The Epistemological Dilemma of The Open Boat

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

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.

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