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The Open Boat | Themes

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Indifference of the Universe

Throughout "The Open Boat" the four men in the dinghy try to make sense of their relationship with nature and the universe. At first they treat nature as though it is an entity—a god of the sea or that "ninny-woman, Fate." They come to the conclusion that Fate is either totally incompetent or controls their lives and delights in torturing them as they struggle to survive. By the end of their journey, however, they come to the realization that that the universe is not even aware of them, and that even if it is, it is "flatly indifferent" to what happens to them. Whether a person is good or bad, hard working or shiftless, compassionate or cruel, simply does not matter: who lives and who dies is utterly random. This message is brought home when the oiler, the strongest of the four men in the boat and the hardest working, is the only one who drowns.

A famous poem by Crane, entitled "A Man Said to the Universe" and published two years after "The Open Boat" in 1899, captures this theme beautifully:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Insignificance of the Individual

The story of "The Open Boat" traces the men's developing awareness that they simply do not matter, except perhaps to themselves. Initially, they see themselves as vitally important, at least in their own little world, for they are the only ones who appear to be left after their ship sinks. It therefore seems to be important that they be saved. Gradually, though, there are indications that nothing and no one would notice whether they survived or not, and that no one may even be aware they exist. No life-saving teams come out to search for them. And even when the men believe they should be visible to those on shore, there is no rescue. A repeated refrain is "Funny they don't see us." The men are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

The only creatures that do seem aware of the men are the gulls and the shark, and even those creatures appear to view them not as individuals with worth, but as a place for the birds to perch, and possibly as potential food. When the correspondent realizes this, he still clings to the hope that the universe itself might be listening and respond to the plea that "Yes, but I love myself." But the response of the universe is only "a high cold star on a winter's night." The star, like the universe, is far away, indifferent, and unfeeling. To the star, the man is nothing.

Family

Part 3 of the story begins with a lyrical paragraph that introduces the theme of "the brotherhood of men," a powerful bond that is established among the four men in the boat. In the midst of the horror of their situation, the connection the men feel is something extraordinary and beautiful. It is an "iron-bound" friendship that causes them to develop a deep, almost overwhelming love for each other. They have a concern for each other's well-being that almost supersedes concern for self. This brotherhood, like a fifth companion, "dwelt in the boat" and warmed each man, even though none of them spoke of what they were feeling. Even the cynical correspondent recognizes how rare and almost holy this comradeship is, and understands that, in an unexpected way, it will make his time in the lifeboat "the best experience of his life." The solidarity among the men is a counterpoint to the indifference of the universe, providing hope where otherwise there would be none.

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