The Open Boat


There are more characters than just the captain, the correspondent, the oiler and the cook in Stephen Crane's The Open Boat. There is a fifth character: nature. Nature can be seen as the main character in the story as it is constantly affecting the four men in the boat and is ever-present throughout their ordeal. Many different views of nature are expressed in this work: nature as the causal agent of the entire trial, as being personified in it's action and as being indifferent to the plights of man.
Nature is the force that drives the action in The Open Boat. The four men battle the waves, the wind and the cold from start to finish in the short story. Every page describes the "wrath of the sea" (398), the strong, howling wind, the "cold-sea water" (404) and how the four brave men fight against them to survive. Obviously, were nature in a calmer state, none of the events would transpire. As it is, nature, through it's thrashing waves and torrential wind, force the four men to struggle and fight until they can not fight anymore. This battle against the forces of nature propel the story as it goes through seven phases.
Each phase of The Open Boat has it's own sensibility and how nature relates in that respect. The first phase is shortly after the four men begin their adventure aboard the dinghy. Their fear is new and sudden as the crests of waves threaten to swamp their over-crowded vessel. The entire experience is more frightening for the men because they have never been "at sea in a dinghy" (397) and have never felt the strength of nature in such a diminutive craft. The waves throw the tiny boat "like a horse making at a fence outrageously high" (396) while the men strive to adjust to their current berth. Still, despite their powerful antagonist, the sailors try to remain optimistic and think of ways to end their frightening saga. Phase two depicts the men's optimism flowing away with every unrelenting wave that threatens to tip their boat and end their lives. There is still hope in the minds of the stranded men as the captain's "anxious eye" (399) spots a lighthouse in the distance that could spell an end to the men's harrowing tribulation. The waves and the wind make for hard rowing in the third section of the short story. The oiler and the correspondent are growing weary from battling the waves for headway. Dwindling hope is all the men are riding on as they approach the life-saving station. A "quiet cheerfulness" (401) is felt by them at the possibility of ending their struggle with nature, and getting off of the "wild colt of a dinghy" (401). Hope of an early finish is lost when no one comes to save them in phase four. As well, the four stranded sailors talk seriously about the chance that they will not all make it through the ordeal and exchange information and addresses of loved ones. The men head back out to sea to escape the slapping breakers that nature sends at them. They see people on shore and talk about their upcoming rescue but, like the other contemplated deliverance, this one is swept away with the wind. The men talk a little about drowning and how fate brought them so close to rescue. The men are tiring, but nature is not. The waves are still coming, the wind is still blowing and there is no respite in sight for the tired, struggling men. Nature continues it's pummeling into phase five. Overly worked and weary, the oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing while the other sleeps. Nature propels wave upon wave of frigid water into the boat that leaves the men "shaking with the new cold" (408). The contemplation that nature may eventually beat the men is still in the speech of the crewmen. They felt that it was "an abomonable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard.." (409) and that nature does not regard a man as important. Finally, the men reach shore. However, after a long swim and bout with the crushing waves, only three men make it alive. The oiler, who had worked so hard to ensure the safety of the others, did not make the swim. Nature had beaten him, but not