Four men are trapped on a life boat: a captain, a cook, a correspondent and an oiler. They must fight the waves of the raging ocean in their small life boat. This story is based on a true event in Stephen Crane’s life.
“None of them knew the color of the sky” – the first and most famous line of Crane’s story. The men of the story don’t know the color of the sky because they are much more focused on the ocean and managing the miniscule boat they are trapped in.
The Open Boat deals with one of the most enduring literary struggles: man vs. nature.
The men in the boat think that nature is being intentionally cruel to them – that there’s some outer force controlling their situation. “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?”
But this is not the case, nature is simply being itself. It has no grudges, loyalty or respect for anyone. It’s an uncontrolled force that humans must face.
This pessimistic idea is in line with literary Naturalism along with the idea that there’s no God controlling human fate. Naturalism was a short-lived yet influential literary tradition that Crane was the most prominent writer in. And the tradition was all about portraying the cruelty of life (although sometimes it was done to an over-the-top extent).
People often do believe that nature has some sort of grudge against them, especially when they find themselves up against the unfortunate circumstances it has to offer. And it is hard not to think this way since everyone leans towards blaming someone or something.
All the characters in the boat, except one, are identified by position/occupation and are not named. The exception is the oiler, whose name is Billie, and he’s the strongest. He also does the most rowing.
Which shows the great irony in the story – Billie, despite being the strongest and only one named, dies.
“Survival of the fittest” is flipped over in this story since the fittest does not not survive. Because the strongest and fittest are expected to work hardest in most cases and so they can be burnt out. Billie becomes tired while the others are less so and this means the other men end up surviving.
Even the weakest of the lot, the injured captain, survives.
Sometimes, unlike the strong, the weak save their energy and end up surviving in the end. “In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touch sand that was periodically between each wave, clear of the sea.” Shortly after the oiler’s body is found this way the other men are met with some hope: “”It seems that instantly the beach was populate with men with blankets, clothes and flask, and women with coffee-pots…”
The subtle mention of the women could go along with the natural selection idea – the three remaining men will go on to pass on their genes. They will also be joined back with the community as seen more so with the men.
But they will have gained more knowledge: “When it came night, the white waves paced to and for in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that could be interpreters.” In other words, they probably realize the truth about nature and human existence.