In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” the author does an outstanding job creating descriptive images throughout history. Crane uses symbolism and powerful imagery to provide the reader with a compelling story of four people who fought against nature. Starting from the beginning of the book, Crane creates a storyline in which four people face ordeal in the ocean’s open waters. In detailing the cruel and powerful water body, Crane clarifies that nature has no compassion for humans. Heroes need to worry not only about nature, but also about the ability to work together to win this fight against nature. Therefore, a work filled with extensive imagery and symbolism allows the reader to plunge into the atmosphere of the struggle between humanity and all the uncertainties of nature.
In the composition, colour characteristics take on special significance in enhancing the imagery. The very first lines of the story focus on colour: “waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white” (Crane, 1048). Each shade is symbolic and often does not correspond to traditional perception. So, Crane’s blue symbolizes death, although it is the colour of creation, calmness, and pacification in psychology. It is noteworthy that the combination of this colour with black becomes the most negative in the narrative. Tension and anxiety in the small boat grow with the appearance of the death-herald sharks; their fins, “like blue ame, was furrowed on the black waters” (Crane, 1058). In Crane’s palette, red is a symbol of threat: “clouds brick-red, like smoke from a burning building, appeared” (Crane, 1054). The author describes how the boat cannot approach the shore in any way, the surf carries it away, and anxiety grows in human souls who almost believed in salvation.
In turn, in this story, white symbolizes hope and joy. It can be understood from the following phrases: “the shore, with its white slope” (Crane, 1063), and “a tall white wind-mill reared above dunes “(Crane, 1061), when the sailors finally reached the shore. At the same time, in some phrases, the mention of white is associated with a negative. So, the appearance of seagulls, messengers of the approaching coast, does not please the four brave heroes. They do not notice the whiteness of the plumage of birds; they are attracted like a magnet, “black bead-like eyes” (Crane, 1050). It seems that the four in the boat are looking into the eyes of death itself.
To enhance the imagery of the work, Crane uses such a literary device as personification. It is one of the varieties of metaphor in which inanimate beings, including objects or phenomena, acquire human characteristics and traits. Schober notes that this technique helps to more clearly and precisely reproduce the image in consciousness, as well as to perceive it at the visual and auditory levels (77). Thus, Crane gives the sea the characteristics of animals when he writes that they are “growl and roar, snarl and are wild” (Crane, 1053). It indicates that the waves are as violent as animals in the wild. Crane also writes that the boat is a bronco and a wild colt which prances, rears, plunges and leaps (1053). Thus, the use of personifications in the text creates a visual effect and helps the reader plunge into the atmosphere depicted by Crane.
The storm that sinks the boat is cruel to people. The waves covered the ship, and literally in every line, there was an idea that it was about to crash. They are lost, isolated from the rest of the world, and don’t even know which island they see when they reach it. Crane describes the sea as deadly and dangerous when he refers to it as a “monstrous knife” (1058) and “ominous” (1058). According to Haque, at the same time, nature is benevolent and supportive in some situations (123). When at the end of the story, the correspondent comes to the beach and can no longer cope with the waves, the sea helps him. Also, the team is supported by the wind, which they use by creating an impromptu sail. However, nature knows no justice for Billie – the most helpful and hardworking member of the crew. He rowed almost constantly, and in the end, he lacked the strength and stamina to cope with the waves. Thus, nature is strong, and there is little the team can do; the crew is entirely dependent on the grace of nature.
Therefore, the author repeatedly demonstrates that people cannot influence nature, despite all their attempts to overcome it. Throughout the story, four men must fight nature to survive by guiding their tiny lifeboat through rough waters. The spray, when it dashed uproariously over the side, made the voyagers shrink and swear like men who were being branded (Crane, 1057). This process drains their energy and spirit. Thus, in the sea, the illusion of man’s control over nature turns out to be false since nature violently asserts its dominance over travellers.
The description of the characters deserves special attention, which, thanks to the use of precise details and various symbols, Crane managed to do meaningfully. Campbell asserts that the captain symbolizes leadership and paternal love (410). He instructs the oiler and the correspondent on how to row and keep the boat in balance, and also prevents his companions from giving up. Moreover, the captain is ready to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the crew at the cost of his life. The oiler represents masculinity and energy; as he is the strongest, he takes on a lot of hard work fighting the sea. The ingenious and optimistic cook symbolizes curious and socially friendly people. The correspondent thinks a lot, and he personifies romanticism and a deep inner world. Thus, thanks to a detailed description of the features and characteristics of each hero, a picture of the crew members doomed to death, but who managed to escape opens before the reader.
Furthermore, Crane managed to put such details in the description of the heroes that each of them is a representative of a particular part of society. According to Wang, a captain represents a part of society that is in power or is in charge of other people (95). The cook reflects the so-called followers, those who come after others. In turn, the oiler images the working class, industrious people whose efforts are necessary for the functioning of society. The correspondent depicts those who are more inclined to think or observe in life. Thus, each hero represents one or another representative of the community, as evidenced by the details of their activities described by the author.
Crane was unusually accurately able to reflect the dynamics of the relationship between the heroes in the process of their struggle with the forces of nature. At the beginning of the story, all four are confused. As the story unfolds, all four of them begin to feel hopeful when they see the lighthouse and become a team. Meng states that the fact that oiler Billy died may also be significant, as he put the most effort into trying to get to shore (29). Perhaps Crane suggests that nature is unfair and that the fittest don’t always survive. No matter what efforts people may make, nature is indifferent to their plight.
Therefore, “The Open Boat” is a romantic parable about a duel with fate, which praises the strength of the human spirit. The attractive images of people fighting the sea, created by the author, remain alive for a long time after reading. Through descriptions of nature and personification, the reader is presented with a picture of four men in a boat that is thrown by the sea with no hope of life. When people see the coast, the description of the earth gives readers an accurate picture in their minds of not only oncoming the shore, but also approaching the hope for the continuation of life. In turn, the use of colours helps the reader to understand the atmosphere of tragedy and struggle for life. A detailed description of the behaviour of the characters and their interaction allows the reader to realize how hard it was for the sailors in the face of the omnipotent nature. Thus, these details make this story figurative and enable the reader to imagine a picture of man’s struggle with all the uncertainties of nature.
Campbell, Donna. “Naturalism.” A Companion to American Literature, edited by Susan Belasco, Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson and Michael Soto, John Wiley & Sons, 2020, pp. 402–425.
Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 9th ed., Volume C, edited by Robert S. Levine et al., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 1048 – 1064.
Haque, Salma. “Nature’s Paradoxicality in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” A Critical Overview.” ASA University Review, vol.11, no.1, 2017, pp. 121–126.
Meng, Wang. “Analysis of the Naturalism in The Open Boat”. International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science, vol. 6, no. 9, 2018, pp. 27–35.
Schober, Regina. “‘A Problem in Small Boat Navigation’: Ocean Metaphors and Emerging Data Epistemology in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’ and Jack London’s ‘The Heathen.’” Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 12, no. 1, 2017, pp. 70–88.
Wang, Yajing. “The Non-naturalistic Elements in “The Open Boat””. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Art Studies: Science, Experience, Education (ICASSEE 2019), vol. 368, 2019, pp. 94–97. Atlantis Press.