The Open Boat | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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The Open Boat | Symbols



The lifeboat in which the four men ride is all that remains to them of both safety and civilization. It is their connection to life, the one thing that along with their own efforts may enable them to survive. But the boat is at the mercy of currents and the waves, much as the men are at the mercy of the random events that determine their destiny. The boat is also open to the elements, emphasizing how vulnerable the men are, and how exposed to the brutality of nature. Finally, the boat is almost laughably small, swallowed by the enormity of the sea and symbolizing the men's own inconsequential role in the universe.


The lighthouse is a symbol of hope. It is at first almost nonexistent, so far away that it appears to the men "precisely like the point of a pin." But as the more hours pass and the men draw closer to shore, the lighthouse grows larger, just as their hope of rescue increases. The windmill tower, on the other hand, negates that hope. It reminds the correspondent of a giant with its back to the ants—the ants being the four men in the lifeboat. It drives home to him how unimportant their lives are.

Seagulls and Shark

First described as "Canton flannel gulls," picturesque against the sky, the birds quickly take on an evil aspect, staring at the men with "black bead-like eyes." The men see them as "uncanny and sinister," and "gruesome and ominous." They are living portents of death. It is as though these scavengers of the sea are mocking the men and envisioning them as their next feast. But the birds are not to be ignored or trifled with. Even when one gull taunts the captain by trying to sit on his head, the captain cannot show anger by slapping him away, lest his violent actions overturn the boat.

Another animal, the shark, reinforces the meaning of the gulls, when it appears beside the boat as the correspondent rows through a lonely night. The creature appears to be waiting for something to happen—for the boat to overturn and for its next meal to be provided. But eventually the shark, like death, appears to grow tired of waiting and moves away.

The Soldier of the Legion

As the correspondent comes to the realization that nature "does not regard him as important," he suddenly remembers a fragment from a poem about a soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers. The verse, from the ballad "Bingen on the Rhine" by English author Caroline Norton, was so inconsequential to the correspondent that he did not even realize he'd forgotten it. He had never really thought much about the fictional dying soldier, considering his death none of "his affair," and "less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point." Now, though, it becomes a painful symbol of his situation. He is the dying soldier, far from his home, and now it is his own death that, to the universe, means less than the breaking of a pencil's point. His possible fate creates compassion within him and makes the death of the soldier something "stern, mournful, and fine."

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