The Open Boat
The Perspectives on Nature in I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing by Walt Whitman, The Open Boat by Stephen Crane, and Skunk Hour by Robert Lowell
Reading Journal Summative Reflection
Over the course of the semester, it was interesting to discover the various ways American writers have depicted themes of nature. And luckily enough, the perspectives on nature have not been constant—rather, there has been a wide range of ways in which the environment and natural world has been depicted. From the awe-inspiring and positive Walt Whitman’s “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” to the completely indifferent and ambivalent Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” to the dreary and dull Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” each author’s perspectives and takes on nature has been unique. And while they each for the most part fit in with their era’s literary movement, each writer does not fail to bring something new to the table each time.
There are some patterns that have emerged upon review of my reading journals this semester; for one thing, nature mostly seems to have an important role to play in each of the seven pieces. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron, nature is a sacred, wonderful place that should not be destroyed, and in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” nature is a manipulatively dangerous place. The only one I read in which nature plays an arguably small role is The Open Boat by Stephen Crane—in it, nature is important, but it is personified as an entity that is completely and totally indifferent towards the lives of the characters. In all other pieces, nature has had a message or an intent to convey to the characters; in The Open Boat, it is bored of the characters and doesn’t care if they live or die.
Although each perspective is different, the changes in tone are not consistent nor to they follow any sort of pattern across the time periods. Instead, the writers’ ideas of nature are all over the place, and don’t seem to follow any particular trend. And that seems to make sense; nature is a thing that is always around, and as such, people will always be experiencing it in different ways. Therefore, it seems suitable that each author should have the right to express their views on nature any way they want.
Real experiences for survival: The Open Boat
Novelist Ray Bradbury once said, “I used to take my short stories to girls’ homes and read them to them. Can you imagine the reaction reading a short story to a girl instead of pawing her?” (“Ray Bradbury Quotes”). While speaking from a comical perspective, Bradbury understands this: short stories are powerful. They have the power to create an alternate reality. Sadly, they often underrated when compared to the typical novel because have less content, less quantity, or less detail. But a story’s length does not determine that the quality of its message or the style of its language. The essence of a story, regardless of its length, is determined by the reader’s reaction. To grab attention, the writer must include the essential elements of story telling, such as setting, characters, and theme. Yet, in Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” the reader understands these three elements from a chillingly realistic perspective when given the facts that drive this historical fiction.
First, the historical facts regarding the location and context of this story not only give context to its setting, but they also create a disturbingly authentic reality. The reader must first understand that this story is based off a real incident in Stephen Crane’s life and career. As a war reporter, Crane traveled to varying locations across the globe in order to report events and incidents related to war. In the specific instance of both this historical account and this short story, Crane is supposed to be traveling to Cuba to report an event of gunrunning to rebels in Cuba right before the Spanish-American War began in 1898 (“Fact and Fiction”). However, he is sidetracked by a shipwreck. Considering the amount of context given in the short story itself, this information is priceless. The narrator only hints at the actual, physical context of the story when discussing the water’s condition. He says, “The January water was icy, and he [the correspondent] reflected immediately that it was colder than he had expected to find it off the coast of Florida” (356). After reading and sifting through such a lengthy short story, the reader may often overlook this simple detail. However, understanding this one simple detail brings reality to this situation. First of all, this story is real. Florida is an actual place that exists on the maps our children learn about in fifth grade. Florida is the real place from where Crane departed in order to purposefully travel to Cuba and to unknowingly spend 30 hours on a dinghy (“Fact and Fiction”). Deep-sea swimming is a serious matter, and if ill prepared, deep-sea swimming is a deadly matter. In a newspaper article reporting the sinking of their ship, Crane states, “The whistle of the Commodore [their ship] had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle” (“Fact and Fiction,” pp. 43). Here, Crane discusses an actual reality from a first person point of view. This reality of this fact creates a new sense of urgency in the short story. Urgency often leads to panic, and panic often ends in disaster.
