The Open Boat
The Epistemological Dilemma of The Open Boat
On the surface level, Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’ serves as a naturalist perspective on the relationship between man and nature. However, Crane poses a much more complex argument by purposely omitting knowledge from both the characters and the readers themselves. The first sentence alone focuses solely on Crane’s examination of epistemology: ‘None of them knew the color of the sky’ (246). While both man and nature are introduced as characters here, the focus is not on them as individuals, but on the lack of understanding one has for the other. Crane utilizes his position as the omniscient narrator by drawing emphasis towards the ‘unknown,’ raising questions not on the meaning of something alone but our ability to perceive it. Through shifting narrative perspectives and the symbolization of both man and nature, Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’ describes the epistemological dilemma of man’s inability to truly know anything.
The story begins with the four men already together on the boat with no context as to how they got there. This omission of detail is obvious, but hardly significant to either the reader or the men, whose focus lie solely in the action of their current situation. Crane describes the correspondent, who ‘pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there’ (246). His question speaks immensely towards the epistemological dilemma Crane presents: why was he there? Neither the reader nor the correspondent ever find out the answer to this, suggesting that the implications of the question itself matter more than finding a true answer. Section I of ‘The Open Boat’ presents the reader with information on many of the things which they don’t know, such as the names of the crew and the color of the sky. Christopher Metress explains that ‘In this sense, the reader is like the crew-neither of them knows about the sky. And in another sense, neither of them cares, for this is ample knowledge of other things so that they might know their surroundings’ (48). Crane clearly presents both the crew and the reader with things unknown, but there is no urgency to seek any answers. As Metress puts it, ‘both the reader and the crew assume the same epistemological posture: both are, as it were, indifferent to their lack of knowledge’ (48). Crane forces readers to acknowledge the unknown, describing the setting in terms of what the men could see and what they couldn’t. At the beginning of the story these unknown things are of little importance as they have no direct effect on the crew continuing their journey.
As the journey continues, however, these glaring omissions of detail plague the crew and the reader with an increasing sense of anxiety. When they finally spot a house close enough to help them, ‘the cook and correspondent argued as to the difference between a life-saving station and a house of refuge’ (247). This unknown remains unresolved, but as the oiler explains it mattered little who was right because ‘We’re not there yet’ (247). As they approach the house, their lack of knowledge poses an immanent threat to their safety and their previous indifference to the unknown has become a matter of urgency. Metress explains that ‘this problem of knowledge can no longer be so easily dismissed: what the house on the shore represents (either a house of refuge or a life-saving station) and what it is capable of doing for them must be known. The unknown on the horizon is ultimately connected to their survival’ (48). The reader may have paid little to no attention to questioning the color of the sky, but with each new variable of the shifting setting, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss the unknown as unimportant. In this case, it could mean the difference between the crew being rescued or stranded.
As their boat draws closer to the shore, the crew begins to question why no boats were approaching to aid in their rescue. The cook aptly remarks, ‘Funny they don’t see us!’ (252). As Thomas L. Kent explains, ‘Seeing is the principal metaphor in the story. The word ‘see’ or an equivalent is frequently employed to mean something like ‘know’ or ‘comprehend’ (262). In this instance, while its likely that both parties could literally see the other approaching, their lack of knowledge on what other side’s intentions were made it impossible for them to communicate effectively. This idea is further explored in the interactions that the crew has with the man waving his coat on the shore:
”What’s that idiot with the coat mean? What’s he signaling anyhow?’
‘It looks as if he’s trying to tell us to go North. There must be a life-saving station there.’
‘No! He thinks we’re fishing. Just giving us a merry hand, see? Ah there, Willie.’
‘Well, I wish I could make something out of those signals. What do you suppose he means?’
‘He don’t mean anything. He’s just playing” (255).
The unknown in this sense makes it impossible for the crew to decipher the man’s message and squashes any hope of rescue. Similarly, the people on shore lacked the knowledge to truly understand the predicament of the crew. Kent explains, ‘During the men’s exchange of speculative theories about the significance of the signal, an exchange that runs more than two full pages of text, there is no narrative intrusion. The ‘omniscient’ narrator could easily reveal to the reader the meaning of the signal, but he refrains’ (263). Similarly to his omission of knowledge on the color of the sky, Crane withholds this information from readers in order to draw attention towards the reader and crew’s epistemological uncertainty. To further hammer in this point, Crane does not attribute the dialogue to specific characters, leaving the reader in the dark about who exactly was saying what.
