“The Open Boat” chronicles four men’s experience of being shipwrecked and forced to take to the open sea on a ten-foot lifeboat. Between battling massive waves, enduring crippling exhaustion, and contemplating the possibility of death, the men suffer greatly. The short story considers what comes out of such suffering, ultimately claiming that working hard and persevering through suffering does not guarantee survival (case in point: the oiler). However, suffering can increase empathy among people and bring them closer together. Such feelings of fellowship, solidarity, and community can be a much-needed source of physical and emotional comfort in trying—and even life-threatening—times.
The short story shows that, though admirable, hard work and endurance do not guarantee survival. The oiler proves this rule. He worked two back-to-back shifts of hard labor in the engine room before the ship sank, and is one of two men to row the lifeboat and battle the waves, but despite being the hardest-working, he is ultimately the only man who drowns. Underscoring the lack of any correlation between suffering and survival, three times throughout the narrative the men ask, “if I am going to be drowned, why […] was I allowed to come thus far?” Once the lifeboat capsizes, the correspondent realizes the possibility of his death despite how far they’ve come and how much they have endured, changing his question to “I am going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?” A similar realization is illustrated in the poem that the correspondent remembers from his youth, Caroline E. S. Norton’s “Bingers on the Rhine,” which details a soldier’s slow death. Though the soldier suffers greatly, he cannot “thwart the going of his life” by holding his chest to keep the blood from leaving his body.
Although suffering doesn’t guarantee survival, the story shows that it can increase empathy. As a boy, the correspondent cared nothing for the dying soldier in the poem “Bingers on the Rhine,” as the soldier’s outcome “was less to him than the breaking of a pencil’s point.” After the correspondent endures his own share of suffering at sea, however, the soldier “quaintly came to him as a human, living thing.” In addition, although the correspondent “had been taught to be cynical of men,” his experience being shipwrecked with three other men leads him to feel deeply connected to them, like a “subtle brotherhood,” implying that he feels a sense of responsibility and care for them as if they were family. This increase in empathy is not experienced by the correspondent alone. When the correspondent complains about rowing, “the weary-faced oiler smile[s] in full sympathy.” Since the oiler and the correspondent share the burden of their suffering by taking turns rowing, they are able to empathize with one another.
Besides increasing empathy, suffering also brings people together, which can help ease the pain by providing physical or emotional comfort. When the correspondent is seemingly the only one awake when a giant shark takes interest in the boat, the correspondent feels “bereft of sympathy.” The next day, upon learning the captain was awake when the shark was nearby, the correspondent says, “Wish I had known you were awake,” pointing to the way that the captain’s company would have been a source of emotional comfort. Community also provides physical comfort. Though the men are soaking wet, they manage to keep their feet warm by huddling together. Likewise, being crammed together on the boat means that they can take turns rowing so that they can balance sleep and safety as they make progress toward shore. By highlighting the positive things that can grow out of hardship, Crane encourages his audience to cultivate community and treat one another with a greater degree of empathy. From Crane’s perspective, life is full of suffering, but the good news is that humans have one another to turn to for support.
Suffering, Survival, Empathy, and Community ThemeTracker
Suffering, Survival, Empathy, and Community 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.
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—
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.
Afterward he saw his companions in the sea. The oiler was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly.