“The Open Boat” primarily centers on the dynamic between humankind and nature. Humankind is represented by the four men in the boat: the correspondent, the captain, the cook, and the oiler. The men try to prevail over nature, but nature clearly has full control over them. The story is careful to point out the way that nature’s control is not due to any particular concern or contempt for the men. Instead, nature is completely indifferent to humankind, placing “The Open Boat” squarely within a literary movement known as American naturalism. Somewhat of an offshoot of realism, American naturalism is marked by themes of survival, determinism (the idea that humans can’t change their fate), and, most notably, nature’s indifference to humans.
“The Open Boat” demonstrates repeatedly that humans have no control over nature, despite their best efforts to overcome it. Throughout the story, the four men must fight against nature for their survival by navigating their tiny lifeboat through rough waters—a fight they are clearly not winning. This process drains them of their energy and spirit, leaving them like “mummies.” The men are at the mercy of nature. Whereas on land humans demonstrate their power over the natural world by branding animals, at sea these helpless men are themselves “branded” by nature: “The spray, when it dashed uproariously over the side, made the voyagers shrink and swear like men who were being branded.” Thus, at sea, the illusion of man’s control over nature is shown to be false, as nature violently asserts its dominance over the voyagers like a man branding a cow.
This man-versus-nature dynamic is also reflected in a reference to Caroline E. S. Norton’s poem, “Bingers on the Rhine.” As the correspondent rows against the violent sea, he remembers the poem, which he heard in his youth, about a dying soldier who tries in vain to keep from bleeding to death by holding his hand over his heart. The soldier’s attempt to fight against his imminent death is fruitless. Similarly, the narrator notes that nature (and consequently fate) has the power to drown humans, and all a person can do in the face of this very real threat is “shake his fist at the clouds” and curse his fate (which is as ineffective a response as the soldier clutching his chest to keep from dying).
The narrator writes that the four men in the tiny, ten-foot boat are “at the mercy of five oceans,” further emphasizing the staggering difference in size and power between nature and mankind. When the correspondent catches sight of a shark next to the boat one night, the narrator likens it to deathly weaponry with a mix of horror and fascination: “The speed and power of the thing was greatly to be admired. It cut through the water like a gigantic and keen projectile.” Even nature in its seemingly most harmless form has complete control over man; when a seagull lands on the captain, he can’t shoo it away for fear of capsizing the boat with his vigorous movements. Instead, the captain must reluctantly sit and bear it, allowing the bird to sit on his head for as long as it likes.
Though nature has complete control over humankind, it is ultimately indifferent to them—neither in favor of or against them. For example, elements of nature both help and hinder the men’s progress toward shore: “A changed tide tried to force them southward, but the wind and wave said northward.” Likewise, waves growl like menacing wild animals and then are subdued. The waves’ temperament shifts constantly, without any regard for the words and actions of the four men on the tiny lifeboat. In the ultimate show of indifference, a large wave capsizes the boat (setting in motion the events leading up to the oiler’s death), but another large wave propels the correspondent safely to shore. Nature’s indifference toward the men continues after they’ve reached land, as the “indifferent shore” has two different “welcomes” for them. For the correspondent, the cook, and the captain, the shore means safety and survival while for the oiler the shore offers only the “sinister hospitality of the grave.” Nature didn’t specifically target the oiler or try to save the other three men. Ultimately, the correspondent realizes that nature is not “cruel,” “beneficent,” “treacherous,” or “wise.” Instead, the story affirms that nature is “indifferent, flatly indifferent,” and that humans are insignificant and small in comparison to nature’s vastness. In this way, Crane encourages his readers to let go of their human pride and feel humbled by nature’s vastness and power.
Humans vs. Nature ThemeTracker
Humans vs. Nature 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?
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—
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important…he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.
He has never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil’s point. Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing.
Later, carmine and gold was painted upon the waters. The morning appeared finally, in its splendor, with a sky of pure blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves.
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.