The Open Boat | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Open Boat | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Crane divided the short story into seven parts.

Part 1

"None of them knew the color of the sky." With these words, Stephen Crane launches readers into the story of four men trying to stay alive in a small lifeboat that is being battered by a violent sea.

The men, including the ship's injured and mourning captain, are survivors of the Commodore, a steamship that sank just before dawn off the coast of Florida. There is also an oiler named Billie; the ship's cook, who is portly and good-humored; and a correspondent. They are sitting in a craft that is barely larger than a bathtub. The boat "pranced and reared, and plunged" like a "bucking broncho." The boat leaps over wave after wave, always finding another one "anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats." The eyes of the men remain fixed on the sea. They know the time of day only by the changing colors of the water.

The men's one hope is that they will be able to make it to a life-saving station or house of refuge—the correspondent and the cook argue over which kind of structure it is. The cook remembers is as being near the Mosquito Inlet Light. Billie diplomatically puts an end to the argument, observing that they're not yet close to it, whatever it is.

Part 2

The oiler, the cook, and the correspondent try to keep their spirits up, noting that the off-shore wind they are feeling improves their odds of surviving. The captain, more knowledgeable than they, is less optimistic. He chuckles at their comments "in a way that expressed humor, contempt, tragedy, all in one." But then he rallies, understanding as they all do that optimism is better than hopelessness. He finally says that they'll "get ashore all right." His tone is that of a parent calming his children.

Gulls surround the boat, some flying overhead, some perching on patches of seaweed that float on the waves. All four men see the birds as "uncanny and sinister," then "gruesome and ominous." Meanwhile, the correspondent and the oiler take turns rowing, periodically changing positions through a painfully executed series of movements designed to prevent the boat from capsizing. Eventually, the captain spots the lighthouse, so far away it appears to be the size of a pin. They continue to row toward it as the cook cheerfully bails out the water.

Part 3

A "subtle brotherhood" is established among the four men, although they don't speak of it to each other. They are now friends, and perhaps something beyond friends. They are bound together more closely than any words could describe. The correspondent is humbled by this feeling and, despite the danger they are in and the burden of his natural cynicism, he finds himself realizing that if he survives, this would be "the best experience of his life."

In order to provide some relief for the oiler and the correspondent, the captain comes up with an ingenious idea for fashioning a sail from an oar and his overcoat. The experiment is a success, and the boat moves closer to the lighthouse. Finally, the land appears, "a long black shadow on the sea." But the wind suddenly dies, and the sail becomes useless. The oiler and the correspondent once more begin to row. The work is made even more difficult because none of the men have slept for two days, and the oiler had worked a double-watch in the engine room prior to the ship's sinking.

The land draws even closer, and now the men can hear the sound of the surf. The oiler quietly comments that no other lifeboat must have made it to shore, or there would be rescue vessels out searching for them by now. Despite this, the men become cheerful, feeling that within an hour they will be rescued. The correspondent miraculously finds eight dry cigars in a pocket, and someone else finds dry matches. They celebrate by having a smoke and allowing themselves a drink of water.

Part 4

After a long time with no signs of rescue from the mainland, the captain remarks that no one seems to have spotted them. They repeat the phrase "Funny they don't see us," over and over, as though referring to an unimportant misunderstanding rather than something on which their lives depend. Their high spirits fade, and they begin to attribute all manner of stupidity and incompetence to the people who are not rescuing them. (They are not aware of something the narrator points out—that there is no life-saving station for at least 20 miles from where they are.) The captain calmly observes that they'll have to try to make it to shore on their own, and that they will have to get close to land soon so that they will have the strength to swim to shore when the boat finally capsizes.

The men all calmly exchange information that is to be passed on to loved ones if one or more of them do not survive, but they are beginning to feel rage, as well. Their rage is against the "seven mad gods who rule the sea" and the "old ninny-woman, Fate," feeling that it is monstrously unfair of them to have allowed the men to get this close to land, only to kill them in the end. But they believe in their hearts that this cannot be what the gods mean to do: "Not after all this work."

