Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” as a Naturalistic Narrative

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Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” as a Naturalistic Narrative

Stephen Crane’s work, “The Open Boat” details the experiences of four men involved in an accident at sea before dawn. The four men are clinging onto a dinghy as they hope for survival after their vessel capsized. The dawning of a new morning forces them to realize that they are in need of help due to the severe and hazardous nature of their present situation. In this case, the four men have to go through a test of survival in which they end up battling creatures of the sea such as sharks as well as the fearsome recurrent waves. Their quest is to reach the shore, which would ultimately guarantee their survival. It is evident that the waves and the fear of sharks and death at sea influence the protagonists to endure pain and extreme weather conditions with the sole aim of attaining continued existence. Hence, referring to “The Open Boat”, the narrative uses naturalism as a means of depicting the strength and influence of the material and physical environment, specifically as an essential determinant for human actions.

            One of the aspects that set “The Open Boat” as a naturalistic narrative involves the manner in which nature is portrayed as an influential force over the actions of the characters. Nature is responsible for controlling the lives of the characters. The waves, the ocean currents, the sea’s harsh temperatures, the winds, and the rising and setting of the sun represent the elements of nature that assume an imperative role in establishing the facets that affect the men as they drift away inside their dinghy. The illustration of nature as an influential force is further supported by the manner in which the author presents it as an indifferent aspect. Indeed, the natural elements that affect the cast of the narrative’s characters take place randomly. This is evident when the author asserts that the “shipwrecks are apropos of nothing” (Crane 1773). In addition to this, Crane refers to nature’s indifference and spontaneity by stating, “She was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (Crane 1782). In this respect, nature seems to have null inclinations towards the men.

Another aspect that illustrates the naturalistic themes of “The Open Boat” is based on the way the author presents nature as ignorant and disregarding towards the lives of human beings. Throughout the narrative, the four men engage in an endurance test that sees them fighting against the forces of nature. All four characters seem to engage in conflict with the sea, the wind, the wave, the storm, and the shark. Despite the desperate temperament of their situation, nature is persistent and continues to act in harsh ways irrespective of the dangerous repercussions that may befall the respective individuals. As the narrative advances, nature displays her disregard towards the characters’ lives by leading one of the personas (the oiler) towards his own demise. Concerning Higgins’ death, the author writes, “In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea” (Crane 1784). In a paradoxical twist exerted by nature, the oiler dies despite him being the most able-bodied among the narrative’s characters.

Further evidence of “The Open Boat” as a naturalistic story is represented by the bias applied to the selection of archetypal characters. Aside from the representation of nature, the author inclines towards naturalistic themes by utilizing particular character personas that tend to be typical in most natural-themed narratives. The first category of these characters usually comprises those that are illustrated by diminutive intellectual capacities and strong physics. Referring to Crane’s story, the oiler perfectly fits this typical persona. The oiler is physically capable of evading such situations and additionally, sustains a representation of affection, honor, and strength. The second category comprises characters that exude eccentric, neurotic temperaments. In this case, the Correspondent represents this character considerably. This is based on the fluctuating nature of his moods due to the random nature of the situation affecting him and the other characters. Lastly, the use of a persona with a broken will tends to be evident in most naturalistic stories. In this case, the Captain at first represents this archetype due to the loss he suffers once he loses his ship. However, the Cook best fits this character due to his unflinching cowardice.  

Another element that places “The Open Boat” as a naturalistic narrative concerns the imposition of objectivity. In the narrative, the characters are deemed as casualties of fate or destiny. Fate succeeded in bringing the different characters together via a shipwreck. Due to the occurrence of such an unfortunate circumstance, the characters were assembled and forced to engage in a wild and risky life inside their dinghy. In fact, the only thing that the characters had to do involved staying alive. In order to do this, they were required to look for new ways of survival since the open boat was not strong enough to protect them from the raging forces of nature. One of the characters, the Captain, realizes this and states that, “If we stay out here much longer we will be too weak to do anything for ourselves at all” (Crane 1782). In addition, the Captain notes that there is null evidence of assistance. Hence, he surmises, “…if no help is coming, we might better try a run through the surf right away…” (Crane 1782).  

The frank representation of fear due to the forces of nature in “The Open Boat” additionally sets the respective narrative as a naturalistic one. Human beings tend to be afraid of the events, things, and situations that they do not know and cannot control. In this respect, Crane represents nature as such an aspect. The characters are incapable of controlling the elements of nature that affect them while at open sea. Furthermore, their inability to determine the next course of action due to the randomness of nature forces them to remain in fear of what may transpire next. Consequently, Crane illustrates the manner in which the characters are incapable of concealing their fears regardless of their physical prowess, knowledge of the sea, and intellectual capabilities. An illustration of this fear is evidenced by the characters’ inclinations towards futility. For instance, in one of the situations, the Captain is asked if there is hope in finding a lighthouse (Crane 1771). However, his futile reply implies that they cannot do much to protect themselves against nature’s indifference.

Lastly, the notion of determinism places “The Open Boat” as a naturalistic narrative. In this case, the concept of determinism refers to the efforts employed by the characters in the face of nature’s uncontrollable power and will. Accordingly, it is evident that unavoidable forces pose considerable control over the lives of human beings. In this respect, Crane shows that the naturalist characters must go through terrible ordeals in order to attain redemption. Hence, regardless of the experiences that they pass and the endeavors they apply in order to safeguard their lives, their determination still leads them to misfortune. From the beginning of the narrative, the reader perceives the sea based on the notions of the shipwrecked survivors. In addition, the reader notes the efforts applied by the characters in order to survive as well as the death of the Oiler who is the sole character destined for destruction. Hence, towards the end, the reader concludes that all the events within the narrative are eventually determined by reasons that are external to the characters’ will.

In conclusion, “The Open Boat” is a fine illustration of the application of naturalism in literature. Crane illustrates the struggles that the characters experience under the harsh forces of nature. In the solidarity of the respective personas, the theme of naturalism shows the extent to which nature assumes a significant role in determining their course of their lives. In the end, the characters are not dealing with something that they are knowledgeable about or considerably informed. As such, the only thing that they can do is to ensure their survival against the chaotic underpinnings of nature.

Work Cited

Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 1768-1784. Print.

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