The Open Boat


Stephen Crane

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The Open Boat Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Stephen Crane's The Open Boat. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Stephen Crane

Born November 1, 1871, Stephen Crane was the youngest of fourteen children. Despite the influence of his Methodist minister father, Crane rejected religion. (His atheistic worldview can be seen clearly in his most famous work, “The Open Boat,” with its discussion of fate’s randomness and references to mythology.) Crane lived most of his life as a starving artist, working as a journalist and author and living in run-down apartments with his friends. He dropped out of Syracuse University after only one semester, deciding instead to follow his passion for journalism to New York City. In 1893, he used his own meager finances to publish his first book, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York), but it didn’t sell many copies. He had more success in 1895 with his second work, The Red Badge of Courage. After publishing this book, Crane was hired as a reporter, which also allowed him to collect material for his own stories. Crane left New York City in the winter of 1896, after an incident with the New York police involving a prostitute. He went to Jacksonville, Florida, where he boarded a ship called The Commodore with intention of going to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. The ship sank the following day, on January 2, 1897, but Crane made it back to shore in a small lifeboat with three others. A few days later, the New York Press published Crane’s account of the ship’s sinking, but only two paragraphs touched on his experience in the lifeboat. Five months later, however, Crane published “The Open Boat”—a fictional short story based on his experience as a shipwreck survivor on the open sea. Crane went on to live in England with his partner, Cora Crane (Cora Howorth Taylor), where he penned an extraordinary number of poems, short stories, articles, and novels. In deep debt and rapidly deteriorating health due to tuberculosis, Crane died on June 5, 1900 at the age of twenty-eight.
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Historical Context of The Open Boat

“The Open Boat” is based on the sinking of a steamer called the Commodore on January 2, 1897 off the coast of Florida. Stephen Crane himself was aboard the Commodore with intentions of going to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War as a journalist. He eventually did make it to Cuba (leaving two days prior to the United States’ declaration of war), where he wrote articles and conducted interviews. Despite Crane’s intention to cover the Spanish-American war at the time of the Commodore’s sinking, there are only subtle references to war in “The Open Boat”—like the shark, which is likened to a “projectile,” the clouds, which are described as resembling smoke pouring out from a burning building, and the Commodore’s sinking, compared to when “the army loses.”

Other Books Related to The Open Boat

Now one of the most widely reprinted American short stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” sits squarely in the camp of American naturalism, not unlike Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” which also deals with the idea of nature’s indifference to humankind. Despite its clear alignment with naturalism, “The Open Boat” is also peppered with moments of Romanticism reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s poetry, imitating the rich and sublime descriptions of nature in poems such as “The World is Too Much with Us” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Written in the years directly following “The Open Boat,” Kate Chopin’s naturalist novel, The Awakening, also deals with drowning and the sea. Stephen Crane’s distinguishing irony later influenced Ernest Hemingway. This influence can be seen in Farewell to Arms, which has frequently been compared to Crane’s work, The Red Badge of Courage.
Key Facts about The Open Boat
  • Full Title: The Open Boat
  • When Written: 1897
  • Where Written: Florida
  • When Published: June 1897
  • Literary Period: American naturalism
  • Genre: Short story; American naturalism
  • Setting: The open sea just off the coast of Florida
  • Climax: The men jump overboard and swim for shore
  • Antagonist: Fate; the sea
  • Point of View: Third-person limited

Extra Credit for The Open Boat

Famous friends. Stephen Crane built several friendships with famous writers throughout his lifetime, including Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and H.G. Wells.

Frivolity and finances. Stephen Crane and his common-law wife, Cora, squandered their finances, pulling themselves deeper into debt by living in an expensive manor house and lavishly entertaining literary celebrities.