Indifference to Anxiety in Crane's The Open Boat
In recent years, critical response to Stephen Crane's The Open Boat has shifted dramatically, focusing less on the tale's philosophical agendas than on its epistemological implications. The story no longer stands as merely a naturalistic depiction of nature's monumental indifference or as simply an existential affirmation of fife's absurdity. Instead, we have slowly come to realize a new level of the text, one that, according to Donna Gerstenberger, explores "man's limited capacities for knowing reality" (557). Gerstenberger's conclusion that the tale "may be best viewed as a story with an epistemological emphasis, one which constantly reminds its reader of the impossibility of man's knowing anything, even that which he experiences" (560), is further developed by Thomas L. Kent:
If we insist that the text be interpreted naturalistically, if we insist, that the text must have some sort of overarching meaning --- even a meaning that shows the universe to be existentially absurd --- we place ourselves in the same boat as the deluded castaways [who "felt that, they could then be interpreters"]. On both the narrative and extra-textual levels, the subject of "The Open Boat" is epistemology, and the text suggests that meaning in the universe is secondary to man's ability to preceive [sic] it. (264)
Building upon the insights of Gerstenberger, Kent and others, l hope to show bow the structure of "The Open Boat" creates an epistemological dilemma, moving the reader from a position of epistemological indifference to a state of epistemological anxiety. Four key moments in the story create this shift from indifference to anxiety: first, in Section 1, the opening sentence and its emphasis on what is not known; second, in Section IV, the narrator's revelation that the crew is miles from a life-saving station; third, also in Section IV, the impenetrable meaning of the man on the beach waving his coat and the unattributed dialogue surrounding this uncertainty; and, finally, in Section VII, the concluding sentence and the revelation that the survivors "could then be interpreters."
Much has been made of the story's opening sentence "None of them knew the color of the sky" (68). For our purposes, what is important is that the story begins by focusing on the crew's lack of knowledge. Certainly the crew "knows" other things: the color, the size, and the frequency of the waves for instance. Yet with this famous first sentence the narrator chooses to foreground the absence of knowledge, thus establishing an epistemological void, a looming unknown. Though the crew's remaining struggle at sea is as much a struggle for knowledge as it is for survival, the members of the crew do not here desire to fill the void created by the opening sentence: not only do they not know the color of the sky, they do not care. In fact, it does not matter whether they know the color of the sky, for "they knew it was...