Several themes are presented in this story including the indifference of nature to man, the insignificance of man in the universe and meaning of society in a harsh world. Though the narrator has thoroughly characterized nature as humanistic, animistic and deistic, Crane makes it clear that nature is ultimately indifferent to man’s predicament, and it possesses no consciousness. The reality of the nature lack of concern for the men becomes clear as the stranded men progress in the open ocean. The narrator shows this development by changing the description of the sea.
Early in the story, the narrator argues that the sea hisses, snarls and also bucks like a bronco. Later the sea simply “paces to and from”. In reality, the sea never changes, but the men’s perception of the sea changes. Crane pinpoints the idea that nature is unresponsive to man by showing that it is both helpful and hurtful. For every bad thing that the men experience, they experience a good thing in return in the form of a favorable calm night or wind. The freak wave which plowed the correspondent to the shore put him is a harm’s way but also saved him. However, the wave also killed the oiler. This demonstrates that nature is a Punisher as much as it is a benefactor.
The title of the story “The open boat” signifies the loneliness that kicks in when man understands that he is alone in this universe and very insignificant to its workings. Behind the narrator’s and men’s rants at fate, there is the fear of nothingness. They tend to have the belief that they ought to have a role in the universe, which their existence should have to mean. As soon as the correspondent realizes that nature will not answer his pleas, despair sets in. His recollection of the poem about dying soldier reflects his anger at being displaced from his role in the universe. At the end of the story, the correspondent gains a new awareness that the universe is always unconcerned with the outcomes of a situation thus making him spiritually and physically drained. He comes to the conclusion that there is no purpose in surviving other than prolonging a meaningless life.
When faced with the stormy sea, the men turned to man’s greatest invention which is society. Every time trouble kicked in; the men would immediately come together since they realized that the only defense to the chaos of nature is society. These men though devastated still drew meaning from their fellowship, which is created as an opposition to nature and as a force to undo them. They managed to create an obligation to one another, and they must honor it to survive. The narrator made an observation that the cooperation by the men was heartfelt and personal. Even when nature shows no regards to one’s woes, they could always turn to one another for help. Though the men are shut out from nature’s importance; the men manage to construct something that has meaning to them which is society.
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