Open Boat Stephen Crane

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					                 Stephen Crane and an Understanding of the Modern World
                                          by Cheryl Dunlop
                 (a paper written in college and revised later for students I taught)


       In today‟s scientific age, knowledge is believed to come only from what can be verified.
What cannot be registered, tested, and proven by ordinary scientific means is often discarded as
useless, irrelevant, or untrue. Naturalism, coming from the presupposition that matter is all there
is, thus discards or tries to explain the immaterial part of man, that which makes man personal
and distinct from nature. Naturalism discards God as well, and explains nature and events by
chance and evolution.
       To understand Stephen Crane, the reader needs to understand his naturalistic
presuppositions. To read and understand Stephen Crane is to come closer to understanding
modern man and how far his thinking has drifted from the Christian worldview.
       “The Open Boat” is one of Crane‟s better known works. The short story is based on
Crane‟s experiences at sea in a small boat after a shipwreck off the coast of Florida. The
significance of the story comes from what that experience contributed to Crane‟s under-standing
of the world—what he learned and what he wants to show from that event.
       The time in the open boat was a turning point for Crane. He wrote a newspaper account
of the events and then a short story to show the human side more thoroughly than a journalistic
account could. Many of his poems also allude to such events, speaking of the sea and fate. “To
the Maiden” tells how the sea appears to the wrecked sailor: “To the sailor, wrecked,/ The sea
was dead grey walls/ Superlative in vacancy/ Upon which nevertheless at fateful time/ Was
written/ The grim hatred of nature” (Crane, Poems, 693).
       The ending of “The Open Boat” tells the reader the significance of the events described in
its characters‟ lives: “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and
the wind brought the sound of the great sea‟s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they
could then be interpreters” (Crane “The Open Boat” 670). Speaking about this ending, Clarence
Walhout points to Crane‟s purpose for recording the story, saying that it seems his main focus
turns not to the question whether the men will survive but to “the meaning of the experience”
(363). Crane does not tell us directly what that interpretation is (Walhout 363), but the story is his
chance to interpret indirectly, to show the reader through his eyes what conclusions he came to.
       Naturalism, which fits in with what Crane learned and wishes to communicate, is not a
random series of ideas; rather, it is a system of thought that ties together as a belief system, a
world view. The propositions of naturalism are explored in depth in James Sire‟s book The
Universe Next Door. Those propositions are:


       Matter exists eternally and is all there is... The cosmos exists as a uniformity of
       cause and effect in a closed system... Human beings are complex `machines‟;
       personality is an interrelation of chemical and physical properties we do not yet
       fully understand... Death is extinction of personality and individuality... History is
       a linear stream of events linked by cause and effect but without an overarching
       purpose... Ethics is related only to human beings [not to God] (62-70).


