crane asserts, in our constant struggle for survival, is stubborn pride--and each other.

The story opens with 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." 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 everyday. The shore is "lonely and indifferent." They are even regarded by a shark, who apparently finds no use for them. The men, however, seem removed from the clockwork of their surroundings; seperate, but somehow in the midst of everything happening around them. This indifference causes the men to feel a certain alienation 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." This is, however, just normal activity of nature, not any act of agression against Man.

Although the men are pitted against an uncaring sea, they still at this point seem to think their destinies are controlled by some outside force. Their collective thoughts are given thus: "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 managemant 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: "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." Statements like these, along with Crane's journalistic prose, show the futility that the men feel in the face of indifference, yet it also makes evident the fact that there is still hope.

What can Man do when faced with a Universe that has no sympathy for him? How can we survive alone against nature? As the characters in the story come to realize, our only hope is in our sympathy and concern for other human beings. 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 comradeship that goes beyond mere associations. As Crane tells us, "there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cyni cal of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life." A metamorphosis 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: "The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers." Being in his current situation, the correspondent can finally understand the pathos 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." He now understands what it is to be human: that constant striving in the face of futility, and that need for others that ultimately none of us can deny.

Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" gives us a dose of reality that at first seems bitter, but it gradually induces a catharsis and in the end stands as testament to the human spirit. His assertion that the Universe will never bend to the will of man is outweighed by his reassurances that we will always have each other. And when we contemplate "a high cold star on a winter's night" we will not need to feel alone, because we can always turn to another person.


jason@jvoegele.com [an error occurred while processing this directive]