‘The Open Boat’ is a short story written by Stephen Crane and first published in 1897 in Scribner’s Magazine. It is based on the real life experience of Stephen Crane. He was travelling to Cuba in the ship SS Commodore as a journalist in a newspaper. The ship hit a sandbar and sank and the last four who survived had a near-death experience. It is a narrative about thirty hours in sea with only a dinghy to save four people from sure death. Stephen Crane reported his story few days after the shipwreck and it was published as ‘Stephen Crane’s Own Story’. Later he wrote it in a narrative form and it became a short story. In ‘The Open Boat’, he does use the first person but he is the ‘correspondent’ in the story. ‘The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure’ was published in the US and England in 1898. It was praised for its literary Naturalism. Even today it is considered as one of the best of Stephen Crane’s work. H. G. Wells remarked, "The Open Boat" to be "beyond all question, the crown of all [Crane's] work.”
About the Playwright
Stephen Crane was born in 1871 in New Jersey. He had a lineage of strong-willed men who took an active role in building America. There were adventurous sailors and representatives in the pre-revolutionary War Continental Congresses. Crane was very proud of his lineage and only wanted to further it a little more. He did not live very long; he died at the young age of twenty eight but by then he had created niche for himself and his writing. He started to write as a young boy but his Maggie: A Girls of the Streets (1893) when he was twenty two made him famous. His work always had a touch of realism and naturalism. The experience which gave the literary world an excellent short story also affected hi s health. He suffered from tuberculosis the rest of his short life and that was the cause of his death in 1900. However, Crane was not cowed down by his disease and kept travelling and reporting the grim events of his times. He travelled to Greece to report the Greco-Turkish was and it is at this he became friends with Joseph Conrad, H G Wells and Henry James. Crane also covered the Spanish-American war. Even during his hectic journalist days he continued to write poetry and fiction. Crane’s maxim for writing was “the nearer a writer gets to life the greater he becomes as an artist.”
The story opens with the description of the waves that were so tall and so fast that the characters in the boat could not see the sky at all. All they could see water and waves and more water and waves. The expert sailors knew to tell the time of the day by looking at the colour of the water. There are four people in the boat and all of them other than the captain are trying to keep the water off from the boat or steer the boat with its oars. The captain is hurt and cannot physically help but he is still the on e giving directions. These four are the survivors after their ship sank. The story gives a little hope a few pages into it as they see land and even people waving to them. Unfortunately it does not turn into a rescue operation. They could not take the boat closer to the shore as they risked the destruction of the boat. So they are forced to spend the night in the rough seas again. The oiler is so tired that he requests the correspondent, who was not a sailor to take control of the boat. They take turns and finally dawn breaks and they get a little closer to land. Erelong the boat sinks and the four are forced to swim to the shore. Now they get help from the shore but it is not good enough to save one life- the oiler dies by the time he reaches the shore. There is no direct reference to his death but the following lines indicate he must have died. “In the low water, face down, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was sometimes, between each wave, above the sea.”
There are four characters in this story. Crane paints each character as a microcosm of the society. The captain is the leader, the oiler is the most loyal worker, the cook is the silent follower and the correspondent who is not a sailor but is the observer and thinker of the story. He starts off being cynical but understands each of them better and realises that they are good human beings.
The captain is the head of the ship and till the last minute he puts others first. When the people at the shore come to save him he requests them to save the correspondent. Even in the turbulent sea, after being injured he is cool and collected and gives the right directions to the oiler and the cook.
The cook is a silent man whose main job was to drain the water but it is his sharp eyes that spot the light house. The oiler is the worker anyone would live to have. He never gives up till the boat is broken. He is so broken that he could not survive after that.
The correspondent is the one reporting. He is a fighter too and does not buckle under the pressure. He has full faith in the oiler and the captain. But when there is a suggestion of death he fights it mentally. “If I am going to lose my life to the sea—if 1 am going to lose my life to the sea—why was I allowed to come this far and see sand and trees?” is the refrain that goes on in his mind and he outlives the mishap to tell the story.
Settings, Themes and Motifs
The whole story is set in the sea with a detailed description of the sea and the waves. There are references to the boat as well. Man versus Nature is the main theme of the story. The fury of nature can break the spirit but the four men held on. Survival and solidarity is another striking theme of the story. In times of trouble when people rally for each other that is solidarity. This is seen amongst the four survivors of the mishap in the mid sea. It is the solidarity that really sees them through. Oiler held on till he saw help coming forth. Then he let go and died on the shores of the land.