Stuck in a ten-foot lifeboat in the middle of the open sea, four shipwreck survivors—the captain, the cook, the correspondent, and the oiler—are forced to grapple with the concepts of fate and death, which now feel suddenly and alarmingly real to them. “The Open Boat” ultimately suggests that humans cannot change their fate, no matter how much they argue, curse, or shake their fists at the sky. In addition, the story cautions against trying to find a deeper meaning in one’s fate, suggesting that fate is arbitrary and must be accepted as such.
“The Open Boat” stresses that humans cannot change their fate, regardless of attempts to argue, threaten, or reason with the universe. For example, the men try to use logic against fate, arguing they have come too close to the shore to die now. Their argument against Fate (which they personify as a female) is childish and flimsy: “she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.” If and when using logic doesn’t work, all the men can do is shake an angry first at the sky and threaten to name-call fate for potentially killing them: “Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you.” In addition, while arguing about whether the mysterious object on the shore is a lifeboat or an omnibus, one of the men exclaims, “By thunder, you’re right. It’s an omnibus, sure as fate.” Though “sure as fate” is meant here as an exclamation to end the argument, it points to the way that fate is undeniable and set in stone.
Besides accepting the permanence of fate, the story suggests that humans should also avoid assigning meaning to fate. Fate is determined arbitrarily and the things that happen to people don’t necessarily have a meaningful explanation. At the opening of the short story, the correspondent “watched the waves and wondered why he was there,” demonstrating the human impulse to make sense of the world and why things happen. However, fate is personified as an “old ninny-woman” and an “old hen” who is incompetent at her job and puts no thought into deciding people’s outcomes. Besides illustrating fate as an old woman, the men also consider the influence of the “seven mad gods who rule the sea.” The gods are “mad,” implying that there is no coherent logic behind their actions. The men consider their potential fate of drowning after they’ve almost reached shore to be “preposterous” and “absurd,” showing that any attempt to make sense of their situation is fruitless. Another example of fate’s arbitrary nature comes at the very moment the men need to make a flag to signal to the people on the shore, when they find both a bath towel in their lifeboat and a long stick floating in the water beside them “by some weird chance.” Overall, the arbitrary nature of fate is illustrated best in the oiler. Among the four men, the oiler was the strongest, the hardest working (having worked back-to-back shifts in the engine room before the ship sunk), and the best swimmer, and yet he is the only one who ultimately drowns.
“The Open Boat” asserts that despite the impulse to attempt to control and make sense of one’s fate, these efforts are in vain. Fate remains solidly out of the control of humankind, and one’s fate has no deeper meaning hidden in it. This worldview aligns with that of the story’s author, Crane, who openly rejected religion and consequently the concepts of an afterlife, as well as a benevolent god who intervenes in human affairs in response to prayer. Crane’s personal worldview explains the lack of overt religiosity in the text, save for the “seven mad gods of the sea,” which seems more like an exasperated exclamation than a genuine assertion of divinity. The idea that humans cannot control their fate is called determinism and is a key part of literary naturalism, the movement of which Stephen Crane was a proponent. Thus, in “The Open Boat,” Crane suggests that humans can only reconcile themselves to their fates and to the fact of their mortality, and try to live their best lives without harboring any illusions that they are in control.
Fate and Mortality ThemeTracker
Fate and Mortality Quotes in The Open Boat
The correspondent thought that he had been drenched to the skin, but happening to feel in the top pocket of his coat, he found therein eight cigars. Four of them were soaked with sea-water; four were perfectly scathless.
If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I way about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?
If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it at the beginning and save me all this trouble? The whole affair is absurd… But no, she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.
For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural. Other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails, but still—
A man in this situation […] should see the innumerable flaws of his life, and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him […] and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea.