In the second half of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory exerted such a powerful influence on multiple aspects of human life that its echo could be traced as far as in the literary fiction of the period characterized as literary Naturalism.
One of the most innovative writers of his generation, the American novelist, short story writer, poet, and journalist Stephen Crane produced a series of works remarkable for their Naturalistic tendencies.
Among those literary pieces, Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” is singled out by its thematic and stylistic correspondence to literary Naturalism. By means of such literary devices as setting, characters, and atmosphere, Crane efficiently develops and supports the main theme of “The Open Boat” — the impossibility of struggling against the eternal and permanent Nature.
As it is obvious from the name of the movement, Nature is the central notion that determines the course of events in a Naturalistic story. It is represented as an eternal and impregnable matter that exists independently of the worldly vanity. Natural determinism reveals itself in the fact that despite all the man’s attempts to change the natural course of events, everything happens according to the predefined scheme.
Nature is objective and remote from all the earthly suffering of man; it is neither brutal, nor friendly; it simply pursues the eternal order of things. Setting “The Open Boat” amidst the stormy sea, Crane depicts the objectivity of Nature, exactly following the Naturalistic interpretation of it as an indifferent and impartial matter:
“This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual — nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.” (Crane 142)
In this fragment Crane emphasizes that Nature does not possess any emotional characteristics and only acquires them through human interpretation. Nature per se is an objective course of fixed events, and it is only through man’s vision of them that those events gain some meaning.
Placed in the objective setting of Nature are four men, the only survivors of a shipwreck who are now trying to reach the shore in a tiny dingy boat. All of them — the intellectual correspondent, the comic cook, the strong and industrious oiler, and the remote yet compassionate captain — initially pursue one aim: to survive by way of struggling with the nature. They view the sea deep as a hostile enemy who can engulf them in the twinkling of an eye, and therefore their eyes are steadily focused on it in fearful apprehension:
“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.” (Crane 123)
Throughout the whole story Crane comments on those colors of the sea that change in accordance to the mood of the remaining crew: the waves gradually change from dark lead to “emerald green with amber lights”, to black, to “carmine and gold” (Crane 123–124, 136–137, 141).
Those changes of color correspond to the alteration of the survivors’ mood: from despair and anger at their disastrous state, to the growing feeling of camaraderie towards each other, and finally, to the understanding of the necessity for cooperation not only among each other but also with the nature for the overall success of their rescue.
Mutual support and association with the forces of nature appear to be the key to ultimate survival of men in the seemingly hostile natural environment. It is no mere chance that the injured captain, who has demonstrated a high level of tolerance and encouragement to his team, realizes the dangers of coming too close to the shore and being trapped into a current instead of waiting for help from the rescue station.
He demonstrates an insightful understanding of the Nature’s powers from the very start of the misfortune, answering the correspondent’s question on whether they will make it to the shore by the phrase “If this wind holds and the boat don’t swamp, we can’t do much else” (Crane 127). It designates his obedience to Nature and destiny and his awareness of the higher powers that guide human existence. Another revealing fact in support of the Nature’s importance for human life is the fate of the oiler.
Being the most physically fit and trained for the battle of survival, he ventures to reach the shore swimming without any support from the dinghy and is the only one who perishes. Such is the result of his presumption and conceit in face of the omnipotent Nature which does not forgive petty arrogance and rewards cooperation instead.
Stephen Crane’s short story reflects such key concepts of literary Naturalism as natural determinism and Nature’s indifference and objectivity as opposed to the vanity and frailty of men. This story of human struggle and survival in a hostile natural environment teaches the lessons of necessity for cooperation and illusiveness of man’s free will in face of the eternal laws of Nature.
Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories. Eds. Anthony Matthew Mellors and Fiona Robertson. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998. 123–146. Print.