The men repeat their question as to why they have come so far on their journey if they are just going to drown now. The narrator notes that any of the men could reasonably conclude that the “seven mad gods” were trying to drown them on purpose. The men feel this is unfair since they have struggled so greatly. Drowning is something that happens to other people—not them.
Although the men assume that their hard work and suffering should earn them their survival, the story is careful to point out that this is not the case. The men’s complaints show the human impulse to assume that bad things happen to other people, but that we are somehow safe or immune to such things ourselves.
Stepping back from the story, the narrator says than when a man realizes that nature is indifferent to him, and that he is an insignificant part of the universe, his first reaction is to “throw bricks at the temple.” His second reaction is to become angry, because “there are no bricks and no temples.” All a man can really do in the face of nature’s indifference is affirm that he loves himself. The narrator returns to the story, noting that although none of the men in the lifeboat have discussed nature’s indifference, they all are thinking about it.
Although “The Open Boat” is mainly naturalistic, there are aspects of Romanticism peppered throughout the text. In this passage, the narrator affirms that all a man can do to soothe the sting of nature’s indifference to him is to assert that he loves himself. Nature’s indifference is clearly part of naturalism, but self-love and the importance of the individual is emblematic of Romanticism, bringing to mind Romantic works like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
The correspondent thinks of a verse from a poem he knew in his childhood about a dying soldier. The soldier has no access to a nurse, but his fellow soldier holds his hand for comfort. As he dies, the soldier declares that he will never again see his homeland. When the correspondent was a boy, he didn’t care about the soldier’s death, thinking the soldier was just the creation of a pretentious poet who sips tea by the fireside. Now, the correspondent thinks of the soldier as a real human being, who, trying desperately to hold onto life, clutches his chest with his left hand to keep from bleeding to death.
The poem that the correspondent thinks of—and incorrectly quotes—is Caroline E. S. Norton’s 1883 poem, “Bingers on the Rhine.” The poem acts as a measuring stick for the correspondent’s empathy, as the correspondent cared little for the soldier and his suffering until the correspondent came face-to-face with the possibility of death himself. The detail about the soldier holding his chest to keep from bleeding to death shows how futile it is to fight against fate or nature (signified, in this case, by the soldier’s impending death).
When the captain finally sits up, the correspondent asks if he saw the shark in the middle of the night. The captain says he did, and the correspondent admits that he wishes he knew the captain had been awake, too. The oiler takes over the rowing, and the correspondent immediately falls asleep—only to be woken up, seemingly moments later, by the oiler wanting to switch again.
This passage illustrates the way that community can provide emotional comfort in the midst of suffering. For the correspondent, knowing the captain was awake wouldn’t have changed the source of the suffering (the shark dangerously following the boat), but it would have provided emotional comfort.
Later that evening, the captain instructs the oiler and the correspondent to sleep while the cook watches over the boat. He tells the cook to yell out if the boat floats too close to the big waves near the shore. The oiler and correspondent go right to sleep, not knowing that the cook is now left alone with the shark. Although oiler and correspondent occasionally get drenched by the icy cold water, it has no effect on them, and they sleep like “mummies.”
In comparison to the captain giving orders and the cook watching over the boat, the oiler and the correspondent are the ones expending the most energy by rowing against the violent sea. This struggle leaves them more like “mummies” than men, illustrating how unmatched the fight is between the vast, powerful ocean and the two men with thin oars.
The cook eventually calls out that the boat has floated near shore, so the correspondent takes the oars once more. Warmed by some whiskey and water from the captain, the correspondent jokingly threatens anyone who ever so much as shows him a picture of oars. Soon after, he switches again with the oiler.
The correspondent’s comment is a moment of dark humor that reveals the seriousness of the men’s suffering while also making light of it.