“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane is recognized as one of thebest short stories by the author, often referred to as the work ofturn-of-the century literary naturalism. In literature, naturalismfocuses on characterizing humans and elements of the naturalenvironment. Naturalism is one of the most famous approaches inclassic American literature. Through the objective study of people,the writers specializing in naturalism believe that the stories thatgovern the human spirit can be studied and be understood. This paperanalyses premises of naturalism in the novel, its destruction of theconcept of the hero, human existence and pessimism. It then reviewsthe poem ‘The Hollow Men’ as a different expression of pessimism,and the logic behind the apparent pessimism in the literature.
Theshort story is considered as an exemplary naturalism because theauthor portrayed life cynically. While building the plot, the authorleft the characters to surmise the intention of the naturalenvironment on them. To the audience, he created a picture thatnature is not an entity, but a mysterious force that works in aunique manner, perhaps way beyond human understanding. Beginning withthe major theme of hopelessness after a shipwreck, the charactersbegin perceiving a morbid view of life. “The correspondent, pulingat the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there”(Crane 2). As for the captain “lying in the front, was feelingdefeat and despair” (Crane 2). These are the statements that showthe danger from nature that was facing the characters. Through theacceptance of the force of nature that is beyond their control, thecharacters feel hopeless and non-agents of free will. According torealists, the opposite would have been that they were just butpuppets of the sea. Being a creation of naturalism, the characters’destiny is left to the fate of the force of nature. Besides theelement of fate, what was happening to these men was not controlled abit by what they did, or what they wished to happen, and this is theessence of naturalism in the story. In the story, “shipwrecks areapropos of nothing” (Puskar 83). This statement implied thecurrents, winds, temperature, the sun and all other natural elementswere controlling the fate of the characters.
The unpredictable and unforgiving way of nature is the backbone ofthe plot of the story. The story’s view of nature is that it is anentity that is beyond the control of the human will. The author makesit clear to the audience that nature is indifferent to man and hisplight. The main reason behind this is that nature, and the way itoperates, is guided by a consciousness that the humans cannotunderstand. For instance, the characters failed to understand why theforces were working against their favor. The author says, “aparticular danger of the seas is the fact that the after successfullygetting through one wave, you discover that there is another behindit” (Cranes 2). This statement portrays the mystique manner inwhich nature operated, despite the fact that the people may be facingdeath through its actions. As the plot progresses, nature portrays alack of concern for their well-being, which makes fear the onlyreasonable feeling that they experience. The author says, “thewaves that came at this time were more fierce” just when they wereabout to reach the land (Cranes 6). This is an illustration thatnature behaves in a different way in response to the plight andattempt the sailors to survive.
Inliterature, the concept of heroism is applied in different measures.However, according to Taha (3), heroism is perpetually associatedwith extraordinary acts by certain characters, who perform actionsthat are considered above human average. These actions may bemanifested in terms of physical strength, courage and even empathy.While there is no standard qualification of the hero in literature,scholars agree that creating a heroic character takes a carefulmanipulation of the story line and integration of personalities tocome up with a character that is above average. In The Open Boat, theauthor has set the hero to be an obedient, loyal, wise, courageousand responsible character. The Oiler, who is the hero of the story,meets these requirements. Besides keeping the sailors going, he wastrying to ensure that all of them reached safety. The authordescribes him as a prudent seaman, “the oiler was a wiseseaman….she won’t live three minutes more, and we’re too far toswim, Shall I take her out to sea again, Captain?” (Cranes 6). Bythese words, the oiler demonstrated the character of courage, wisdomand responsibility. Moreover, by following the orders of the captain,the author portrays the Oiler as an obedient and loyal person.Finally, heroism is deconstructed by the element of empathy. Aftersaving the crew, the hero died. For empathy, the author wrote “If Iam going to lose my life to the sea-if I am going to lose my life tothe sea- why was I allowed to come this far and see sand and trees?”(Cranes 9). This sums up the emphatic deconstruction of the hero inthe story.
Despite the resounding hopelessness in the plot, the authorattempted to establish positive in human existence. While theliterary naturalism implied that the sailors’ destiny was sealed,there was hope in the form of the characters and nature itself. Forinstance, the Oiler was the linkage between despair and hope (Hilfer249). At the same time, the characters’ internal reflectionsportrayed the positive of human nature in the face of destiny. Theauthor says, “it is, perhaps, probable that a man in thissituation, impressed with the lack of concern of the world, shouldsee the many faults in his life” (Cranes 12). The “situation”in reference was the unforgiving rage of nature. By evoking the roleof personality in human fate, the author attempted to establishpositive in human existence, despite the central literary naturalismof the story.
The pessimism in The Open Boat is portrayed by the characters’struggle against the force of nature. The author used a tone thatcontributed to the oral feeling of no control over what was thedestiny of the characters out in the sea. For instance, whiledescribing the situation that the sailors were in, the author wrote,“it would be difficult to describe the secure bond between men thatwas here established on the seas. No one said it was so…” (Cranes3). In the entire time during their stay in the sea, the sailors hadlittle hope for survival, or even rescue. It was after the winds haddied that the pessimism that was existing in the sailors’ minds isportrayed, “so the little boat turned her nose once more down thewind…doubt and fear were leaving the minds of men” (Cranes 5).The statement is but an excerpt of the pessimism that was occasionedby the unforgiving force of nature on the sailors. In general, thestory’s pessimism is a demonstration of the existence of anexternal force, which is controlling the destiny of the men.
T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men is a short poem with pessimism as amajor theme too. In the poem, pessimism is related to the tragedythat marks the absolute end, which is common in literary naturalism.The ending of the poem is perhaps the best linkage between naturalismand pessimism. The author writes “this is the way the world ends,this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, notwith a bang but a whimper” (Bloom 108). The repetition soundshopelessness, which is the driving factor for pessimism.Additionally, as the topic suggests, the men were hopeless as theirsouls were ‘hollow’. While they are conspirators of their owndestiny, the characters in the story are an empty and corrupt breed.The story ends with the death of one of the protagonists, who iscaught, tortured and murdered. However, unlike the uncontrollablenature of fate in The Open Boat, the poem’s apparent pessimism isbased on an assumption that man had decided his own fate by engagingin war. Regardless, both nature and war are key elements in theemergence of pessimism in both, and they shape the destiny of theprotagonists in an almost equal measure.
Bloom, Harold. T.SEliot. Philadelphia:Chelsea House Publishers, 2003. Internet resource.
Hilfer, Anthony Channell. "3.Nature as Protagonist in" The Open Boat"." TexasStudies in Literature and Language 54.2(2012): 248-257.
Puskar, Jason. AccidentSociety: Fiction, Collectivity, and the Production of Chance.Stanford University Press, 2012.
Taha, Ibrahim. "Heroism InLiterature." TheAmerican Journal of Semiotics18.1/4(2002): 107-126.