The idea of human loneliness in the Universe has been a popular one for a long time. Written at the brink of the nineteenth and the twentieth century, The Open Boat by Stephen Crane is an attempt to reconsider the place of humankind in the world and its relationship to nature. Through such elements as themes, motifs and symbolism the author I argues with idyllic vision of nature brought up by Romanticism, and introduces a different picture of reality, where people are helpless against cruel nature.
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While analyzing the four men’s voyage, it is easy to notice that they have to struggle with the forces, that are much stronger than them. This struggle against nature, which is not merciful or helping at all, makes up one of the story’s themes. At the beginning, the men hope for being rescued because this is what their vision of nature and God. However, the author demonstrates that every person is lonely and that one’s own freedom and dignity is the only measure for success. So, another theme of the story is that human freedom is very limited. Thus, it is even impossible for the four men to change their places in the boat safely, they need to stick to where they are without being able to leave the boat or even more properly. Besides, it is implied that people are only able to see a limited picture of life, which is just a small patch of existence: “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea”( Crane) Thus, absurdity of life is another theme of the story raised by the author. However, he emphasizes that even under such circumstances freedom of choice is the only bargain that people have. As a researcher puts it, “experience reduces to absurdity …all attempts to reason”( Hlliburton 132). This perception of reality as absurd and irrational makes Crane’s story related to the philosophy of existentialism, founded by Kierkegaard ( Sorrentino 113).
There are several motifs in the story, which are repeated or implied by the author a number of times. So, because the setting is the sea, where the men have to fight in order to survive. At first, they are quite calm despite their challenging situation, however later their mood changes because they realize that they cannot count on other people or on God to save them. As a result, the fear of getting drowned emerges, which is one of the story’s recurrent motifs. The phrase “If I am going to be drowned” is repeated four times, in order to create the mood that foreshadows this fear coming true at the end of the story. Another motif that is present in the story is the rough sea and the waves that are in people’s way to their rescue. Waves imply that people cannot direct their lives on their own. Of course, they can try to sail against the flow but most likely this will be in vain. So, this motif suggests the presence of forces that are more powerful than people. It suggests that this would be arrogant for people to believe that they can rule their life completely.
When analyzing the story, the symbolism should be also mentioned. Crane’s story is full of symbolism, the main symbol being a boat travel by four men. After their ship crashes, they fight the sea waves on a tiny boat, desperately trying to reach the shoe and waiting for external help. The very use of such a metaphor to describe human life is illustrative of the author’s philosophical pessimism. People in a tiny boat symbolize human race, while the boat itself is a way that each person has to go in a lifetime. Although people are generally lonely and strange to the world, the share of optimism is present in the story based on the companionship of the four men. Each of them represents a different stratum of society, so they seem have little in common with one another. A cook, a captain, an oiler and a correspondent are not merely occupations in this context but they stand for groups of people. It is worth saying that the author induces an idea that people coming from different background can deal well with each other. According to Crane, each group of people performs a different function in society, so this is just necessary to pertain to one’s position in life. Thus, it is a captain’s role to be in charge of the journey, and although he is injured badly, he would not give up his responsibility. A cook is the one who would rather follow the leader, and it is quite natural for both of them to stay in their places. Likewise, a correspondent is an observer, a man of thought, while the oiler is a man of action. So, to a certain extent, each person’s life is limited to the role they have to play, and it is hard for them to change it, because their role is comfortable for them. At the same time, the author underlines that people’s friendship and care for each other prevents them from feeling miserable in the sea of life: “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him”.( Crane).
To conclude, it is worth saying that Crane’s story has multiple layers and implications, which are achieved through such literary elements as themes, motifs and symbolism. It is an adventure story, a philosophical parable and a poetic essay all in one, so numerous perspectives make it attractive to research. The themes of isolation, absurd reality, cruel nature and freedom of choice are all interrelated. The symbol of a human path as sailing in a small boat among the unknown contributes to the author’s representation of these themes.
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