The afternoon drags on, still with no help in sight. The oiler takes them back out to sea, away from the dangerous surf. Suddenly, they see a man on shore waving at them, and then a second man on a bicycle, and then a bus coming down the road. They are once again confident that rescue is imminent. But no rescue craft puts out to see, and the people on shore are swallowed by darkness as the sun sets. Once again, the men ponder why Fate would have brought them so close to shore and allow them "to contemplate sand and trees" if her intent was to let them die.

Part 5

Night falls and except for two points of light in the distance, the men can see nothing except the waves. The oiler and the correspondent continue to take turns rowing. Each is deeply apologetic when forced to request that the other take over and just as deeply gracious when it's his turn again. The sea becomes quiet, and the correspondent takes his turn at the oars. While the others sleep, he sees a flash of bluish light cutting through the water like a knife. A shark is shadowing the boat, waiting. The correspondent doesn't fear it, but he wishes he weren't alone with it.

Part 6

As the dismal night continues, the men continue to think again about the "abominable injustice" of being drowned after working so hard. But the thought then occurs to at least one of them that "nature does not regard him as important" and would not feel the universe would be harmed in any way if he were to be disposed of. With that realization comes a desire by the victim "to throw bricks at the temple," and then a frustration that "there are no bricks and no temples." Finally, the victim wishes that nature could be personified so that he could make a final plea to it, saying that "Yes, but I love myself." It is clear, though, that nature does not hear or care.

With that realization, the correspondent recalls an old poem that begins "A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers." The soldier realizes he is dying, but he is far from the people and home he loves, and has only a companion to comfort him. At one time, the correspondent realizes, the death of the character in the poem had been "less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point." Now the character's situation reminds the correspondent of his own, and the soldier's death has become "stern, mournful, and fine."

The shark is no longer following the boat. In the distance, the correspondent can see a glow suggesting that a watch fire has been lit on shore. The captain, whom the correspondent realizes had never been asleep, again directs them to move out to sea, away from the treacherous surf. The captain also figures out a way for the cook to hold the boat steady and spell the oiler and correspondent for a time. Too soon, though, the two men have to return to their endless cycle of rowing.

Part 7

The correspondent awakens to the light of another dawn, which in turn gives way to a beautiful morning. The men can see a village in the distance, but no sign of any people. The captain decides that they must finally head to land and try to save themselves before they are too weak to swim. The correspondent contemplates a large tower on shore, which turns out to be a windmill. It looks to him like a giant "standing with its back to the plight of the ants"—a fitting symbol, he thinks, for their own struggle against the indifference of nature.

The captain lays out a plan for their survival. They will stay in the boat as long as possible, and once it swamps they will all swim for shore. He advises them to keep calm and not jump before they have to. The oiler makes a suggestion to back them in, in order to get even closer, and the captain agrees. They are all exhausted, and the correspondent thinks only that if he were to die now, it would be a shame.

A monstrous wave finally capsizes the boat, and the men jump into the sea. The correspondent surfaces, clutching a piece of a lifebelt. He sees the captain clinging to the overturned dinghy, and the cook grasping an oar. Billie, the oiler, is "ahead in the race," swimming strongly and rapidly toward shore. The captain calls to the cook to turn over on his back and use the oar to propel himself through the water. The correspondent paddles leisurely toward land, growing more exhausted and thinking that when one is weary enough, "drowning must really be a comfortable arrangement."

On the shore, a man has appeared and is running along the edge of the water, stripping off his clothes as he does. The captain calls the correspondent back to the boat. When the correspondent tries to obey, he is flung over the dinghy by another wave. The man on the shore, whom the correspondent imagines shines like a saint, drags the cook from the water and heads toward the captain. The captain waves him over to the correspondent, instead. Then the rescuer sees something else and points. It is the oiler, drowned, lying face down in the shallows. The correspondent says only, "Go."

People suddenly appear from everywhere with blankets, hot coffee, and dry clothes. Their welcome is "warm and generous," but for the oiler, the land's welcome can only be "the sinister hospitality of the grave." That night, as the survivors listen to "the sound of the great sea's voice," they feel that they can be its interpreters.

