Symbolism in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

In the story “The Open Boat” Stephen Crane uses the setting of the sea and the four men adrift in a very small boat as a way for him to communicate to the reader about his ideas about nature. Nature plays an important role in the story as the men on the boat turn their blind hatred toward nature for it letting them suffer at sea. The men believed nature took on a humanistic, and even a god-like personality during their grim and dangerous misadventure at sea. “The Open Boat” focuses on how nature is indifferent to man by showing how it is as beneficial as it is malicious.

At the beginning of the story, the men’s future looks desolate. “All of the men knew the colors of the sea”. their center of attention was on the sea and making out every little detail. They were so concentrated on the water that “None of them knew the color of the sky”. This implicates the unpredictability of what will happen to the men and what they will have to face. The men don’t know if they will live and make it all the way to shore or if they will surrender or give in to the sea. At this time the four men of the boat’s immediate problem is trying to find a way to navigate their small boat or dinghy. “Many a man ought to have a bathtub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea”. The waves in the sea were “wrongfully, barbarously abrupt, and tall”. The men, they take turns rowing the boat and obey the captain’s orders. The captain gives the oiler, Billie who is currently rowing to “Kepp’er a little more south”. Billie responds, “A little more south sir”. The crew knows that if they have any chance at survival, they must faithfully listen to the captain’s orders as he is a true professional of the sea.

Unity is strength, the division is weakness, by uniting they created a brotherhood, a bond that nature can’t break. “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”. Following the endurance of the shipwreck and the battling of the sea, the crew has boned in a “personal and heartfelt” way. The men now turn to each other and rely on one another because all they have left is each other. They have each other’s the back’s no matter what. Whoever was “...the rower was enabled to keep his feet partly warmed by thrusting them under his companions”. It’s them against the sea and they will do whatever it takes to make sure that they all make it home and no one is left behind. As a backup plan they ”briefly exchanged some addresses and admonitions”.

The crew’s image of nature changes throughout the story based on how it is influencing them at a certain time. The waves in the sea are described as a “hue of slate” and they are so harsh “The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal”. It was not hard for the men to be worried for their lives. They were all imagining “...that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last efforts of the grim water”. Afterward, the waves would calm and the men were reminded that nature was in charge, not them. When the men see the shore and saw no lifesaving station the ”light-heartedness” mood among the men was gone. Once the men came close to the shore for the second time, The spirits of the men are lifted. They look back to the grey sky and water, “Later, carmine and gold were painted upon the waters”. The men now know they are so much closer to being rescued, and the force of nature feels less like a threat to them.

The men question the seven gods who rule over the sea and their fate. The “...captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of the dawn of seven turned faces”. The captain feels the gods who rule over the sea were supposed to be there to help him and his crew survive nature, but the gods abandoned them. Billie speaks to himself saying '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 who 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?”. Billie, the oiler feels the gods are teasing him and his friends with the idea of reaching land, by giving the men the littlest taste of making it and then taking it right away from their grasp. They reference fate as an “old ninny-woman” who should not oversee “the management of men's fortunes”. They curse fate for being “Preposterous”. the men now see that nature is the one and only controller of them in their situation. ”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” the guys now come to the conclusion that nature does not care for them. The Correspondent comes to the realization that his true relationship with nature is complicated. If they live or die, nature doesn’t take any notice and that angers the men that they are so vulnerable and at the mercy of the sea.

The men continued to struggle with staying put on the boat, which didn’t suppress their mood as they watched the shoreline grow as they crept towards it and there was a “quiet cheerfulness” among the boat. For the first time in a while, they have hope that they will actually survive. The men are completely soaked. The correspondent reaches into his coat and finds eight cigars. He thinks that all eight cigars are surely ruined but “Four of them were soaked with sea-water; four were perfectly scatheless”. These cigars to the men represented them and them facing their difficulties. The men smoke the cigars as they are optimistic about surviving and as a celebration. Until they realize that no one is on the shore to rescue them. They now think maybe they’re the four soggy cigars.

Sharks and seagulls taunt the men while they are withstanding the sea, working hard to stay afloat. “Canton flannel gulls flew near and far. Sometimes they sat down on the sea, near patches of brown sea-weed”. The guys were jealous of the seagulls. The seagulls were at home and comfortable out on the sea. The same sea which is a constant danger to them. One seagull landed on the head of the captains head. The captain naturally wished to smack the seagull off his head like the “end of the heavy painter, but he did not dare do it, because anything resembling an emphatic gesture would have capsized this freighted boat”. That night The Correspondent Was rowing while everyone else was trying to sleep. He “saw an enormous fin speed like a shadow through the water”. Being the only one awake, he’s the only one to see it. It was like death was circling the boat waiting for them to fall in. The presence of the shark didn’t scare The Correspondent with the same horror if he was a “picnicker”. The only thing that did scare The Correspondent was being “alone with the thing” because he wishes to not die alone. So he tried to wake the captain to keep him company while the shark is around. ”evidently grown bored at the delay” the shark left them alone. The tiniest representative of nature can impact their lives at moment’s notice.

In the same way, nature can be harmful, it can be helpful. Preceding the rough water from the sea, the men had no other choice but to abandon the dinghy. Together the men swam toward the shore. The Correspondent on his way to the shore faced a “strange new enemy -- a current”. Later a wave came and tossed the Correspondent out of the current, stopping him from drowning. After being rescued, he looked out at the sea and saw the oiler(Bille), face down in shallow waters. The same wave that helped the Correspondent, puled the oiler under. The oiler may have lost against nature, but the other three men won against nature. “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”.The captain, the cook, the correspondent, were thankful to be ashore but yet they morn that their shipmate did not make it with them.

Works Cited

  1. Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat. Associated Educational Services Corp, 1967.
07 July 2022
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