In "The Open Boat," Stephen Crane displays the actions and emotions of four men facing death at sea. Like nearly all of Crane's work, it exists in a world incapable of presenting meaningfulness or even organization (Wolford x-xi). Through the hard work the men do to stay alive in the dinghy, they repeatedly find false hints of rescue. In the little boat, there are no truths, and there is nothing to definitely know. In resolution, toil and suffering for survival is not rewarded. Only Billie, the most noble and hardest-working man does not survive in the rush to shore. Through the overt symbolism of the story, on the natural setting of the sea, Crane demonstrates man's conflict with an indifferent, disordered nature that is not concerned with humanity's desires or the quality of their actions. Because of this conflict, the men believe they attain a greater understanding of existence.
As the story begins, the men do not know the significance of their lives, only that they must work in the boat to stay alive (Nagel 71). The first sentence reads, "None of them knew the color of the sky" (Crane 65). However, "all of the men knew the color of the sea." Continuously as they look for a way to get safely to shore, there are mistakes and confusion. Chester L. Wolford writes:
"Not only is the color of the sky unknown, and the horizon always shifting, but the men interpret and misinterpret things constantly. Now the 'rescue station' must be here, then there; now the life-saving station is further north or it is not; now the station is manned or it is not The lights they see at night come from this town or that town... They know nothing." (18)
And in the end, their effort to get to shore is done independently. Wolford further states: "These constant shiftings of seeming to know are symbolic of all knowledge. Ultimately, all that matters is the individual consciousness" (18).
The man on the beach who waves his coat at the four men in the boat is another instance of uncertainty (Hagemann 69). There is a message the man on the beach is trying to deliver to the men, but the message is not comprehended. As with nature, the four in the boat initially believe it can help them. "'It's an omnibus, sure as fate. What do you suppose they are doing with an omnibus? Maybe they are going around collecting the life-crew, hey?'" (Crane 80). Soon, though, it appears the man and the people who have crowded on the beach will not be helping them. "'Oh, say, there isn't any life-saving station there. That's just a winter resort hotel omnibus that has brought over some of the boarders to see us drown'" (Crane 80). Whatever message the man or the crowd was trying to send is unintelligible to the four men in the boat, and they therefore become frustrated by it. "'Well, if he'd just signal us to try the surf again, or to go to sea and wait, or go north, or go south, or go to hell there would be some reason in it'" (Crane 80). This is similar to the frustration the correspondent experiences later as he settles to the misery of his conflict. "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" (Crane 85).
The most obvious symbol of an indifferent nature is in chapter VII, just before the men decide to make a run for the shore. Crane describes the wind-tower on the nearby beach. Through the perspective of the correspondent, Crane explicitly explains the feeling the tower emotes in the character.
"This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent." (88)
At least to the perspective of the correspondent, the idea that there should be any order or plan for existence, let alone their incident on the open boat, appears to him unlikely. As he grasps this, however, he feels a sudden clarity for moral understanding. He is faced with the possibility of losing his life, of living no more, so now believes to see the value of living. Should nature truly not care one way or the other for him, he feels a new view of life.
"It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea." (Crane 88)
The idea of such clear certainty, though, Crane doubts. He suggests that even this new state of mind is misguided, describing it as "new ignorance."
After the men jump from the boat and attempt to swim to shore, only Billie the oiler dies, which is representative of the injustice of the universe. Crane consistently presents the oiler as the most capable and honorable man on the dinghy. With the captain injured and the cook being heavy and somewhat incompetent, the oiler and the correspondent do most of the rowing, and the oiler appears most skilled at the oars. Crane writes in chapter III: "The oiler steered, and the little boat made good way with her new rig. Sometimes the oiler had to scull sharply to keep a sea from breaking into the boat, but otherwise sailing was a success" (74). Further, the oiler is portrayed as the most overworked among them: "Previously to the foundering, by the way, the oiler had worked double-watch in the engine-room of the ship" (74). Crane's non-fiction newspaper account of the sinking of the ship even writes of "the splendid manhood of William Higgins, the oiler," whom Billie the oiler is obviously based on (Crane 883-884). If nature were just, Billie would be the last of the four men who should have died. His death is the cost the men have incurred for the value of the experience, in which they have attained greater understanding of life. Stallman writes, "The Open Boat is the most direct manifestation of [Crane's] belief that no man can interpret life without first experiencing it... The way is to immerse oneself in the destructive element" (420). That element in "The Open Boat" is the sea.
After being saved from the sea, the surviving men feel a greater understanding of existence. With the correspondent, captain and cook safe on land, the last sentence of the story reads, "When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters" (Crane 92). Now that they have experienced life, they feel they may interpret it. Hagemann describes the survivors' new view: "They have returned to the same unjust but nevertheless welcome world that so outrageously allowed the S.S. Commodore to sink, but now they view it with a 'fresh pair of eyes'" (Hagemann 82).
At the resolution of the conflict between an indifferent nature and the men of the open boat, the men escape from the dangers of the sea feeling they have an improved understanding for life. Unjustly, Billie the oiler was killed, because, for Crane, nature is not concerned with giving good will to those who may deserve it. From the power of their experience, though, and their close encounter with death, they feel now to be "interpreters," but it's unclear if that feeling in them is only a delusion. While at sea, in intense contact with the apparent apathy and ambiguity of the universe, the men correctly interpret very little, if anything. It could be that their sudden feeling of wisdom is also a part of their "new ignorance of the grave-edge."
Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat." The Seagull Reader: Literature. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2005. 68-92.
Crane, Stephen. "Stephen Crane's Own Story." Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry. New York: The Library of America, 1996. 875-884.
Hagemann, E.R. "'Sadder than the End': Another Look at 'The Open Boat.'" Stephen Crane in Transition. Ed. Joseph Katz. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972. 66-85.
Levenson, J.C. Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry. New York: The Library of America, 1996.
Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Stallman, Robert Wooster. Stephen Crane: An Omnibus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
Wolford, Chester L. Stephen Crane: A Study in the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.