Analysis

Characterization in "The Open Boat"

Until the last pages, "The Open Boat" contains only four characters. These are the occupants of a small lifeboat, desperately trying to stay afloat in a violent sea. Crane makes the interesting choice of keeping the physical descriptions of these four characters to a minimum. Instead he focuses on the impact each one had on his companions during the journey. Only one, the oiler Billie, is even given a name. This approach is in keeping with Crane's impressionistic writing style, which focuses on how people and events appear or feel at a particular time, from a specific vantage point.

Initially, readers are introduced to the characters only in terms of their occupations: captain, oiler, cook, and correspondent. Few physical details are provided, other than those revealing that the captain is injured, the cook is overweight, and the oiler is physically strong. The lack of detail imparts universality to the men—each could be anyone, anywhere. Long stretches of dialogue are presented without speech tags or through use of the passive voice, once again building on the impressionistic feel of the story: what is being said and the emotions surrounding the dialogue are more important than who is speaking.

Only through actions, manner, and speech do the men take on more individuality. Readers learn the least about the cook. He obeys orders cheerfully, talks a bit too much, and sometimes annoys his companions with misinformation about houses of rescue or dreamy comments about food. Crane's impressionistic style is on full display with the captain, however. With a few meticulously chosen words and details, Crane paints him as a compassionate, brilliant, and selfless man. Although initially consumed by grief over the loss of his ship and crew, he pulls himself from his despair. He is later described in terms appropriate to a caring parent or exceptional leader. He soothes "his children," gives orders calmly, serenely or in a "steady voice." He continually tries to think of ways that his "boys"—the oiler and correspondent—can be given time to rest. As the situation becomes increasingly dire, this "iron man," the "wide-awake" captain, carefully considers options and finds means of survival when all hope seems lost. Even at the very end of the story, as a rescuer hurries to pull the captain from the waves, the man motions him over to rescue the correspondent first. The reader comes away with a powerful impression of an exceptional human being.

The phrases used to describe the oiler are equally effective. He is "the busy oiler," always hard at work at the business of keeping the boat afloat. He is also the man who performs "a series of quick miracles" to get the boat turned around. Despite having pulled a double shift in the engine room before the disaster, he seems to have bottomless reservoirs of strength. At one point, he "plied the oars until his head drooped forward, and the overpowering sleep blinded him. And he rowed yet afterward." After his next shift, the oiler's voice reflects he is in "the last stages of exhaustion," yet despite this, he makes the request to be relieved "meekly." Crane also creates a personal connection between the oiler and the readers by having the other characters constantly say his name: Billie. This makes his death at the end of the story particularly devastating.

It is the correspondent, though, whom readers eventually come to feel they know best, because much of the experience is described from his perspective. At the beginning of the story, however, readers know only that he is working hard alongside the oiler and is one of only two men able to row the boat. But then the narrator begins to reveal more of the correspondent's thoughts. Readers see him change from a self-proclaimed cynic to a man who understands and appreciates the bond forming between the four men in the boat. He knows this bond would cause him to remember the ordeal as the "best experience of his life." He also matures from a self-centered child who wants to shake his fist at Fate and call it names. He becomes an adult who realizes with humility that humankind is irrelevant to the rest of the universe, and that the only comfort to be had comes from other people.

Humankind's Relationship with Nature

As the story of "The Open Boat" progresses, the men's view of the relationship between themselves and nature undergoes a dramatic change. As revealed by the narrator (who seems to primarily be channeling the thoughts of the articulate and cynical correspondent), the men first believe that they are of some importance in the universe, if only as its plaything. They believe the universe, in the guise of gods or "that ninny-woman, Fate," is aware of them and has plans for them. If those plans involve rescue, they wonder why they are being toyed with. And if Fate plans to drown them, they feel she is acting in an inefficient and incompetent manner. She should have done it sooner and spared them the trouble of rowing. These thoughts reveal their belief that that nature works according to some code—guidelines determining what is or isn't fair. Since they have worked so hard, each man believes, Fate "cannot mean to drown me."