These historical facts only contribute to the reality of this situation: four men stuck in the middle of the ocean, fighting for life. These four characters, who are fighting for life and bonded by a “subtle brotherhood,” have real counterparts in history, counterparts which also offer an element of frightening actuality to this story (345). In reality, the correspondent represents Crane, the cook exemplifies the actual cook of the Commodore, the captain signifies Captain Edward Murphy, and the oiler is Billie Higgins. Simply put, these four individuals are real people who had families, occupations, identities. According to Crane’s newspaper article, both Murphy and Higgins were men of outstanding character. If Crane had reported the entire story in this article, “the splendid manhood” of those two men would have shined from it (“Fact and Fiction,” pp. 72). Yet for some reason that mortal men may not understand, Murphy and Higgins nearly lost their lives on this dinghy. As previously mentioned, deep-sea swimming is not a laughing matter. Neither are the lives of two honorable individuals a laughing matter. But sadly, one of these lives does end by the conclusion of the narrative’s action. While the short story does not explicitly mention Higgins’ death, Crane outright mentions this fact in his newspaper article. In this story, the narrator briefly mentions that the oiler lay “face downward,” but in his newspaper article, Crane states that the captain saw “Billy Higgins lying with his forehead on sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead” (358; “Fact and Fiction,” pp. 73). While the reader can infer his death from the short story, the story is is missing the word “dead.” The reader may have hope while reading the end of the story, but the historical account crushes this hope. The historical reality regarding the characters makes this horrifying reality alive not only because the characters did not deserve such struggle, but also because of the euphemisms regarding their reality.
Finally, the frightening reality of this short story is furthered by the combination of its history and its theme. A prominent theme of this short story is the struggle man faces when attempting to define his purpose in life. Universally speaking, almost every human being that has, does, or will exist asks himself about this “purpose” in life. The narrator of “The Open Boat” struggles with this as well. Throughout the story, he re-states this quote, 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 (353). Without understanding Crane’s purpose in life and specifically in this trip, the consistency of this phrase may cause pity and a misunderstanding of his pleas. The reader may easily think the narrator is simply upset by the thought of death. But it goes much deeper than that. Historically speaker, Crane has a set purpose for being on the Commodore. He was en route to Cuba in order to document an important moment in history. He was aiding the rebel cause. He was ready to help people. But in a seemingly random series of events, his purpose was immediately taken away. The depth of his purpose is essential to understanding why Crane constantly doubts his existence. The reality of losing purpose is deep, real, and bit depressing. Defining purpose in life is rough enough, despite the added complication of a shipwreck en route to Cuba.
Crane’s fiction is powerful in its cumulative effect: it contains images, characters, setting details, lessons, themes, and more all within a few pages. Even without knowing personally knowledge of these characters, the reader can almost interact with them. But when the reader goes beyond these literary elements and explores its historical context, the reader is given a new, more frightening perspective. From setting to characters and even themes, these elements and the history of the narrative are constantly working to create a story with a reality no man may desire.
“A White Heron” and “The Open Boat”: Depiction of Nature and Character
Realism, as William Dean Howells declared, involves “the young writer who attempts to report the phrase and carriage of everyday life” (641-642). This mode of expression essentially boils down to individual writers’ perspectives on life, and includes elements such as regional realism as well as local color. Nonetheless, realist pieces are typically character-centered. Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” and Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” are both centered around a character or a group of characters; however, the difference arises when one examines the relationship between humans and nature in these two pieces. While both “A White Heron” and “The Open Boat” are character-centered pieces, the former piece demonstrates that humans ultimately have the ability to control nature, whereas the latter piece shows how humans are powerless in the face of nature.
Crane makes his ominous themes readily apparent. While the characters in “The Open Boat” are very much aware of their dooming situation, they have a difficult time truly placing themselves in the context of nature. Within the first few paragraphs of the piece, readers discover that the men have a literal sense of blindness when thrown in the middle of the non-human world. The narrator states, “As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all else from the view of the men in the boat” (Crane, 991). This literal blindness also represents a larger, metaphorical blindness to their situation. Since the men are unable to see around them, they are also unable to comprehend their environment and their insignificant place in nature. When the men are placed in the context of nature, they are so dwarfed that it renders them literally and metaphorically blind. Readers see this theme resurface when the correspondent reflects on his situation throughout the piece. One example of this occurs near the end of the narrative: “He thought: ‘I am going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?’ Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature” (Crane, 1005). Here, the correspondent is having trouble comprehending his place in nature, thinking that it is impossible for nature to doom him to such a cruel fate after everything he has suffered through. This shortsightedness is symbolized, as discussed earlier, by the literal blindness that being in the water causes in him and his comrades; it also foreshadows the theme that man is indeed vulnerable in the “final phenomenon of nature.”