Most of these propositions are fleshed out in “The Open Boat.” The most significant beliefs of
naturalism deal with man (meaningless), nature (random, chance), and God (non-existent). Crane
deals with man and nature, making man a part of nature. He personifies nature, especially the sea
(“the last effort of the grim water”—TOB 657), but nature is intrinsically impersonal.
       Crane‟s poem, “A Man Adrift on a Slim Spar,” speaks descriptively of the sea: “Tented
waves rearing lashy dark points/ The near whine of froth in circles... The incessant raise and
swing of the sea/ And growl after growl of crest”; the poem comes back four times to the line,
“God is cold” (Crane 694, 95). Crane can manipulate nature, make it appear impersonal or
personal, but any appearance of personality is merely an author‟s trick, an illusion. In reality,
“God is cold.” God doesn‟t exist; there is no Personality behind nature.
       Crane‟s characters show much about Crane‟s ideas about man: Man is alone and must
fend for himself; man is all there is. This understanding removes God and seems to start with
man glorified, but it ends with man reduced, no longer quite human. Crane‟s poem “God Lay
Dead in Heaven” is not a celebration of victory, but a song of horror: “Purple winds went
moaning,/ Their wings drip-dripping/ With blood/ That fell upon the earth” (Poems 692).
       So, too, the world the men adrift on the open boat face is a sad one; the shore to which
they look for rescue remains alone, unresponsive—a symbol, perhaps, of the unresponsiveness of
the heavens. The luckless sailors continue to look to the shore for deliverance, but “it was bitter
and bitter to them that from it came no sign” (TOB 661).
       Crane discovers there is no personality behind the universe, but the realization brings
despair: “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, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples” (TOB 666).
Intellectually, it seems he cannot accept the existence of God, but his whole nature cries out
against the loneliness of an impersonal universe. He‟d rather have a god he could yell at, a
temple he could throw bricks at, than silence.
       Even when the correspondent (Crane) begins to identify with the man in the poem from
his childhood—the soldier dying in Algiers—he “was moved by a profound and perfectly
impersonal comprehension” (TOB 667). He had compassion, but his understanding was
“impersonal,” objectively removed like the universe was showing itself to him to be.
       Katz comments on the story‟s subtitle (“A Tale Intended to Be after the Fact. Being the
Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore”), that the reader‟s attention is
focused on the word “experience,” and that experience is “the formative principle of the tale”
(69). Walhout says, “For Crane, understanding is based upon and limited by perception” (367).
Experience is limited to what can be taken in by the senses; people can only judge based on what
they see. Gradually, all the men on the boat become aware of “the unconcern of the universe”
(Crane TOB 668). If they are going to survive, they must rely on themselves.
       In such a world, man is helpless. The universe is an enemy, a treacherous enemy because
it cannot be understood. For a while, the men on the boat are optimistic in spite of their
circumstances: “Think we‟ll make it, Captain?” “If this wind holds and the boat don‟t swamp, we
can‟t do much else” (Crane TOB 659). But as the sea continues to rage, their hope begins to die;
nature is the enemy: “The spray, when it dashed uproariously over the side, made the voyagers
shrink and swear like men who were being branded” (664).
       Man who is nothing more than a piece of the universe, a pro-duct of purposeless
evolution, is meaningless. Katz says: “`The Open Boat‟ is his [Crane‟s] retrospection... From this
retrospection emerges his (and the reader‟s) personal knowledge which makes plain the ultimate
meaning of experience.... To sum up, the totality of experience for the living and the dead is:
existence” (82). When the purpose of life is limited to the fact of life, and when that life is tossed
about in an absurd battle against an absurd universe, despair is the logical result; “The Open
Boat” illustrates that despair in the lives of four men.
       Crane‟s story also fleshes out his ideas about nature: Nature is capricious, impersonal,
and a cosmic joke; nature exists by chance in a random universe. Man, too, as a mere part of
nature, exists by chance.
       In the beginning, the men in “The Open Boat” are innocent of the battles they will face.
The narrator, the correspondent, comments on his own thoughts: “The correspondent, pulling at
the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there” (657). By the end of the
events that are about to happen, he will have become an “interpreter.” But for now, he wonders.
       He turns to the captain: “The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in
that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest
and most enduring when, willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down” (657).
The word “willy nilly” suggests the randomness of the events, the “bad luck” of a ship going
down. The captain is deeply involved with his ship, and its loss changes him right at the
beginning. The captain is less optimistic throughout the story than the other three: “Thereafter
there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a
quality beyond oration or tears” (657).
       The men are fighters. They expect to survive their ordeal. But Crane, writing “after the
fact” knows what they do not yet know, and his story shows what they will learn: Man is merely
a part of nature. Returning to Sire‟s propositions about naturalism: “Matter exists eternally and is
all there is... The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system” (62, 63).
In such a world, the men‟s optimism is naive. The captain is the first to recognize this; the crew
is happy to have an on-shore wind, because without it they wouldn‟t have a chance. Crane
records, “Then the captain, in the bow, chuckled in a way that expressed humor, contempt,
tragedy, all in one. `Do you think we‟ve got much of a show, now, boys?‟ said he” (TOB 658).
       Numerous events allow the men to keep or regain their optimism: a helpful wind, sighting
land, being seen by people they assume will save them. But in between they face the apparent
hopelessness of their situation. They have learned to depend only on themselves; even the other
people seen at the end cannot be relied on for rescue.
       The optimism throughout the story is pictured objectively in a way that hints that
optimism doesn‟t fit the situation. The men are excited to see the lighthouse; the correspondent
looks for it and finally finds it, a dot on the horizon “precisely like the point of a pin. It took an
anxious eye to find a light-house so tiny” (Crane TOB 659). They see what appears to be the
house of refuge, and the cook says, “They‟ll see us before long, and come out after us” (660).
And the men celebrate with water and cigars (661). But people on shore do not see them.
       At this point the optimism is balanced against reality with the introduction of the motif
that will continue through the rest of the story, “Funny they don‟t see us” (661). The men begin
to judge the people who should have seen them by now. Even when they are seen, it does not
mean rescue; they still must endure a night at sea, within sight of the silent shore.
       At this point also, they begin to give up hope of somebody else coming to rescue them.
The captain says, “I suppose we‟ll have to make a try for ourselves” (661). And here the men
begin to feel let down by nature. Crane says, “As for the reflections of the men, there was a great
deal of rage in them” (662).
       Faced with the absurd impersonal aspect of nature, Crane speaks for the men; he says
their thoughts might have been some-thing like: “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?” (662). The same diatribe is
repeated twice later in the story (664 & 666). Katz says about the third repetition: “To this point
in his life, apparently, the correspondent... has not given time and effort to wrestling with the idea
of an unjust, i.e., unlawful universe” (Katz 77). The reader senses a gradual awakening of
awareness in the correspondent. He begins to accept his fate and his place in nature.
       The anger changes subtly and becomes resignation. Throwing a brick at the non-existent
temple is useless. The correspondent looks at the lonely windtower; the temple remains empty.
He says:


