Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” is deeply critical of the attitude of certainty. Using the experience of four shipwrecked men who are forced to endure the open sea on a ten-foot lifeboat, the short story asserts that very little in life—and in the narrative—is certain. In the story, the cook and the captain embody certainty and uncertainty, respectively. Together, the two characters illustrate how claiming certainty is unproductive and foolish, as well as why accepting uncertainty is the more realistic and practical approach to life.
“The Open Boat” highlights how very little is certain in life. The first line of the story begins with the characters’ uncertainty about their immediate surroundings: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” The story also begins in medias res—in the middle of the action—so the reader is uncertain as to who the characters are and what is happening. Even the narrator is not always sure as to what’s going on in the narrative. The third-person narrator has insight into the correspondent’s inner life but can’t tell what the other men are thinking or feeling. Similarly, the narrator notes that when the men in the boat ride particularly large waves, the experience is “probably splendid” and “probably glorious.” The narrator is even uncertain of the men’s facial expressions, stating their faces “must have been grey” while “their eyes must have glinted.” Like the narrator, the correspondent can’t tell what his companions are feeling: “The correspondent, observing the others, knew that they were not afraid, but the full meaning of their glances was shrouded.” Despite being wedged between three other men on a ten-foot lifeboat, the correspondent still can’t be certain of what thoughts and emotions are behind the other men’s eyes. At one point, the correspondent is sure that the four men on the lifeboat have become a band of brothers who all feel the same closeness and responsibility for one another. However, the oiler’s quickness in swimming ahead of the group after the men abandon the lifeboat implies otherwise.
Claiming to be certain about something is misleading and unproductive, as seen through the words and actions of the cook. The cook relentlessly asserts that there is a house of refuge not far from them (a place that has emergency supplies but doesn’t have a crew that could help them). He then asserts, just as confidently, that it is actually a life-saving station (a place that has emergency supplies and does have a crew that could help them). Moments later, he affirms “That’s the house of refuge, sure.” The cook is clearly uncertain but instead makes unfounded assertions that only serve to give the other men false hope. Similarly, when the men finally see people on the shore, one of the men expresses certainty that someone on the shore is signaling them to go north to a life-saving station. In reality, however, the waving man is just saying hello with his coat, thinking that the cook and his companions are fishermen. Even after the men have gotten their hopes up several times, each time to no avail, one of the men spreads false hope: “somebody in gloom spoke. ‘Well, anyhow, they must have seen us from the shore by now.” This assertion is unproductive, because it doesn’t help the men decide how they will save themselves.
In contrast, accepting uncertainty is shown to be the much more practical and realistic attitude, as evidenced by the words and actions of the captain. The captain’s consistent uncertainty that the boat will reach shore means that the men are able to prepare for the worst-case scenario (death) by exchanging addresses of loved ones in case not everyone survives. Likewise, the captain is doubtful that a lifeboat is coming to save them, regardless of the cook’s constant claims. The captain’s uncertainty prepares the men to swim to shore rather than wait for help: “‘If we stay out here much longer we will be too weak to do anything for ourselves at all.’ The others silently acquiesced in this reasoning.” While the captain’s words clearly aren’t comforting, they are realistic, which is why the other men agree reluctantly. Instead of giving into blind optimism like the cook, the captain speaks with “humor, contempt, [and] tragedy,” which feels descriptive of the tone of “The Open Boat” as a whole and is realistic considering the men’s dire situation.
Underpinning Crane’s implicit praise for the captain’s acceptance of uncertainty seems to be a deep appreciation for the way the captain uses his doubt as fuel to take practical action, whether that means making the other men exchange addresses or prepare to swim. Crane encourages his readers to emulate the captain (and ignore their inner cook) by taking action in their lives rather than foolishly indulging in false hope. The recognition of life’s uncertainty and the importance of taking action also underscores that “The Open Boat” is a masterwork of literary naturalism—a literary movement whose foundational belief is humankind’s insignificance in the scheme of the natural universe. Since nature doesn’t care about man and fate can’t be bargained with, humans must fend for themselves to survive in the world. “The Open Boat” reminds readers that survival often depends on having a realistic outlook—which in turn almost always involves acknowledging uncertainty.
Certainty and Uncertainty ThemeTracker
Certainty and Uncertainty Quotes in The Open Boat
It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common.