Persistence is also an overarching theme in “The Open Boat.” While one could argue that this persistence is simply a result of the men’s situation, one could also point to the unwillingness of humans to accept their oblivion in the face of nature. One demonstration of persistence can be found when the men discover a lighthouse in the distance: “It was precisely like the point of a pin. It took an anxious eye to find a light-house so tiny” (Crane, 993). In spite of their metaphorical and literal blindness, the men strain their eyes to search for any glimmer of hope. Their stubbornness and refusal to accept defeat and give in to the blindness speaks to their inability to accept their insignificant role in nature. In a somewhat similar vein, the men later encounter a large windmill. The encounter causes the correspondent to question nature, regarding the windmill as representing “in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual [. . .] She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (Crane, 1003). In this passage, the correspondent realizes the role of man in the presence of nature. It seems as if he begins to accept his utter powerlessness amid nature’s emotionlessness. Ironically, although nature is perceived as character-like in this piece due to its continued and essential presence, nature, without emotions, is the least human presence of all. However, even though this passage quite directly states that nature is “flatly indifferent,” the key to interpretation lies in what happens after this scene. Just as the correspondent begins to accept nature as a powerful, uncaring force, his musings are sharply interrupted by the captain speaking, and the perspective shifts again to the individuals as they continue to row (Crane, 1003-1004). Even though he begins to understand his insignificant role in nature, the correspondent cannot help but apply his continued persistence. This impulse not only speaks to man’s insignificant role in nature, but suggests that the correspondent has a difficult time accepting the truth he has stumbled upon in the face of the windmill, so that he chooses to ignore it and move on. His willful ignorance in the face of truth further solidifies the fact that man is portrayed as being helpless and unimportant.
“A White Heron” certainly takes a staggeringly different, more complex perspective than “The Open Boat” with regards to humans and their relationship with the environment around them. Although the Ornithologist demonstrates a clear control over nature, Sylvia’s relationship with nature is much more complex. Ultimately, by posing this dichotomy, “A White Heron” demonstrates that humans may have the choice to control nature if they would like to do so.
Jewett begins by contrasting Sylvia and the Ornithologist as two potential models for relationships between man and nature. In the first few paragraphs of the piece, Sylvia is described as at one with her environment: “It seemed as if she had never been alive at all before she came to live at the farm [. . .] this was a beautiful place to live in, and she should never wish to go home” (Jewett, 527). Right away, this statement establishes that the tone of the piece to be different than Crane’s piece. Sylvia is not at the mercy of nature; rather, she is in harmony with it. This situation will later be contrasted with that of the Ornithologist. The opening scene also describes Sylvia and a cow. Mischievous, the cow stands perfectly still in order to hide herself, but Sylvia and her grandmother don’t mind: “If the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed quite different to the owners. Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was” (Jewett, 526). This is the first clue that Sylvia and her grandmother have the option to control the cow (either through forcing it to comply with their will or through deserting it). However, for personal reasons, they choose not to control the cow, and thus Sylvia’s relationship with nature is further established.
The Ornithologist’s actions are posed in contrast to Sylvia’s harmonious relationship with nature. Jewett explains, “Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much” (530). This extract demonstrates a very clear antagonistic relationship between the Ornithologist and nature. Earlier in the piece, the Ornithologist talks about how “I have shot or snared every one myself” (Jewett, 529), referring to his collection of birds. His use of the word “myself” conveys a tone of pride in his work, revealing that he makes a conscious choice to manipulate nature for his own satisfaction and pleasure.
This dichotomy comes to a climax in the final scene, when Sylvia climbs the evergreen tree and spots the elusive white heron. Sylvia, demonstrating her harmony with nature, benignly scales the tree in search of the bird. She is caught up in the dilemma of whether she should alert the Ornithologist to the bird’s presence and receive the money her family desperately needs, or keep her silence (Jewett, 532-533). Although she ultimately chooses not to reveal the white heron’s location, her dilemma represents the overarching theme of the story: humans choose whether or not they will harm nature, and therefore they have the inherent ability to control it.
The presence of this choice is essential to the connection between “A White Heron” and “The Open Boat.” In “The Open Boat,” the men do not have a choice. As previously discussed, no matter how much they persist, nature remains indifferent to them. In “A White Heron,” the two opposing characters represent the choices that humans have in terms of controlling nature. While Sylvia may choose not to manipulate nature, it is implied that she has the ability to control some elements of the natural world, whether she chooses to utilize this ability or not. In opposition, the Ornithologist clearly makes a choice in favor of using nature for his own benefit. Although he does not succeed in catching the elusive white heron, this one failure is a result of Sylvia’s personal choice.
Ultimately, the essential choice speaks to the theme in “A White Heron” which demonstrates that humans have the ability to manipulate nature. Personal choice places them at the metaphorical center of the universe, where their judgement calls have a direct effect on the universe around them; thus, they have control over nature. This piece can be contrasted with Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” which focuses on the more naturalistic theme that humans have little to no control in the face of nature, and that their lives are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe.