The Open Boat by Stephen Crane, 1898

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by Stephen Crane, 1898

"The Open Boat" is one of the most celebrated, and most frequently anthologized, stories in English. For nearly a century this tale of four men struggling for survival at sea in a ten-foot dinghy has touched something central to the appeal of a narrative, and it has been analyzed and discussed from a rich diversity of perspectives.

The biographical background and composition history of the story are nearly as compelling as the published work itself. In the late autumn of 1896 Stephen Crane was hired by the Bacheller newspaper syndicate to cover the Cuban revolution. Crane went immediately to Florida and on 31 December 1897 sailed on the Commodore for the short journey to Cuba. There was a heavy fog that evening, however, and the ship struck a sandbar leaving the harbor. Once the vessel was free, the captain ordered the voyage to continue, and it was not until they were well at sea that the crew discovered extensive damage to the hull. The order to abandon ship was then given. Crane worked calmly and steadily releasing the lifeboats until he and the injured captain, the cook, and an oiler named Billy Higgins were left with only a small dinghy to row to safety. Meanwhile, one of the lifeboats had capsized in the heavy waves, and the seven men aboard returned to the ship. They were looking to the dinghy for assistance as the ship sank. Ultimately they were drowned. Crane and his companions rowed toward land, spending a night just off the breakers in rough water until they capsized and swam to shore, the oiler dying in the attempt. A few days later Crane published a newspaper account of the incident in the New York Press (7 January 1897) as "Stephen Crane's Own Story."

Later in the year Crane used these events as the basis for "The Open Boat," adding to the basic facts of the adventure the thematic values of psychological transformation, of life as a struggle for existence, of human isolation in a hostile world. He told the story with a shifting point of view, stressing how the incident would be interpreted from the perspective of each of the participants and from the vantage point of an objective observer. But he gave primary emphasis to the consciousness of the "correspondent," who is best able to formulate and interpret the meaning of the events. Collectively, the men protest against an abstract fate, who seems intent on drowning them: "If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men's fortunes." As the events progress, however, they come to see nature and the sea as less hostile than indifferent, and they realize that they are not important in the grand scheme of things. They contemplate the meaning of a "high cold star"—its distance and indifference. It reveals to them the true pathos of their situation. On the personal level this realization changes the attitude of the correspondent toward a character in Caroline S. Norton's poem "A Soldier of the Legion," and he comes to feel compassion for the man dying in Algiers without sympathy. This humane view enriches the experience for the correspondent and places in perspective the death of the oiler as the men struggle through the breakers to shore: "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 shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters."

These dramatic events have given rise to scores of critical readings from different assumptions. Leedice Kissane analyses the language of the story, arguing that the metaphoric style emphasizes the futility of a struggle against nature. Charles R. Metzger gives a realistic interpretation, stressing the irony of the death of the oiler, the strongest member of the crew. Richard P. Adams, on the other hand, explores the interplay between omnipotent naturalistic forces and the desires of individual human beings. James Nagel places the emphasis on the perspectives of the men, on their progressive ability to perceive and interpret the world around them. More recently David Halliburton has discussed how the sinking of the ship transforms the roles of the men, making them play reduced roles in their precarious circumstances. These varied points of view, taken together, testify to the thematic richness and artistic skill of Crane's most important story.

—James Nagel

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The Open Boat by Stephen Crane, 1898

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