Naturalism in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat
Naturalism was a literary movement that took place in the late nineteenth century. Naturalistic writers used nature as an indifferent force against human beings. Stephen Crane was one of the most prominent figures of this movement. The settings and details of his works exhibit man overwhelmed by circumstance and environment (American Literature). In the Open Boat, published in 1897, Crane illustrates, the controlling force that nature has over mankind and the struggle and determination of man. The short story is based off his own real-life experience of surviving a shipwreck. While traveling to Cuba for work as a newspaper correspondent, the ship he was on, the SS Commodore, sank off the coast of Florida, and he and three others, the captain, the oiler, and the cook, spent 30 hours in a lifeboat fighting the elements and trying to make it to shore (Spofford 317).
From the beginning their outlook is bleak. “None of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane I). This implies the uncertainty of what will happen to the men and what they will face. They don’t know if they will survive and make it to shore or if they will succumb to the sea. “All of the men knew the colors of the sea” (Crane I). They are focused on sea and observing every detail. Their immediate concern is trying to navigate their tiny boat, smaller than a “bathtub” in the “wrongfully and barbarously, abrupt and tall” waves of the sea (Crane I). The men take turns rowing the boat and comply with the captain’s commands. The captain tells Billie, the oiler who is rowing to “Keep’er a little more south”. Billie obliges, “A little more south sir” (Crane I). The men know that if they have any chance to survival, they must carefully listen to the captain as he is a true professional of the sea.
The men develop a friendship as a force against nature. They are weak as one man, but when they unite they create a bond that nature can’t unfold. “They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron bound degree than may be common” (Crane III). After surviving the ship wreck and battling the sea, the men are bonded in a “personal and heartfelt” way (Crane III). They depend on each other because that is all they have now. They have each other’s back’s. The men kept each other’s feet warm by “thrusting them under his companions” (Crane V). It is them against the sea and they will do whatever it takes to ensure that they all make it home safely. In case they don’t all make it, “they exchanged some addresses and admonitions” so that the other men could inform their loved ones (IV). Their families would want to hear of their deaths from friends, not strangers.
The men’s perception of nature changes throughout the story depending on how it is affecting them at the time. The waves are described as a “hue of slate” and so harsh that they were so powerful that they caused the tiny boat to prance and rear like an “animal” (Crane I). The men are concerned for their life and wondering if “that one particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water” and would take them out (Crane I). The waves calmed but the men were constantly reminded that it was nature that was in charge, not them. “The surf’s roar was here dulled, but it’s tone was, nevertheless thunderous and mighty (Crane IV). When then the men see the shore but no lifesaving station their hopes are crushed. “It was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign” (Crane IV). Once the men are close enough to the shore for the second time, their spirits are lifted, and they look to the gray sky and it turned “carmine and gold” and then changed into a “splendor with a sky of pure blue” (Crane VII). The men know they are close to rescue, and nature feels like less of a threat to them now.
The men question the gods and their fate and try to make sense of their situation. The captain could see “in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces” (Crane I). He feels as if the gods of the sea were supposed to be there to help them survive this, but they have abandoned them. “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 that rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?” (Crane IV). It is absurd that they would be brought within the sight of land, only to be drowned as effectively as he could have in the sunken ship (Napier 15). “For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard”. They call fate an “old-ninny woman” who shouldn’t oversee “the management of men’s fortunes” (Crane VI). They curse her because she is being “preposterous” (VI). Now they see that nature is the true controller of their situation, not fate. “When it occurs to man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply that there are no bricks and no temples” They come to understand that nature does not care for them (Crane VI). The correspondent realizes his true relationship to the natural universe is doubly frustrating especially when nature does not take cognizance of him (Spofford 317). When it does not, he wishes to protest, but embodied the concept that the flatly indifferent is an idea and there is no one he can complain to (Spofford 317). Whether they live or die, nature does not take much notice and that angers them that they are so helpless and at the mercy of the sea.
The men believe that they are close to rescue and think they are winning the fight against nature. They continued to struggle with staying on the boat “like circus men” but that didn’t dampen their spirit as they watched the “shore grow” and there was a “quiet cheerfulness” (Crane III). For the first time, they have hope that that will survive this. “In an hour, perhaps, they will be onshore” (Crane III). The men are drenched to the bone. The correspondent reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out eight cigars. He thinks surely, they would be ruined but “Four of them were sea-soaked; four of them were perfectly scatheless” (Crane III). They are presented with the numerological possibility that they have a fifty percent chance of survival (Billingslea 30). To the men, these cigars represented them and their face with adversity. They see it as the four cigars that were untouched by the sea as themselves. “After a search, someone produced three matches…and with an assurance of impeding rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men” (Crane III). The men are optimistic and smoked the cigars as a celebratory win against their battle with nature until they realize that there is no one on shore to save them. Now they think maybe they are the four wet cigars.
Birds and a shark taunt the men while they are combating the sea and working to stay afloat. “Canton flannel gulls flew near and far” They rested on “patches of brown sea-weed that rolled over the waves” (Crane II). The men were jealous of the birds because they were comfortable and at home on the sea. The same sea that is a constant threat to them. The birds stared at them with” black bead-like eyes” (Crane II). To them men it was like looking into the eyes of death. A bird flew near and “decided to alight atop the captain’s head” (Crane II). He immediately wanted to slap it off but knows that a move like that would “capsize this freighted boat” (Crane II). Later, a shark appears while everyone is sleeping except the correspondent who is rowing at the time. It’s “enormous fin, speed like a shadow through the water” and he was the only one awake to see it. It was as if death was coming for him (Crane V). “The presence of this thing did not affect the man with the same horror that it would if he would have been a picnicker” (Crane V). The correspondent knows he might die and has accepted the fact. He wished not to be “alone with the thing” because if he were to die, he would not wish to die alone (Crane V). The correspondent wishes that the captain was awake so that he would have fraternal comfort from a fellow voyager (Stofford 319). At any moment the pitch of the waves could knock them men off and give way to the shark. The shark had “grown bored of the delay” and left (Crane VI). Even the smallest representative of nature can influence their life or death situation without a moment’s notice.
In the same way that nature can be harmful, it can be helpful as well. After the sea state became too rough, the men had no choice but to bail out of the small boat. “The third wave moved forward, huge, furious, and implacable” (Crane VII). The men swam toward the shore and were faced with a “strange, new enemy”, the ocean’s current (Crane VII). A giant wave tossed the correspondent toward the shore. After the correspondent was rescued, he looked out to the sea and saw the oiler, face down in the shallows. The same wave that caught the correspondent and flung him well out of the way from the current, may have in its undertow, pulled the oiler under (Billingslea 36). The oiler had lost his battle against nature while the other three men lived. The same water that took the oilers life, may have saved the correspondent. “The welcome of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried up the beach, and the land’s welcome for it could only be different and sinister hospitality of the grave” (Crane VII). The men are grateful to be ashore but are sad that their shipmate did not make it. There is no rhyme or reason to it as nature does not discriminate.
Crane’s display of naturalism is evident throughout “The Open Boat”. The men fought nature for their survival for 30 long hours onboard their tiny boat against the wind, the sea, and the animals. Once rescued, “The wind brought the great sea’s voice to the men on the shore, and they felt like they could be interpreters” (VII). The men now understand nature’s indifference to man and the ultimate control it has over them.
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