Naturalism in The Open Boat

Life has got different connotation for everyone. It’s a constant learning process throughout our lives. Shades of happiness, agony, pain, frustration are all part and parcel of life and one subtle message that life tends to give us is that nothing can be achieved without thriving for it or making an all out effort to achieve it. Destiny favours the brave and blaming everything as pre-destined is an act of the coward. Those who get this lesson early in life never get annoyed with the mix of emotions that life has to offer and eventually succeed and those who blame the forces for all their ills gradually but eventually perish. Everyone is equally prejudiced and treated as favourite by nature.

In his short story, “The Open Boat,” based on an original account by the author Stephen Crane tries to show and give us the same message: a Universe totally detached with the dealings of human race, it is in these conditions that Man has to make struggle to survive. The protagonists in the story learn this fact by facing this apathy of the sea towards them and are almost overwhelmed by the nature’s lack of concern for them. They win the battle of survival only by fighting bravely against all the odds, patience and mutual cooperation.

The story begins with four men, addressed as the captain, the correspondent, the oiler and the cook, stranded in the ocean in a small boat or dinghy. The author at the start of the story displays the hostility of the man and the sea and nature’s indifference for the tragedy they were in: “The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dinghy, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland.”

The men are in an anxious state and are constantly fighting a losing battle against the fury of the sea, but the nature shows no pity on them and continues in its wayward ways not taking in to account the consequences they have to face. The Sun continues to rise and set everyday but the sailors are aware of that by the changing color of waves due to the rising and setting sun. The shore is “lonely and indifferent.” They are even confronted by a wild shark, who finally decides that these men are of no use to her.

The men, though, are least aware about whats happening around them fighting the ghosts within but still somehow in the centre of all the action. The current state that they are in makes them more and more pessimist and a feeling sinks in that the whole Universe is hostile to them: “The waves were nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.” At this point though they fail to appreciate that it is a natural phenomenon and they are just unlucky to be in the wrong place at wrong time, and not certainly any specific act of aggression by nature against Men.

At this point in the story there is a bit of irony in their thought process, while fighting the wild rage of the sea conflicting thoughts have engulfed them, a moment of despair and a moment of hope against hope. They think that some external force is controlling their destinies: “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?…

If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the managemant of men’s fortunes.” After a while after through all the futile struggle that there is nothing called fate and no reason for their being where they are. The moment this feeling sinks in their conscious as well as sub conscious the men are reduced to mere mortals: “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.”  They realize at this point in the story that theirs is a hopeless situation.

To take courage from the captain one of the crew members asks him whether he thinks that they will be able to make it, to that, the captain answers “If this wind holds and the boat don’t swamp, we can’t do much else.” Situations like these, in real terms show the frustrations and feeling of despair a man feels when faced with condition out of his control. In times like these man realize that he is a mere puppet and a very small player and he can’t do much than to play his small role in this very big theatre of life. What can Man do when faced with a Universe that has got no compassion for him?

How to survive alone against a indifferent nature? As the story unfolds the characters come to a realization that their only source of hope is by looking inwards and showing equal sympathy and concern for other human beings. The correspondent who in fact was the author himself starts getting a feeling of oneness and camaraderie towards the other crew, demolishing all his previous learning in life of being cynical of men. The author tells us that this was the best experience of the correspondent’s life.

A sweeping change comes over all the men when they realize that all they have is each other. The correspondent recalls a childhood verse and feels sympathy for a dying soldier, one who does not even exist: “The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.” His current experience has imparted a lesson to the correspondent that he can relate to the agony of the dying soldier. He now fully gets the grasp of what it is to be human: those constant efforts against a certain defeat, and the need for others that nobody can deny.

Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” is a classic that gives us inkling in to the complex human mind by imparting a simple lesson of oneness and humanity and the never dying human spirit against all the odds. He wants to say that though whatever happens but still we have others to comfort and support us if leave aside our false egos and rely on them truly.

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