The Bond of Brotherhood in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”
American author Stephen Crane often wrote about the plight of his fellow man, raising awareness about poverty, war, and human suffering. His short story, “The Open Boat,” is a fictional account of a terrifying experience in which Crane witnessed both suffering and self-sacrifice. In the story, four men are forced out to sea on a ten-foot dinghy when their ship sinks. Crane personifies natural elements to represent the uncaring and often malevolent universe in which we live. Crane characterizes the crew, men dedicated to each other’s survival, to represent the bond of brotherhood that should set human nature apart from the uncaring universe. Ultimately Crane uses personification and characterization in “The Open Boat” to illustrate that humankind has a moral obligation to address suffering by working to rescue people in need.
In “The Open Boat,” Crane personifies elements in the universe as antagonistic toward the human race. The elements represent the harsh world around us, which afflicts humankind and causes terrible suffering. First, Crane describes the ill-will of the waves that rise up and surround the dinghy: “The waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall” (133), “nervously anxious to do something in the way of swamping boats” (134). The waves are particularly ominous because they move silently, “save for the snarling of the crests” (134). Crane portrays the waves like an aquatic gang, battering the dinghy and terrorizing the crew. Further, he says the sea possesses endless resources and that each wall of water crashes into the vessel only to be replaced by another, equally devastating, surge (134).
Crane personifies the wind by describing its threatening behavior toward the crew: the “wind tore through the hair of the hatless men” (135). Also threatening is the voice of the sea, whose billows let out a “preparatory and long growl” as if cornering the crew. (142). Crane further personifies the universe with birds and sea creatures that signal coming danger. Beady-eyed gulls, “somehow gruesome and ominous,” perch on patches of floating seaweed and hover near the boat, taunting the men. Unharmed by the waves and wind, the birds are a “sinister” reminder that the crew is at the mercy of the elements (136). When night falls, a shark circles the boat. Its “enormous fin” cuts through the water as if carrying “a monstrous knife” (148). Crane’s use of personification describes a hostile universe that causes great human suffering.
The way Crane personifies Nature causes the four crewman—the captain, the cook, the oiler, and the correspondent—to believe that the universe has evil intentions. Individually, each silently pleads for his own life, but the elements show no mercy. This is especially true when the men row within sight of land, only to be beaten back by the waves. Crane summarizes the crew’s inner monologue: “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?” (141). It seems that the universe has offered a glimpse of the shoreline, only to snatch away all hope of being rescued.
In contrast to the uncaring universe, Crane characterizes the crew as a band of brothers who learn to toil and sacrifice for the sake of their fellow man. Each character represents a class of society, and collectively, they work together to fend off anything the universe hurls at them. The men learn to adapt to the harsh conditions and alleviate one another’s suffering as much as possible. The natural instinct to save themselves develops into genuine concern for their crewmates.
Crane primarily uses indirect characterization to illustrate the traits of the crew. The captain is a leader, responsible for the safety of his men. Crane describes the captain’s voice after the sinking of his ship: “Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears” (134). Despite his sorrow and physical injuries, the captain assesses the crisis and develops a plan of action. He provides direction for navigating the brutal seas and advancing the dinghy toward land. The crew responds to him with respect and admiration, following his orders with complete trust.
Crane portrays the cook as a servant and as the voice of optimism. Throughout the ordeal at sea, he bails icy water to keep the boat aloft and remains “cheerful” (138). His character represents the types of people who roll up their sleeves in times of trouble and get to work. The cook offers hope to his crewmates: “There’s a house of refuge just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light, and as soon as they see us they’ll come off in their boat and pick us up” (135). The cook doesn’t mention the possibility that they may perish before reaching the inlet, but focuses on survival by remembering the comforts of home, like his favorite type of pie. A hefty man, his body warms the oiler and the correspondent as they rest from laboring at the oars.
Crane characterizes the oiler as a skilled laborer, with sacrificial qualities much like an enlisted man. The oiler, Billie, is a “wily surfman” and the only character Crane names in the story (142). His ability to navigate the waves gives the crew a fighting chance of survival. Prior to the ship’s sinking, the oiler worked a double watch in the engine room, yet he quietly rows the dinghy until nearly unconscious (139). He and the correspondent take turns sleeping in the frigid basin of the boat, too exhausted to notice the icy water sloshing over their bodies.
The fourth crew member, the correspondent, is an intellectual and able-bodied man. He is not content to observe the crisis for future reporting. Rather, the correspondent balances action with intellect, self-reflecting on the events while rowing toward land. The correspondent and the oiler work as a team, manning the oars in grueling shifts as the tiny boat climbs each crest and crashes back down to the unforgiving sea. Rowing becomes a physical punishment, which the correspondent describes as “a horror to the muscles and a crime against the back” (139). As the correspondent experiences real suffering, he begins to identify with the suffering of others. Crane uses the correspondent to illustrate the change that must take place in society in order to address serious issues like poverty, disease, and war.
The correspondent is a dynamic character because his self-reflection ultimately leads to a better understanding of the universe and of humankind’s moral obligation to each other. Midway through “The Open Boat,” the correspondent mans the oars in the darkness and feels alone on the desolate sea. Crane personifies the wind, which seems to acknowledge the correspondent’s mood: “The wind had a voice as it came over the waves, and it was sadder than the end” (148). The correspondent cannot understand why the natural world would wish to harm him, or his crewmates, in such a senseless way. If possible, he would beg the universe to be reasonable and let them live.
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple.…he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.” (149)
All night the correspondent grapples with these thoughts, trying to make sense of it all.
Crane describes the change that results from the correspondent’s reflections. As he rows, the correspondent recalls a somber poem about a soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers. Until now, the correspondent has felt indifference to the soldier, not unlike the apathy of the sea and sky. The correspondent suddenly identifies with the dying soldier and is “moved by a perfectly impersonal comprehension” (150). He realizes that having compassion for people and being moved to act on another’s behalf is what sets human nature apart from the uncaring universe. The natural world may be apathetic, but people have a choice in how they respond to human suffering. They can choose the bond of brotherhood over apathy.
By the end of the story, the correspondent has a new perspective of the universe: “She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise” (153). Instead, he now sees that the universe is “flatly indifferent” to the suffering of the human race (153). But people have the power to help each other, to toil and sacrifice for the benefit of society, and to care about the fate of other human beings. Indeed, Crane points out that the correspondent is not alone in his struggle for survival. He and his companions are knit together in a “subtle brotherhood of men” and “each man felt it warm him. There were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends—friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common” (138).
“The Open Boat” concludes with a critical decision. The crew must swim for shore or perish at sea. The captain, the cook, and the correspondent make it to the beach safely; however, “in the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler” (156). Throughout their ordeal, Billie labored on behalf of his crewmates, placing their safety above his own. It never occurred to him to let them suffer alone. Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” makes a statement about the ideal society, one in which every class of people is worth saving. Human nature should stand in stark contrast to the uncaring nature of the universe. Crane’s characterization of the crew illustrates their bond of brotherhood and humankind’s moral obligation to address suffering by working to rescue people in need. By the end of the story, the crew of “The Open Boat” learns to “interpret” the voice of the sea (156). In the same way, readers can interpret the story as a choice between brotherhood and apathy.
Works Cited and Consulted
“Biography of Stephen Crane.” Online-Literature. The Literature Network, 2007. Web. 2 Sept. 2014