‘The Open Boat’ ends by telling us ‘the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters’ (266). This suggests that through their tremulous experience, the men were finally able to comprehend the world around them, or to ‘know’ the unknown. Metress explains in detail the implications of this line:
‘In suggesting that the survivors have become interpreters, and not in any hard and fast way allowing us to know what it is they are now interpreters of, Crane highlights more than our own inability to achieve interpretation. Rather, he has placed us in such a position that we must shed our casual indifference to our epistemological failures and embrace the anxiety that will attend all of our efforts to read life’s impenetrable meanings’ (52).
Throughout the story, the men are confronted with many things they know nothing about, and by the end of the story they still have no answers. They don’t learn about anything that they had previously not known, yet by the end of the journey they have become interpreters. This is because they now have the knowledge of their experience, something that is impossible for the reader to share with them.
Crane’s examination of the epistemological dilemma faced by mankind offers valuable insight into our relationship with the natural world. By choosing to omit specific details of information from both the characters and the reader, Crane places heavy importance on knowledge learned through direct experience. Many questions are left unanswered for the reader, which parallels the ending of the story for the crew: while it is unclear if the men feel that they have reached their goal or destination, we can be sure that the importance is placed in the journey rather than the destination. The one thing Crane can tell us that he knows for sure us is that knowledge gained from experience is vital to humanity, and that each of us must embark on our own journey in order to seek the answers of the world.
What Unites to Build a Fire And The Open Boat, and in the Film Up in the Air
Existentialism is the theory that people control their own thoughts, actions, and destiny. Jean-Paul Sartre popularized the theory in the mid-20th century. Existentialism is a common theme in a variety of literature and film works, as well as everyday life. For example, this theory can be applied to the stories “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane and the film Up In The Air.
In “To Build A Fire,” a man is traveling through the Yukon to get to his friends with a dog. As he is walking along a creek trail, he ends up falling through the snow in an area he thought was safe from covered springs and wets himself up to his shins. His fingers and feet are numb, so he decides to start a fire underneath a spruce tree. He remembers that an old man from Sulphur Creek warned him that no one should travel through the Klondike alone when the temperature is fifty degrees below zero. Before he is able to start drying his gear and warming up his feet, clumps of snow fall from the tree and onto the fire. He gathers supplies to build a new fire. His fingers are numb, so he attempts to light matches and fails. Giving up on starting a new fire, the man decides he wants to kill the dog and put his hands inside its body to regain feeling in his hands. Because of his numb hands, there is no way for him to kill the dog, therefore he sets it free. He continues on his journey and starts to run to try and regain circulation in his body. He eventually gives up and dies. The dog eventually picks up death in the man’s scent and runs away in the direction of the camp. The fact that the man decides to ignore the old man and travel by himself is an example of people being responsible for everything they do which is part of the existentialism theory. This also applies to when the man decided he wanted to kill the dog, as well as “he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is. It was up to the man to decide these things and do these actions on his own.
In “The Open Boat,” four men are in a lifeboat off the coast of Florida. They make their way to lighthouse and are assured they will be rescued. After waiting for some time, they realize that no one is there, and they go back out to sea. They create a strong bond with each other. They start to be angry at the universe because they are still stranded in the boat. On a beach in the distance, they finally spot some people and think they will be saved. These people turn out to be tourists who think the men are fishing. The next day, the captain decides that no one is going to save them, so they should try to make it to the shore on their own. Someone on the beach goes in to the water to save them. He drags the captain, the correspondent, and the cook onto land. They see the oiler has drowned with his face down in the water. People arrive on shore carrying blankets, clothing, and food. They carry the oiler’s body onto the beach. Existentialism is seen in this story when they chose to be optimistic at times because “what people reproach us with is not, after all, our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism.” Another example of existentialism is when the correspondent is rowing the boat at night while the others are sleeping, and he starts to feel irrelevant to the universe because “what man needs us to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself.
In the movie “Up In The Air,” a man named Ryan Bingham goes around the country to fire people for their employers. A woman named Natalie Keener joins the company and creates with an online firing system. Bingham takes Keener with him to several different cities to experience what he does and how he does it. Spending time with Keener caused him to realize that his job has made him disconnect himself from his family and other people and be selfish. Bingham’s decision to make these choices because of his job is an example of existentialism because people are responsible for everything they do. Another example could be how he tries to change to be a better person because “what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself.”
In conclusion, existentialism is a popular theory that can be applied to most films and literature, as well as everyday life. It’s a popular theory because it’s common for people to be selfish and make decisions for themselves. People are responsible for their own thoughts and actions, which applies to this theory.
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.