Naturalism And Human Desire In The Open Boat

Stephen Crane in “The Open Boat” uses naturalistic fiction to portray how people’s humanity is affected in dire situations. The story is told from a third person omniscient view. The narrator tells a story about four men with different backgrounds and professions on a capsizing boat. These four men consist of a cook, oiler, captain, and correspondent. These men are on a boat that is barely considered a dinghy rowing against gushing powerful waves. Each man must fight against the uncontrollable situation they found themselves in. Through Crane’s portrayal of the men fighting mentally and physically for their life’s, he describes what it means to be human in this harsh world. He suggests that each person’s reality, instinct, morality, and religion is different, but the pleasure and purpose of human connection is what drives us. All the men except one survive in the end. Crane’s idea of the world from him searching for meaning as a naturalist seems to be the motive behind this story. He defines human limitations when it comes to knowledge, and the power of perspective. The story seems to promote the chance and subliminal force of nature while finding comfort through this by human desires.

In “The Open Boat” the story immediately starts off with characteristics of naturalism. The narrator describes the power of the sea and the tension of the men. They are in a ten-foot boat that is compared to a bathtub. The men begin to work as a team deciding the best plan to survive. The first dose of reality has begun shortly after the start of the story. The correspondent and the cook argue about where to head, “Houses of refuge don't have crews,' said the correspondent. 'As I understand them, they are only places where clothes and grub are stored for the benefit of shipwrecked people. They don't carry crews.' “Oh, yes, they do,' said the cook (Crane I). The men are now in their instinctive survival state and are left up to chance. The men start to row and row swapping turns trying to survive. At first the weather is in their favor but, the entirety of their survival is not up to them. Crane is proving that nature is in control by the men’s limited knowledge. They can not properly prepare if they will have to swim to shore or be saved. Another example of this point is that the men had no idea that they would be in a shipwreck. The narrator states, “Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing. If men could only train for them and have them occur when the men had reached pink condition, there would be less drowning at sea.” Note that Crane does not specifically state the condition is their fault. He just implies that they have no control or knowledge over their situation. Another interpretation could be that it is up to God or faith they find themselves in this situation and could be led out safely. This should not be the correct interpretation of events because of Cranes background, and the men do not pray once the entire story. Towards the end of the story when the men begin to really wear out the correspondent begins to contemplate. A strong naturalist statement is said, “When it occurs to a 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 the fact that there are no bricks and no temples”. This is a direct Naturalist worldview. It is meaning is that God is an idea created to provide hope, comfort, and purpose. There is no God to help them in their condition and no God to blame their condition on.

Adding on to the men’s naturalistic worldview they begin to adapt to survive or find comfort at the very least. Crane analyzes and describes the men scrambling to find a reason to keep pushing on. He calls this instinct, which is mixture of hereditary, chance, and environment. The narrator says about the men that, “No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him”. Crane seems to argue that this is the only feeling that drives them to survive. They understand the fallacy of the situation but find comfort in their human connection. They are in the same difficult situation and depend on one another as brothers. It is more than a survival instinct, they discover a purpose. It is them adapting using what they do know to have a chance against the environment. They each use their strength, dialogue, and teamwork to push through. Another way the men found comfort was through the power of distraction. They found joy in making jokes and even having a cigar. Just a simple cigar and distracting themselves refurbished the will to keep going, “After a search, somebody produced three dry matches, and thereupon the four waifs rode in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water.” Simple events or objects like a cigar can influence a man as much as faith. Crane believes in this basic human need for comfort is enough for a purpose with his worldview.

Finally, at the end of the story there is stereotypical religious imagery. The correspondent is exhausted in every way possible and is being saved from water by a man. The narrator states this scene, “He was naked, naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint.” The religious imagery of the man that comes to their rescue is very clever. This scene could be interpreted in a couple ways by different types of readers. The first and Cranes main purpose considering his Naturalist perspective, was a mix of their hard work and chance. This image could be considered as impressionistic. These men were pushed to their physical and mental limits without eating. All of this plus the overwhelming feeling of relief and gratitude affected their sensory responses. The mixture of emotions and sunlight reflected off the man should have created this. The second view could be a religious experience. These men bound together and connected to get to shore. That they had a change in faith at the end of the story. Their beliefs of a cursed world out to get them changed when they reached safety. This second interpretation could not be used as a proper counterargument. Crane is reinforcing his belief that the human desire for comfort is the only need. Even if they did have a spiritual change, it was not faith, it was human desire that tricked them into having one.

In conclusion, the purpose for life in a naturalism worldview is not only human desire, but human connection. Starting at the beginning of the story Crane develops the setting of the harsh world the men will have to survive. He uses them to display and contemplate the reality of their dire situation. The men then find reasons and a purpose to survive through basic human things. In Crane’s time the belief of naturalism was a very modern subject. Naturalist were heavily influenced by evolution theory of Charles Darwin. Crane believed that perspective in life, mainly in general was something everyone should understand. Very useful life advice is displayed through this story. During his time and in America, Christianity was the main belief and he was an outsider. In today’s time there are millions of atheist, agnostics, and naturalist. He helps give answers to the purpose of life to people with those beliefs. It does not matter if people have different beliefs, we all have the same basic desire for connection with one another.

Works Cited

  • Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.’ Untitled,  
16 August 2021
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