An Examination of Symbolism and Devices in The Open Boat
The struggle for survival by mankind can be found in many different settings. It can be seen on a battlefield, a hospital room or at sea as related in “The Open Boat”, written in 1897 by Stephen Crane. The story is based on his actual experiences when he survived the sinking of the SS Commodore off the coast of Florida in early 1897. “The Open Boat” is Stephen Crane’s account of life and death at sea told through the use of themes and devices to emphasize the indifference of nature to man’s struggles and the development of mankind’s compassion.
The story’s theme is related to the reader by the use of color imagery, cynicism, human brotherhood, and the terrible beauty and savagery of nature. The symbols used to impart this theme to the reader and range from the obvious to the subtle. The obvious symbols include the time from the sinking to arrival on shore as a voyage of self-discovery, the four survivors in the dinghy as a microcosm of society, the shark as nature’s random destroyer of life, the sky personified as mysterious and unfathomable and the sea as mundane and easily comprehended by humans. The more subtle symbols include the cigars as representative of the crew and survivors, the oiler as the required sacrifice to nature’s indifference, and the dying legionnaire as an example of how to face death for the correspondent.
The opening paragraph of the story emphasizes the limitations of the individual’s vision of nature. From the beginning, the four characters in the dingy do not know “the colors of the sky,” but all of them know “the colors of the sea.” This opening strongly suggests the symbolic situations in which average people find themselves in conflict with nature. David Halliburton reads this description as a examination not only of man’s ultimate relation to the planet which he inhabits and affects to govern and subdue, but of his relation to other men as well, and thus of the total fact of life itself (The Color of the Sky 240).
The first paragraph of the story is used by Crane to begin to build his story of Nature’s indifference to mankind and mentions or alludes to the waves of the sea multiple times. Looking out from the small boat there are always the waves; the horizon narrows and widens, dips and rises; “at all times its edge...jagged with waves that seem thrust up in points like rocks”; each wave top is “a problem in small boat navigation.” Nature, at her most unpleasant, allows the men a glimpse of the shore, reminds them of her indifferent strength as if they needed to be reminded. Hagemann suggests that this is Crane’s first attempt to introduce his interpretation of Naturalism into the story through the use of imagery and symbolism (Another Look at “The Open Boat” 70).
The second section of the story relates the oscillation of the survivors between hope and despair with Crane carefully...