The Literary Themes in Crane’s The Open Boat

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The theme of humans vs nature is prominent in ‘The Open Boat’ where the four men on the boat represent mankind.This theme is demonstrated throughout the whole story where the men are continuously fighting to overcome nature’s obstacles by trying to make their way through harsh waves to reach the shore. This is depicted in the quote ‘The third wave moved forward, huge, furious, implacable.’ which shows how the men are being dominated by nature. When rowing through every challenge the sea throws at them, they would be drained of energy suggesting that they are defenceless and subject to nature and therefore portraying this theme.

Although nature has complete control over the men, it is indifferent to them. Nature neither seems to be with or against the four men. This is shown in the quotation: ‘A changed tide tried to force them southward, but wind and wave said northward.’, they are being pulled outwards as well as pushed inwards towards the shore. This shows the lack of concern that nature has towards them as it simply goes on the way it normally does, regardless of the struggles the men encounter. Nature’s indifference to mankind is highlighted at the end of the story. The large wave capsizes the boat putting all the men in danger. Another large wave ‘whirled him [the correspondent] out of this small deadly current’, allowing him to safely reach the shore as well as the captain and the cook. However, the oiler did not make it even though he seemed to be ‘ahead in the race’. This demonstrates the theme of humans vs nature. It shows nature can sometimes be helpful but also cruel and that humans are insignificant to nature.

Certainty and Uncertainty:

‘The Open Boat’ highlights how there are a lot of uncertainties in life. The story begins with the four men not knowing where they are, this is represented in the quote ‘None of them knew the colour of the sky.’, portraying the theme of uncertainty straight from the start. Later on the cook confidently claims that there is a ‘house of refuge just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light’. After disputes with the correspondent, he then claims that “perhaps it’s a lifesaving station”. His many affirmations show that actually he is very uncertain but instead of staying quiet, he makes these assumptions which could be misleading and giving the other men false hope. This theme is also shown when they first saw a man on the shore. They were all uncertain about what the man is signalling them, one thinks that he was ‘trying to tell them to go north’ and the others think ‘he’s just playing’ around. The captain seems to accept the uncertainty that lies upon them and prepares the men for the worst possible situation, death, he says “If we don’t all get ashore, I suppose you fellows know where to send news of my finish?”. He also prepares the men for practical action and tells them what to do when the boat capsizes.

Society:

The men and the dinghy are a microcosm of mankind. When going against nature’s obstacles, they all work together because that is the best thing they can do and the best chance they have of survival.

Fate:

In the short story ‘The Open Boat’, the theme of fate is prominent. The story conveys a message that humans cannot change their fate and that one shouldn’t try to add meaning or an explanation. The men were questioning life itself and its purpose, trying to argue that they have come too close to be drowned. This is shown in the phrase “If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble?”, where they are personifying fate as a ‘she’. They even tried to threaten fate by saying “Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!” but this doesn’t change anything as they can’t control fate.

Fate is personified as an “old ninny-woman” and an “old hen” who “should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes” and “who knows not her intention” suggesting that there is no reasoning behind fate’s actions, it is all unpredictable. They even blamed “the seven mad gods” for their situation. The fact that the gods were “mad” also suggests that they are acting out on anger and therefore their actions have no logical meaning behind it. The message that fate is irrational is largely portrayed at the end of the story where the oiler died. Out of all the four men, he did the most work and was the best swimmer in the group as shown in the phrase that he was ‘ahead in the race’ but he was the one that drowned. This shows that not everything that happens can be explained. Context: Stephen Crane had contradictory beliefs about god.

Writing Style:

“The Open Boat’ has journalistic writing as it is retelling a real story about four men on a lifeboat. The story is also naturalistic because of how cynical the story is and the realism that is conveyed throughout the story. There is always a sense of hopelessness throughout the story, the four men are always struggling against nature’s obstacles and unable to control their fate. The four men are subject to nature’s indifference, contributing to the story’s naturalistic features through pessimism and lack of control.

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