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The Open Boat


The essay observes dominant themes in the story The Open Boat by Stephen Crane. The major motif of The Open Boat is to emphasize the helplessness of a human being in the face of nature’s indifference. The work tries to explain the major meaning and message of the story. Moreover, the essay provides commentary on human nature, societal issues, and conduct of human beings. Admittedly, this work observes the purpose of The Open Boat as a literary creation and what Stephen Crane was trying to say while writing it.

Symbolism and Themes of the Story

The major themes represented in The Open Boat are human insignificance in the world, nature’s indifference to the living beings, and the meaning of society in the world. The Correspondent of the story considers nature to be a willful enemy. Therefore, he accepts pain as the necessary element of his efforts to overcome nature. The end of the story proclaims that the universe is indifferent to the situation that takes place making it physically and mentally harder. It is seen from the Correspondent’s decision that there is no higher purpose to survive other than life extension that seems to be meaningless. He insists that all sensations of pleasure and pain are merely physical and have none spiritual meaning.

In The Open Boat the author sets up cruel nature against the greatest human’s invention, society. It represents the author’s attitude to the societal issues. Crane says that society is the best human defense against the chaos of nature. Stephen Crane considers society to be a way for people to get satisfaction from the arrangement.

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The main symbols of the story are the boat, the Oiler’s death, poem, and cigars. The boat symbolizes human life roaming about the universe uncertainties. In the story, the boat is inconsequential. It is always in danger of capsizing as people are in surrounding world. The boat is characterized by the word ‘open’, but this term does not determine its freedoms. ‘Open’ means unprotected and open to unavoidable suffering of fortune. Despite the boat being open, men in it are not able to go where they want to go or to do what they want to do. The boat helps them realize how little control they have over their lives.

The death of the Oiler and absence of explanations reinforces the randomness of whims that nature presents. This event symbolizes the nature’s indifference towards human beings in more intensive way. The Oiler’s death illustrates that cooperation does not help and that all people ultimately end up alone.

The poem recited by the Correspondent displays that the Correspondent understands his own plight. He compares the soldier from the poem with humanity. This gesture shows either his maturity or the value of his life. Moreover, the poem gives the meaning to his situation. However, the poem does not make the Correspondent’s plight realer. It rather reinforces the meaningless of his struggle.

Four wet cigars symbolize four men in the boat. They serve as a symbol of hope and spiritual salvation. These cigars are as the men soaked by the cruel and demoralizing forces of nature. They are useless and broken. The wet cigars brightly illustrate the tragedy of broken spirits. By the end of The Open Boat men feel misery.

Style, Settings, and Points of View

Crane is considered to be an American author of Naturalistic and Realistic movements of the late nineteenth century. Therefore, the style of the story contains realistic and naturalistic elements. The prime sample of Realistic techniques is provided by making the reader feel and live throughout all the experience the characters have. The Naturalistic elements are concerned with the question whether fate is determined by environment or whether human beings could control the fate. Therefore, the characters of The Open Boat struggle for life with the omnipotent nature.

The settings of the story could be determined by the actual event in author’s life. For Crane, this event must have had some deep meaning inseparable from setting. Therefore, he had transformed it into some fictional account of fatal experience in some other context.

The points of view in the story are presented alternatively from the perspective of each crew member. There is also the vantage point of an objective observer in the story. Admittedly, often in The Open Boat, it is not clear whose viewpoint is predominant in the definite period. In many dialogues, different speakers are not identified. It leads to some misunderstanding.

Characters’ Development

Stephen Crane in The Open Boat creates each character as a microcosm of society. He represents the characters by their own characteristics. For instance, the Captain represents leadership; the Oiler represents the good hardworking men, the Cook displays the followers, and the Correspondent represents the thinker and observer. During the story, characters’ moods differ from anger to a growing empathy for one another. In their desperate situation, characters suddenly realize that the nature is not hostile, but indifferent to their fates.

The Meaning and the Message of the Story

The main message of the story is presented in the first section, when the Correspondent was looking into the sea and wondering about the nature’s whims. The Correspondent associates challenges of the sea with fate and nature. Moreover, he tries to make sense for surviving. Admittedly, the Correspondent understands that nature does not act logically, so it is impossible to learn its laws.

The meaning of The Open Boat illustrates the value of human life. It proves that the hostile environment is equal for everybody. The nature does not choose rich or poor, hardworking or lazy, smart or stupid, there is no difference for it. The author describes that each person, no matter whom he\she is, wants to survive and live in comfort.

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Commentary on Human Nature and Conduct

The story provides emotions and actions of four men before the terrible face of death at sea. Men work hard in order to stay alive in dignity. Admittedly, they decide that there is no truth and nothing to know definitely in a little boat. Therefore, suffering and arduous toil for survive are not rewarded. The boat symbolizes life of a person in the stormy sea of life. This boat with all its passengers means nothing for nature and its moods. Neither character of the story nor the common person is able to curb hostile environment.

Men understand the meaning of existence only after being saved from the sea. The characters feel that they have experienced life and get an opportunity to interpret it. After the tremendous conflict between the men and indifferent nature was solved, characters escape the danger of sea with the improved understanding of life.

The Purpose of the Literary Creation

The main purpose of The Open Boat is to show people how helpless they are against the indifferent nature. The story displays all the feelings and fears of men facing tremendous power and hostility of nature. It seems that the author tries to say that people’s life weights nothing against the whims of nature. Therefore, it is so important for people to appreciate life, its freedoms and joys. Moreover, Crane insists that struggles for surviving mean nothing, because nature does not choose better or worse people. Nature is indifferent to human life. Admittedly, Stephen Crane says that only fate is able to compete with nature. It means that fate is dominant over whimsical nature.


The Open Boat by Stephen Crane is considered to be a technical masterpiece in the modern short story literature. In the story Crane describes men’s struggling against the sea. It symbolizes challenges, suffering, and hopelessness. Moreover, the situation described in the story prompts a reader to think over the goal of life, its value, and meaning. The author describes a sense of helplessness in the face of nature’s indifference. However, the helpless men in the boat seem to be a metaphor for human beings before the forces of nature.