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The Open Boat | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Open Boat | Context


The Story Behind "The Open Boat"

Considered by literary critics to be one of the greatest American short stories, "The Open Boat" is based on a harrowing experience Crane had while he was a reporter covering events leading up to the Spanish American War of 1898. A series of rebellions against Spanish rule had broken out in Cuba, and although the United States remained officially neutral, most of its citizens sympathized with the rebels. They contributed both money and resources to the cause, and supplies were smuggled into the country by people hired for that purpose.

On New Year's Day of 1896, 25-year-old Crane was aboard the S.S. Commodore, a ship that was part of a gunrunning expedition. It was bringing rifles and ammunition to the Cuban rebels. That evening, only hours after setting off from its dock in Jacksonville, Florida, the engine room began to take on water and the pumps failed. Captain Edward Murphy called for the lifeboats. Crane and three other men—the captain; Billy Higgins, the oiler (who was the last to leave the ship); and a cook, unnamed in the account but later identified as Steward C.B. Montgomery—found themselves in a 10-foot lifeboat, watching as the Commodore sank. There they would spend the next 30 hours, desperately trying to make it back to shore. As in the short story, only three of the men survived.

Crane wrote a newspaper account of the experience, headlined "Stephen Crane's Own Story," which was published on January 6, 1896. In it, he focused on the events leading up to the sinking. He devoted only a couple of paragraphs to describing the 30 hours in the boat. The account included a promise, though, that at some point he would "tell the story at once" and describe the "splendid manhood of Captain Edward Murphy and William Higgins, the oiler." He made good on that vow. The resulting short story included the following subtitle: "A Tale Intended to Be after the Fact. Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore." The story was also dedicated "To the Memory of the Late William Higgins and to Captain Edward Murphy and Steward C. B. Montgomery of the Sunk Steamer Commodore."

Realism, Naturalism, and Determinism

Realism is a literary style that emerged in the second part of the 19th century. It was a reaction against Romanticism, a literary, artistic and intellectual movement that celebrated nature, emphasized emotion, and glorified the individual. Authors who incorporated realism, on the other hand, attempted to portray scenes, action, and people as precisely and honestly as possible, without emotion or judgment. They included not only physical details, but the psychological aspects of characters, as well. Stephen Crane, building on his journalism background, used a realist narrative style in many of his works.

Naturalism is a literary style that flowed from realism. It has sometimes been described as "an extreme form" of that style. In naturalist literature, the environment plays an important role. Nature dictates what happens to the characters, and often becomes a character in its own right. An author who uses naturalism also tries to arrange details to not only describe the experience, but also to present his or her view of the meaning inherent in that experience. Naturalism also has elements of determinism. This philosophical point of view suggests the events of a person's life are outside of his or her control and are, instead, determined by the environment. In naturalist literature, human beings are often portrayed as helpless objects at the mercy of forces in the universe and an indifferent nature. It creates a sense that the world is random, and that life is often brutal and short.

Crane's use of naturalism is viciously evident in "The Open Boat." By the end of the story, it is clear that the efforts and worth of the men involved have no bearing on who will survive. They are at the mercy of an indifferent nature that is not even aware they exist.

Impressionism in Writing

Impressionism is a highly personal form of writing. An impressionist author presents events, moods, scenes, and characters as they appear from a particular vantage point, at a specific moment in time. The details might not be exact, but that isn't the purpose of the writing. Instead, the author is trying to convey the impact the subject had on the observer from whose point of view it is being described. Feelings and impressions are more important than concrete details.

The term impressionism is borrowed from a style of painting that evolved in the middle of the 19th century. Its practitioners, such as French painters Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, departed from the more realistic approach of their predecessors. To these artists it was more important to capture the impressions an object made on them—the effect or impact it had on how they felt—than the exact appearance of the object itself. Writers built on this idea. They felt that the personal moods, attitudes, and perceptions of the author or the character were just as important as descriptive details.

In "The Open Boat" Stephen Crane blends his naturalist approach with impressionism. He combines the philosophical attitude that human beings have no importance in the universe with the personal belief that to each person, his or her existence is supremely important. This blended approach is reflected in the storytelling. At some points, the sea and the events taking place within it are described from the vantage point of some unconcerned entity looking at the wide expanse objectively. At other times, Crane focuses on the agony of the ordeal as experienced by the men, thus revealing their emotional, mental, and physical pain.

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