       This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It
       represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the
       struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men.
       She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficient, nor treacherous, nor wise. But
       she was indifferent, flatly indifferent (Crane TOB 668).
       The same indifference forms one of Crane‟s best known poems: “A man said to the
universe:/ `Sir, I exist!‟/ `However,‟ replied the universe,/ `The fact has not created in me/ A
sense of obligation‟” (Crane Poems 694). Man is personal, but the universe he faces remains
impersonal despite his wishes that it were otherwise. The universe does not care; it will let men
drown if they don‟t somehow save themselves.
       But man still cries out to God. Crane addresses this in another poem, “A Slant of Sun on
Dull Brown Walls”: “Welcomes, farewells, love-calls, final moans,/ Voices of joy, idiocy,
warning, despair.... The senseless babble of hens and wise men—/ A cluttered incoherency that
says at the stars:/ `Oh, God, save us.‟” (Crane Poems 694). But the cry goes no farther than the
unheeding stars.
       Crane is not alone in his beliefs about nature and man. In fact, believing otherwise today
is considered old-fashioned and unscientific. Naturalism and evolution grow from the same root.
Only what can be seen is thought to be real. What cannot be seen is tested until it can be
explained scientifically. For example, Time discussed the basis for human love in an article
called “What is Love?”:


       Oxytocin is another chemical that has recently been implicated in love. Produced
       by the brain, it sensitizes nerves and stimulates muscle contraction. In women it
       helps uterine contractions during childbirth as well as production of breastmilk,
       and seems to inspire mothers to nuzzle their infants. Scientists speculate that
       oxytocin might encourage similar cuddling between adult women and men (Gray
       51).


       Science prides itself on its objectivity, the way it sticks to what can be tested and verified.
But the president of the National Wildlife Federation wrote the following letter to Harper’s
Magazine: “The ongoing extinction of species as well as global warming, ozone depletion, and
toxic pollution are the result of humans‟ historic delusion of superiority and separateness from
nature. We must realize that we are as much a part of nature as anything we view about it on TV
programs” (Hair 2). Naturalism, with its beliefs about humans and their relationship to nature, is
not restricted to a few writers with time to ponder sea and sky.
       The wind occurs throughout “The Open Boat,” sometimes helping them, sometimes
hindering them. Toward the end, Crane personifies the wind and allows it to speak. The first
mention is during the long night at sea. He says, “The wind had a voice as it came over the
waves, and it was sadder than the end” (TOB 665). Katz comments, “The end, of course, is
Death for all of us (and them, too), and this is sad... sadder yet is to become `interpreters‟ before
Death and to carry this burden and tell of its meaning to the uninitiated” (76).
       Crane does not fully accept the message he brings. He says that “it was certainly an
abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be
a crime most unnatural” (666). Later, the correspondent is caught in the grips of the current that‟s
not allowing him to swim to shore. He wonders whether he will drown; “Perhaps a man must
consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature” (670). Intellectually, he has
accepted the indifference of nature. But faced with his own death, it seems absurdly unreal,
obscene.
       The wind speaks again at the conclusion of the story. Three of the men are safe on shore
when “the wind brought the sound of the great sea‟s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that
they could then be interpreters” (TOB 670). Impersonal nature has spoken, and they have
understood. They can interpret what they have seen, although they must do so with despair.
Walhout says:


