The Open Boat

by

Stephen Crane

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The Open Boat: Part IV Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The captain realizes the house of refuge is empty, telling the cook, “there don’t seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge,” to which the cook says, “Funny they don’t see us!” The other men echo the cook’s statement. The narrator interjects, saying that, unbeknownst to the four men, there was not a life-saving station anywhere remotely close to them. Instead, the men repeat once more, “Funny they don’t see us,” becoming increasingly angry with the life-savers for their poor eyesight or crippling fear.
The captain’s comment that “there don’t seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge” seems like the captain blaming the cook for getting the men’s hopes up for a speedy rescue, showing the downside of the cook’s optimism in his certainty of a quick rescue. The repeated phrase, “Funny they don’t see us,” shows that even still, some of the men are unwilling to admit that there may not be life-saving people coming to rescue them. 
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The captain prepares the men to handle the situation without relying on help from life-saving people. He has all the men exchange addresses of loved ones in case not everyone makes it to shore successfully.
Although the captain’s comment seems pessimistic, even morbid, in this moment, his suggestion that the men exchange addresses of loved ones is practical because it prepares the men for the worst-case scenario. 
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The men are angry, repeatedly asking why, “in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea,” were they allowed to come this close to shore if they are going to drown now. They consider fate to be an “old ninny-woman” and an “old hen” who doesn’t know what she’s doing. All the men can do is shake an angry fist at the sky and threaten to call her bad names if she drowns them.
Instead of calling upon a monotheistic god, the men call upon the “seven mad gods who rule the sea” and fate, an “old ninny-woman,” pointing to Stephen Crane’s own rejection of religion. The personification of fate as an elderly, out-of-touch woman underscores the way fate is arbitrary and its decrees can’t be argued with. 
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Related Quotes
The waves near shore are too powerful for the boat, so the oiler rows back to deeper waters. The waves make a “preparatory and long growl” as one of the men says gloomily that the life-saving people must have seen them by now. The sky is filled with brown and red clouds, like smoke billowing out of a burning building.
The waves sound like a wild animal about to pounce on its prey, showing that nature has the upper hand. Someone—likely the cook—“gloomily” repeats the optimistic statement that the men are sure to be seen and saved soon, which feels like a perpetuation of false hope.
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Someone repeats, “Funny they haven’t seen us,” while someone else suggests that the life-saving people must think they are fishermen, not shipwreck survivors. Meanwhile, the tides push the boat southward, but the wind and the waves push them northward. Someone asks if they are nearing St. Augustine, but the captain says no. 
This is the fourth repetition of “Funny they don’t see us,” only this time, it’s slightly altered so that it reads, “Funny they haven’t seen us.” The men are unable to come to terms with the possibility that there are no people around to see them. Meanwhile, different forces of nature help and hinder the men’s progress, revealing nature’s lack of concern for the men.
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The narrator repeats the rowing pattern: “the oiler rowed, and then the correspondent rowed. Then the oiler rowed.” All the men’s backs ache, and the oiler and the correspondent groan about how much they hate rowing. The correspondent feels so miserable, he almost wishes to “tumble comfortably out upon the oceans,” likening it to “a great soft mattress.”
The narrator repeats the already-repetitive phrase about the oiler and the correspondent taking turns rowing, showing that not only is rowing monotonous, it also seems like never-ending suffering. Fighting against nature is so draining that the correspondent almost wishes to give up the fight, “tumble comfortably out upon the oceans,” and surrender to nature’s power.
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Someone notices a man standing on the shore, waving. Someone else exclaims that they are certain to be saved within a half hour now that they’ve been noticed. “By some weird chance,” the captain finds a stick floating in the water beside them and a bath towel in the lifeboat, so they make a flag to wave back to the man.
Even minor instances of what seems like fate (such as the captain finding a bath towel in the lifeboat and a long stick conveniently floating alongside the boat) are considered just a “weird chance,” underscoring that fate is random and unexplainable. The bath-towel flag is a real detail from Stephen Crane’s experience at sea.
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A large vehicle appears on the shore, and the men in the lifeboat argue as to what it is. One man says it’s a lifeboat being pulled along shore on wheels, while another says it’s an omnibus. After arguing back-and-forth a few times, it is decided that “It’s an omnibus, sure as fate.” Someone thinks it’s for the life-saving crew, but someone else thinks it’s a hotel omnibus for tourists.
The phrase “sure as fate” is meant as an exclamation but points to the way fate can’t be argued with. Rather, it is the only thing that is certain and final. A clearer picture of the shore also emerges, as the men come to terms with the fact that the shore is populated by ignorant tourists staying at a winter resort, and not the life-saving people they had hoped for.
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The men think the waving man on the shore is now waving a flag. After further argumentation, they realize he is simply waving his coat around. The men on the lifeboat argue as to whether the man is signaling them to row north to a life-saving station or just playfully saying hello. One of the men on the lifeboat calls the waving man an “ass,” wishing he would signal for them to “go north, or go south, or go to hell,” for at least then “there would be some reason in it.” One of the men on the lifeboat asserts that they will be saved momentarily. Another says they can’t afford to “keep on monkeying out here.” Someone reasserts that they will be saved in no time.
The men are desperate to discern some sort of meaning in the man’s gestures, revealing the human impulse to make meaning out of meaningless things—something the story strongly cautions against. The men take out their anger on the waving man, calling him an “ass,” but the fault is equally their own for trying to assign meaning to his innocent, friendly gestures.
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As night falls, the gloom of dusk engulfs the shore, making it impossible to see the group of people or the omnibus any longer. The ocean grows agitated, and splashes of water make the men “shrink and swear like men who were being branded.” One of the men says he wants to beat up the man who was waving his coat on the shore because “he seemed so damned cheerful.” Meanwhile, the narrator repeats the rowing pattern: “the oiler rowed, and then the correspondent rowed, and then the oiler rowed.” A single star appears in the sky, but everything else is drenched in blackness.
The men are compared to livestock being branded by their master, nature, which again demonstrates both nature’s complete dominance and the men’s helplessness. Despite the unmatched fight, the men continue to struggle for their survival. The passage also contains the third repetition of the rowing pattern, building on the overwhelming monotony of rowing and the men’s incessant suffering at sea.
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Once again, the men lament the cruel fate that they have been able to come this far to shore if they’re just going to be drowned. Besides the men’s complaints and the infrequent “subdued growl of a crest,” the night is quiet. Half-awake, the cook sleepily asks the oiler what his favorite flavor of pie is.
This is not the first (or the last) time that the men complain that the sea gods have allowed them to come this far if they are just meant to drown. Clearly, the men are still trying to argue with fate using logic, which the story shows as being futile. Meanwhile, the cook’s sleep-talk of pie shows that his optimism and cheerfulness extend even to his dream state.
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