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Winks' Journal

30 September 02

Cranes attitude to the universe in “The Open Boat”

In “The Open Boat”, Stephen Crane initially gives the four men who have been shipwrecked a theistic attitude towards the universe. The remainder of the voyage is spent shifting this attitude to a more Darwinian, naturalistic outlook mirroring the shift in society’s attitude at the time. Initially the men have a perception that nature is antagonistic towards them. They come to a realisation that nature is just being nature. This paper will explore Crane’s and society’s changing attitude towards the universe from theism to Darwinism and literary naturalism using three examples: the relationship of the men in the boat to the water; their relationship amongst themselves; and their attitude towards fate and death.

The descriptions of the water throughout the story reflect Crane’s gradual shift of attitude towards the universe. During the early stages of the story the sea is described as grim, as having “terrible grace” (357). The attitude of the men in the boat is one of open hostility towards nature. They believe they have a deeper relationship with nature that should see them through this ordeal. A transition happens through the story where the water is not given such an extreme adversarial role; “a subdued growl” (366) replaces the once snarling waves. The men seem to have less hostility towards the water as they rest in the “cold and comfortable seawater in the bottom of the boat”(369). At the end of the voyage “the ominous slash of the wind and the water affected them as it would have affected mummies”(370). Their appeals to Fate appear to fade as the men begin to accept that nature is simply being nature.

The relationship between the shipwrecked men undergoes the same transformation from a belief in their deeper connection with nature to a realistic one. Early in the story the men bond together in their struggle against nature. This is illustrated in their ill-timed celebration “as they rode impudently in their little boat”(362). They believe the Fates are about to intervene on their behalf. The men cannot seem to contemplate the fact that Fate has not intervened on their behalf. As the voyage continues on into the night the men appear to withdraw into themselves. No longer as united against a common foe, the men are becoming more solitary. Finding himself “bereft of sympathy” the correspondent chooses to “swear softly” (367) rather than loudly protest. Towards the end of the voyage the men are separate, flinging themselves into the sea in order to reach the beach.

The shipmates rally against fate throughout the story. The reader is given an insight into the amount of rage in them towards fate through a series of appeals. Stephen Crane gives the reader an insight into the minds of the men when he writes: “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? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention.”(362).

They are asking questions of Fate which continue to be unanswered throughout the story. This quote is repeated twice more, each time losing some of the anger that was represented in the first quote. The questions eventually beg answering and after contemplating drowning as a “crime most unnatural” (368) the men wonder “when it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important”(368). Without anything to rally against and knowing that to “confront a personification and indulge in pleas” will have no effect the men understand the futility in uttering pleas. It is here that the crew understands they have to bend to the will of nature because Fate will not turn the tables on her.

Stephen Crane uses symbolism to show the reader how his and society’s attitude towards the universe was shifting from the theistic to a more naturalistic perspective. Besides using water, the men’s relationship with one another, and their attitude towards Fate Crane uses animals to illustrate this point. Towards the beginning of the story the birds are viewed as “uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny”(359). The men are clearly not comfortable with their role within nature. Further along a shark is encountered and instead of viewing it in the same hostile fashion, the correspondent notes “(t)he speed and power of the thing was greatly to be admired”(368). Stephen Crane uses literary naturalism to illustrate that nature is a force unto itself devoid of any supernatural elements.

Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction/ R.V. Cassill, Richard Bausch. ­6th ed. Norton 2000. 356-73.