Man And The Vain Struggle Against Nature & Himself: Determinism In Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat

2238 words - 9 pages

Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” conveys the experiences of four men who survive a shipwreck and find themselves set afloat on a life boat in the middle of the ocean. On the surface, the story paints a picture of the perils of being lost at sea and of the way that four men can come together in a time of distress and count on one another for strength and companionship. However, the story also discusses the theme of determinism, or the ideas that there are forces acting upon an individual, that these forces are beyond the control of the individual, and that these forces impact and shape the lives of those on whom they are exerted. Throughout the progression of the story these four men must come to terms with their own mortality and, more importantly, their own insignificance. Crane uses nature in many forms to reflect the concept of determinism; he presents nature in the form of the sea and the weather, and he also presents nature in the form of the tired and hungry bodies of men. The four survivors on this small boat struggle against these forces acting upon them as they fight for survival. In “The Open Boat” Crane pits man against nature, but it is a fight in which at least one of the competitors, nature, is not actively participating, and by showing this, Crane is able to demonstrate shifting perceptions as the men on the boat process their predicament and eventually come to the sad realization that there is no one to fight or to blame and that nature, in all its manifestations, displays no concern about whether they live or die.
Primarily, these men must face the obstacle of merely being mortals with a need for the crucial basics of human survival such as food, water, and rest. In order to cope with other problems, like the ocean, they must first keep themselves alive physically and mentally. They face fatigue and exhaustion, and, because of their humanness, suppressing this tiredness becomes impossible. They alternate tasks and sleep when they can, but their strength is limited, and the size of the boat limits their ability to move through the water with much speed. The narrator describes their efforts: “And the oiler rowed, and then the correspondent rowed. Then the oiler rowed. It was weary business. The human back can become the seat of more aches and pains than are registered in books for the composite anatomy of a regiment” (11). This quote shows the monotony and fatigue that they are experiencing just trying to control the boat and make progress toward shore. The repetition of the lines about who is rowing a couple of pages later works to show that things are not progressing or changing. They are helpless and go through the motions just to survive. Their survival becomes completely dependent on their ability to stay awake when needed and to fight off hunger, fatigue, and the mental exhaustion associated with being trapped on a boat in the middle of the sea with nothing but physically demanding and...

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