Friday, May 24, 2013

Short Story Review: "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane

The theme of Naturalism is literature is a simple one: it's a point of view in which nature reigns supreme as its own mind and it just doesn't care. Naturalism began appearing in literature during the nineteenth century until fading away to some extent at the turn of the century, but in another, blended in with other formats of literature that still exist to this day. In this day and age, however, we simply look at literary fiction as its own genre that could be broken up even further. This is a reason I argue that "genre fiction" is about as useful as a ladder in the middle of a sandy desert. Back to the topic of Naturalism, one of the defining stories was Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," which plays on the topic of nature being an unbiased force in our world and in addition, digging into how the targets of nature respond.

In this case, the targets of nature are four men in a boat, shoved in the middle of the stormy sea like the three men in the tub. The only difference is that the three men in the tub were not in a situation as dire as these four men. The four men in the boat were the captain, who was meant to be the leader of the group, but was battling an injury that allowed him little opportunity to make a leading impact, unless you incorporated the decision-making process. The cook seemed to be the least experienced with regard to any aspect of the direction in which the four men were heading. A cook is meant to provide the others with food, but if they were struggling to make it around in the boat, then you can only imagine how preparing food would be. The correspondent took on the role of a reporter and the reason that he was even there was questionable. At the same time, he would occasionally take on the role as a rower or half a rower. The correspondent was likely Stephen Crane in a previous encounter he had that inspired him to write "The Open Boat" in the first place. Then there was the oiler, who was the most physically able of the four, doing most of the labor when it came to moving the boat in this awful stormy weather in which they were unable to see the color of the sky, but were able to fully comprehend the color of the sea, which was gray during dark and/or stormy weather and green when it was partially decent. The oiler is the only one with a name in this piece and his name is Billie.

"The Open Boat" is simply four men rowing through the rocky waves, trying to reach shore. It's a story of survival that pays more attention to what the four men are thinking and how their emotions mean nothing to the larger realm of things entwined into something that is known as nature. Key moments include a decision not to immediately head to shore in a direction that puts their lives at risk and then ultimately when they have to abandon their boat and swim the shore. Three of the men reach shore, while the oiler drowns and dies, even though he made a valiant effort when swimming to shore. His death was sudden, being described as just  him lying face down. This sudden death strengthens the evidence of the naturalist theme of Mother Nature being an indifferent being, which is mentioned toward the end of the piece, before they abandon the boat that is unable to withhold the waves.

The way man thinks is also examined in this piece. We see four men, united together in a "Brotherhood," because they themselves are the only ones they can rely on in the middle of the rocky sea. The men recognize this brotherhood, but nature does not. They also think of their "sacred cheese of life," which has to do with their goals. In this case, the goal is to make it out alive and "shore" is their "sacred cheese," much like how Dr. Spencer Johnson uses "cheese" to represent what ever goals we have in life with his self-help book Who Moved My Cheese (which, by the way, is not worth $20 for a read no longer than ninety minutes). These men have goals like anyone else, but in the same stance that it would hold for anyone else... nature does not care. Nature does what it pleases and does not operate on feedback and public opinion. Nature just operates and it's up to mankind to work around it.

"The Open Boat" is a defining piece of naturalism and defines the emotional state of nature more than any piece. What is more natural than being stuck on a boat in the middle of the grueling sea? Stephen Crane captures a real life experience and it has since been taught in English classes across America and possibly across the globe. This is definitely something to check out if you're a literature student, but in addition, if you like marine thrillers, such as the work of Clive Cussler, this is a classic sea thriller that may only be overshadowed by Melville's Moby Dick when it comes to literature in the sea during the nineteenth century. This short story can be found in plenty of short story collections. Just keep an eye out for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment