In this short story, Stephen Crane recounts the shared experiences of four survivors from the sinking of the steamer “Commodore” during their efforts to row in a small boat to a safe landfall on the coast of Florida. The four are the (injured) captain, the cook, the oiler and a fourth man, referred to as “the correspondent”.
Early in the story, Crane describes the captain’s mood in terms of his changed circumstances. He writes that the captain “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.” Further on, Crane refers to the way that their shared adversity has brought them close together; that they are at this time a “subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas.” He describes how their new found bond of friendship is somehow special – that they are “friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common.” He attributes to the correspondent the thought that he “knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.”
Later, during the long, cold and wet night afloat, Crane attributes to each of the four souls the uncomfortable thoughts that “nature does not regard him as important” and that if he were to be disposed of there would be little if any effect on the universe. Each having had his own role to play in the “normal” life that preceded the steamer sinking was now reduced to an insignificant unit of humanity in the harshness of the present situation, adrift and with no certainty of surviving the experience. Just before the boat reaches shore, Crane returns to this theme when the correspondent, in a philosophical few moments while regarding a windmill on the dunes, realises that the windmill – an inanimate object – is completely indifferent to him or his present plight. It suddenly comes to him that as a result of his harrowing experience in this little boat, and having as a consequence come close to death, he would – given the opportunity – mend his ways and be a better person.
In terms of “technologies” used or discussed by the characters to remain alive by mastering the forces of nature, there were of course the age-old ones of using oars and even a makeshift sail (the captain’s overcoat) to steer and to propel their little boat. There was also the technology of fire (the dry matches used to light a cigar each) and the use of electricity (the lighthouse) which helped them fix the direction of the land. Other technologies mentioned included the telescope (where the captain suggests that the lighthouse keeper should be able to see them “if he’s looking through a glass”). Then there was the sighting of a man on a bicycle on the distant beach, followed subsequently by one of them identifying an omnibus travelling along the beach – two more “technological” devices. Another “technology” mentioned, indirectly at least, was the magnetic compass. That was when the captain replied to the correspondent, instructing him to keep the distant north light “two points off the port bow” referring to compass headings, although they had no compass.
Yet another technology mentioned was photography. The cook – exhausted by his long hours of rowing – said: “If I ever get ashore and anybody shows me even a photograph of an oar--". Photography has already changed the lives of many, especially since the advent of digital photography available at low cost to everyone. Coupled with the widespread ownership of home computers, we can take an almost unlimited number of photographs, then download them at home, select the ones we really like and either print them or just display them on screen. Every event in all our lives can be captured as a photographic image and permanently recorded. In addition, other forms of photography such as X-rays have already produced tremendous benefits for medical science and other industrial applications helping man to better understand the world in which we live.
However, for this reader at least, the technology mentioned that is most likely to change our relationship with the world around us is wind power. On their final dawn before heading in towards the shore, the four characters spot “a tall white windmill” stood on the sand dunes. Although windmills in one form or another have been around for many centuries, with the threat of the world’s stock of fossil fuels becoming exhausted, the concept of renewable energies including wind-powered generation of electricity is becoming ever more attractive, even if not yet absolutely essential. Wind power (along with other renewable energy sources) reduces our dependence on fossil fuels or nuclear energy, whilst at the same time reducing carbon emissions, that contribute to increased greenhouse gases and thereby increase the likelihood of permanent climate change.
Crane, Stephen. (1897). “The Open Boat”. Retrieved from http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/1514/