The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
The Open Boat by Stephen Crane Stephen Crane’s Open Boat is based on his own experience when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida. The story is famous for its philosophical theme of existentialism, powerfully evoked in the line” If I am going to drowned (repeated thrice), 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? ” (Crane). This opens up an existential view of man’s place in the universe. Man is utterly insignificant and nature, with all its power, has no care for its individual existence.
The line was therefore fitting for Billie, the oiler, who did not make it shore. From an existential point of view, one could argue that Billie was not claimed by death; rather he was not worthy to live. Seeing the fine line between death and existence, the survivors had gained an extraordinary experience that could only be brought out by such tragedy—where their life could hang in the balance. Thus, they could be interpreters of existence and it’s opposite. They have conquered death and they have proved to that all powerful nature that they deserve life, which Billie wasn’t able to.
As it happens, the existentialist view comes from the survivors’ examination of their condition while lost at sea. The correspondent—the fictional equivalent of Crane—tries desperately to justify their survive and understand the wrath of nature against them. But his ability to comprehend it all was utterly inadequate. It only seems to him that nature does not care. Nature, or the seven mad gods, as he called it, is indifferent to all the courage, brotherhood and valor that the survivors have shown. They receive no complement or reward to such defiance to survive.
Their prayers fall into dead ears and God, it seemed, does not care. It was at this point that Crane found it appropriate to use the word absurd to summarize their misfortune. The sinking of their boat, their life clinging to a small dingy boat, this quest to find shore are all affairs that are absurd. Immediately, Crane echoes the existentialist anthem. There is no meaning to the story. No heroes, just survivors played around by nature and have become the victims of the sea. But at that desperation, man can draw his own analogy—and yes, his own reality—which is again another existentialist theme.
Shut away from an uncaring cosmos, the men of the sea form a brotherhood and the correspondent—the narrator of the story—constructs his own meaning to it. Thus, when constructing meaning within a universe that regards them as insignificant, the correspondent tries to attach human qualities to things. For instance, the narrator refers to nature as a woman calling it “she”. To him, nature is an old mistress, often inscrutable, who operates beyond anyone’s understanding. By the end of the story, the cook, the captain and the correspondent have given up understanding and conversing with nature.
The irony here is delivered in the final sentence wherein the narrator believes that the three men can be the interpreter’s of the ocean’s voice. Yet their understanding of the sea simply refers to its voice as an endless incoherent rumbling voice that portrays the universe in a cosmic void. At the end of it, there is nothing to interpret. It is up to man himself to interpret his own things. What is notable in this story is how the survivors reached that conclusion, as they go through the proper human response to the acts of nature.
They go through as series of progression that lead them to believe that nature is all powerful and all disenchanted. At first, the men are angry to the fact that they could not do anything to sway nature. Moreover, they are disturbed by the fact that nature could kill them if she wishes. At this venture, they realize that nature does not regard them with value. The universe will not be maimed by their death and could dispose of their lives in the course of the movements of the sea. They could not even throw bricks at a temple to vent their rage toward God.
But soon the men realize they could not do anything to change nature, so they decided to follow a different route of thinking. Their progress then pins their hopes to worshipping nature. The men decided that they should find something that represents nature and bow down to it as a sign of respect. They start to plead to nature that they be spared from death. Regardless, the men realized that neither anger or their grovelling could sway nature into leading them to their deaths. This is where they realized that nature is indifferent to their pleas and prayers.
They became existentialist who start to think that existence is ultimately freedom. You are thrown into existence and be left on your own. They cannot influence the strength of nature. The only hope they have, within their rationalizations, is to respond to the wrath of nature and endure its power. Consequently, the survivors decided to form a brotherhood as a way to compensate their growing fear of death. The brotherhood gives them strength and comfort and it helps them tolerate the might of nature.
The four men turn out to become friends, “friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common” (Crane). It is through their friendship that had prevented them from falling into complete despair. For example, when the correspondent serves as a watchman at night, he sees a shark and wishes that one of his companions would wake up and keep him in company. Of course, two persons awake would not have driven off the shark, but their togetherness kept them strong and their hopelessness would be kept at bay—thus keeping things less ominous.
The shark sighting is a representation of nature itself who threatens the existence man. The correspondent’s fear of the shark’s presence is the same throughout the story; that nature is constantly threatening them to cease from existence. But the brotherhood provided comfort and prevented the feeling of helplessness. The most vicious of the survivors’ despair is their fear of drowning. They recite this fear at three different times “If I am going to be drowned,” they all remark (Crane). They recite this before and during the long uncertain nights.
At this point, the men know that they are under the mercy of nature and its all consuming power. However, with this desperation comes the understanding that it is them versus nature; them versus all the elements that is pitted against them. This unique situation and the strength that they have gathered from their brotherhood made them numb at the concept of death. Later on, the men overcome their fear of drowning and hence, death itself. When the men jumped out of the boat, the correspondent knew that he and the others were no longer afraid.
They have completely submitted to their fate, wherever it takes them. In the face of mortal peril swam toward the shore and unafraid of anything else, regardless of the fact that they could die easily. It is just the plain fact that the situation was out of their control. It is for this reason why it did not surprise the correspondent, the captain and the cook that the oiler, Billie, had died. The oiler was commended in the story as the strongest among the four, yet this further proves their realization that they have no power over nature, despite their strengths, courage, prayers—you name it.
But it is this understanding that the men become existentialists-in-action that they throw themselves toward existence without trepidation. The lesson here, if there be a lesson, was that those that do not throw themselves into existence, those that continue to believe that nature cares for your life, would faced a more dangerous peril because of the blind faith they have on it. The oiler swam fast and strong ahead of the others, while the three maintained their comradeship.
The captain helped the cook and the correspondent reach shore; while the oiler does not continue the brotherhood and depends on his strength to challenge nature. In the end, with the oiler’s death, the men showed no sadness over his loss. They have, at this point, no longer the slaves of death’s threats. Their existence was all up to them. Not by God or anyone. This is why they were allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees. Work Cited Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat: A Tale intended to be after the Fact. ” Edgar Roberts. “Literature-an introduction to reading and writing. ” 9ed