The men hold on to this belief through most of their ordeal, trying to see logic or make sense out of what is happening to them. This is evidenced by the repetition of the phrase beginning, "If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why ... was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?" But finally, as the chance of rescue or survival becomes increasingly remote, the narrator shows the men beginning to understand that they do not matter to the universe at all. As that realization occurs to them, the narrator explains that men want to "throw bricks at the temple"—the religion or beliefs that had made them feel that they mattered to a loving god. They despair as they realize that there may be no religion and no god to whom they can appeal.

Finally, in desperation, each man wants to put forth the argument that "I love myself," showing a child's hope that love of self might be enough to warrant salvation. But near the end of the story, the correspondent realizes that there is no appeal to be made. Nature is not cruel any more than it is "beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise." But "she was indifferent, flatly indifferent." This truth is symbolized clearly and painfully with the death of Billie, the oiler. The hardest working of the four, the strongest, and the one perhaps most responsible for their making it to shore, he is not rewarded. The one who most deserved to survive is the only one to die.

Writing Techniques

Many critics consider "The Open Boat" to be a masterpiece. One reason is that Crane expertly applies an array of literary devices and writing techniques that reinforce the story's themes while incorporating stunning sensory imagery.

The careful crafting of the imagery is evident from the first paragraphs, where the waves are first described simply as being "the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white." But that concrete description is then given an expressionistic twist when the waves are viewed through the eyes of the men in the boat, who see them as "most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall." The waves are then personified, described as "anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats" and snarling as they come at the men. But later in the story, the author also pulls back from perceptions of the men and shows the ocean's terrible beauty. For example, at the beginning of Part 2 the narrator comments (for anyone not fighting for his life), "It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber."

Similes and metaphors abound. The boat the men sit in is given a life of its own, compared to a bucking bronco that "pranced and reared and plunged like an animal ... like a horse making at a fence outrageously high." Readers are told about the "Canton flannel gulls" surrounding the boat. (Canton flannel is a type of heavy, cotton flannel.) And patches of seaweed "rolled over the waves with a movement like carpets on line in a gale." Two lonely lights on the horizon are said to be the "furniture of the world," all that is visible in the middle of a dark ocean. But it is nature itself that receives the greatest attention. It is referred to as "she" and personified as "this old ninny-woman, Fate." The image becomes more powerful and more terrifying, though, when "she" is described as an entity that is neither "beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise," but serene and "flatly indifferent" to the lives of the men.

Several other techniques are used to great effect in the story. Understatement, irony, and bits of dark humor occasionally lighten the mood. To explain the weakened state of the men, the narrator mentions "in excitement of clambering about the deck of a foundering ship they had also forgotten to eat heartily." After the reader has seen the effort put forth by the oiler and the correspondent to keep the boat afloat, the narrator states that "neither ... was fond of rowing at this time" and the correspondent wonders "how in the name of all that was sane could there be people who thought it was amusing to row a boat." Later, the narrator makes the darkly humorous statement that "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." Situational irony is used to reinforce the powerlessness of the men: they are searching for a life station that the narrator reveals does not exist for twenty miles in any direction.

One of the most noticeable and effective techniques, however, is that of repetition. Several phrases or concepts are repeated throughout the story. As the men look for rescuers, they repeat, "Funny they don't see us," as though hoping the simple phrase will disguise the potential horror of the situation. In describing the work of the oiler and the correspondent, the author presents several variations of "In the meantime the oiler and the correspondent rowed. And also they rowed ... They rowed and they rowed."

This perfectly captures the monotony and tedium and endless effort expended by the men. But the most lyrical and effective sentence of all, repeated three times in the story, is "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." With each repetition, the litany becomes more sorrowful, more filled with despair and anger.

The Open Boat Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Men take to the lifeboat as the S.S. Commodore sinks.

Rising Action

2 The captain, cook, oiler, and journalist row toward land.

3 The men watch for signs of rescue, but none appear.

4 The oiler and the correspondent row for over a day.

Climax

5 The men leap from the boat and swim toward shore.

Falling Action

6 The captain, the correspondent, and the cook survive.

Resolution

7 The oiler's body is washed up on shore.

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