       When Crane says at the end of the story that “they felt that they could then be
       interpreters,” he seems to imply that they can now understand that those caught in
       the turmoil of existence must depend on their own perception and assessment of
       their circumstances. Three out of four do survive, but the story does not seem to
       offer a faith in anything beyond human perception and effort. The con-tours of
       reality beyond one‟s immediate situation are not clear or knowable; one can only
       struggle through the exigencies of the moment and accept whatever comes (365).


       In naturalism, meaningful history begins with human self-consciousness. Sire says: “But
like evolution which has no inherent goal, history has no inherent goal. History is what we make
it to be. Human events have only the meaning people give them when they choose them or when
they look back on them” (70). In line with that, the events recorded in “The Open Boat” are
meaningful to Crane. He says at the end that the men could be interpreters, but he does not say at
that point what the interpretation is. “The Open Boat” is his interpretation; perhaps the other men
have other interpretations.
Meaning of “The Open Boat” for Christians and non-Christians


       To the reader who reads Crane honestly and with understanding, “The Open Boat” (and
Crane‟s poetry) must bring sadness. To the unbeliever, confronted with the reality of his own
world view if he leaves God out of the universe, understanding brings despair. To the believer, a
possible response is a truer understanding of the unbeliever‟s situation and what Christianity has
to offer him. Such an understanding may give the Christian courage not to back off from his
witness in a day when religious tolerance is seen as more important than truth. For tolerance may
be politically correct, but it leaves the unsaved person with the despair of an empty temple and a
dead universe.
       Every human being senses that he is somehow apart from the rest of creation. Even
naturalism tries to answer that part of man by pointing to man‟s self-consciousness as setting him
apart. Sire says one of the biggest problems in naturalism is the question, “Did naturalism give an
adequate reason for us to consider our-selves valuable? Unique, maybe. But gorillas are unique.
So is every category of nature. Value was the first troublesome issue. Could a being thrown up by
chance be worthy?” (83).
       Stephen Crane is chilling. He accepts what he teaches, but in his acceptance, there‟s a
longing, a wish that the universe would not be the way it appears. He cannot speak of the
universe as “it”; he fights what he tells us to be true. The non-Christian who sides with Crane
must be equally honest. This is not a happy way to view life. It is unspeakably grim for a creature
with personality to look around and see nobody out there.
       Christians need to acknowledge the honesty here. It‟s not something to laugh at or
overlook. I cry with feeling a small portion of Crane‟s pain. And when I see his pain, it hurts to
see the simplicity of most of the answers we offer. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for
your life” does not cut through the agony of one who has honestly faced what he sees to be the
death of God.
Crane shows the implications of what it means to look at life in a universe without God.
                                       WORKS CITED


Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” Heritage of American Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. James E. Miller,
Jr. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1991. 656-70.

—-. Poems. Heritage of American Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. James E. Miller, Jr. San Diego:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1991. 689-95.

Gray, Paul. “What Is Love?” Time 15 Feb. 1993: 47-51.

Hair, Jay D. Letter. Harper’s May 1993: 2.

Katz, Joseph, ed. Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois
University Press, 1972.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog. (updated and expanded
edition). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Walhout, Clarence. “Ives, Crane, Marin, and „The Mind Behind the Maker.‟” Christian Scholar’s
Review July 1987: 355-372.

				
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