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“A man said to the universe: ‘Sir, I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.’”—Stephen Crane
The above quote made by Stephen Crane highlights the personal philosophy which Crane had concerning nature or “the universe,” which may appear at have a certain detachment concerning its relationship with humans. This point is further emphasized by Harold Bloom's introduction in the critical work entitled, Stephen Crane in the following: “[Stephen Crane's] mode wasrenderedwith a meticulous nihilism, a deep sense of the meaninglessness of life except for what could be converted into art” (xi). There are some aspects within the short story “The Open Boat” which are akin to the philosophy of nihilism or meaninglessness as it relates to nature's relationship with the individual. However, although it can be argued that nature, during certain points within the plot of Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” appears to be an indifferent and inconsequential force, there is still a valid point which suggests that nature not only functions as a central theme in Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat,” but it can also be perceived as an additional character within the story when examining man's relationship to nature within the context of survival and existence, since the conditions of the physical environment of the four characters played a significant role in determining their ability to survive.
There are particular elements within the short story, “The Open Boat,” which highlights key concepts related to the ideology of nihilism, as it pertains to nature's relationship with the individual. For instance, the narrator of “The Open Boat” states the following: “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept towards them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops.” (5). The four men refused to acknowledge the sky so that they could know its color. They focused their attention instead on the waves which had a “hue of slate” or gray hue. It can be argued that the men's refusal to acknowledge the sky could be a reflection of these men refusing to acknowledge nature or the universe as being a relevant part of their daily experiences or occurrences. In addition, the narrator's use of the term “hue of slate” to describe the color of the waves is also significant. When something is shaded gray, that thing is almost perceived as being devoid of color. The gray or slate hue alludes to the four men's perception of life which they perceive as being empty or void of meaning. Therefore, it can be argued that Crane used color to indicate the four men's impressions of nature or life in general. In fact, Rodney Rogers in his article, “Stephen Crane and Impressionism” posits that there are “similarities between stylistic techniques in Crane's writing and in impressionist painting” (24: 292). Additionally, R.W. Stallman notes that Crane's writing style can be likened to “‘prose pointillism [which is a technique of painting using small dots of color which are applied to create an image]’ because ‘it is composed of disconnected images, which coalesce like blobs of color in French impressionist painting’” (qtd. in Rogers 24: 292). The ideology of nihilism is implied when the men describe a man on the seashore “‘revolving his coat’” above his head as soon as he caught sight of the four men in the dinghy (24-26). One of the four men in the boat referred to the man with the “‘revolving coat’” as an idiot (26). Furthermore, the signal that was being given by the man with the coat had no meaning that any of the four men could discern, as indicated by the following: “‘Well, if he'd just signal us to try the surf again, or to go to sea and wait, or go north, or go south, or go to hell—there would be some reason in it’” (25). It appeared to be quite a foolish sight for the man to respond to the four men, who were obviously lost at sea and needed help, with a meaningless symbol; however, the response of the man with the coat is highlighting an important point as it relates to the ideology of nihilism. It can be posited that nature or the universe during very crucial periods within an individual's life can provide meaningless signals which are of no help or value to her; thus, reiterating the point of the meaninglessness of life, as argued by the main tenets of nihilism.
Furthermore, the point is implied within “The Open Boat” that nature is perceived as an indifferent force which refuses to acknowledge the individual's significance. This point is subtly illustrated by the following: “The wind bore coldness with it, and the men began to shiver” (26). It is important to note that the wind blew after the four men saw the man with the coat, who was revolving it above his head. After the man with the coat saw the four men, who were clearly lost at sea, and, instead of helping them, he gave the four men a signal which they could not decipher. Nature worsened the situation by allowing cold wind to blow over the men causing them to “shiver.” One can interpret the “coldness” of the wind, which blew after the four men saw the man with the revolving coat, as the “coldness” in which nature or the universe ignores the pleas, desires, or wishes of the individual, thereby denying the individual's significance or worth. Moreover, Gregory Schirmer in his article, “Becoming Interpreters: The Importance of Tone in Crane's ‘The Open Boat’” notes Crane's allusion to the point of which asserts that the individual is a “helpless and insignificant being adrift in a universe that is wholly indifferent to him and his ambitions” (15: 222). Additionally, nature's indifference to the individual is implied by the reluctance of a predatory animal such as a shark even approaching the four men in the dinghy, as evidenced by the following: “The thing [that is, the shark] which had followed the boat and waited had evidently grown bored at the delay. There was no longer to be heard the slash of the cut-water, and there was no longer the flame of the long trail” (35). It appears as if the shark got “bored” or disinterested at the prospect of following the four men in the dinghy. It also seems as if the shark did not think that it was worth the effort to continue to follow the four men. The boredom of the shark reflects the indifference of nature towards the individual and its refusal to recognize his importance. Oliver Billingslea in his article, “Why Does the Oiler ‘Drown’? Perception and Cosmic Chill in ‘The Open Boat’” posits that while reading “The Open Boat,” one recognizes the individual's “own significance and impotence” (27: 25).
On the other hand, there is still ample evidence which indicates that nature acts as an additional character within Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat,” and actively participates within the lives of the four men while they are out on the sea. For instance, nature is personified as an old woman by referring to nature as “Fate,” as illustrated by the following quote: “If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of managing men's fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention” (21). It is important to note that the narrator explains the need for the individual to personify nature in such a manner in the following: “ if there is no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: ‘Yes, but I love myself.’” Therefore, the point is suggested that the “personification” is made necessary by the individual since he desires to find something or someone to blame for his misfortunes or ills, as well as to plea to this ‘person’ for help or favors to improve his condition. In referring to nature or “Fate” as an old “ninny-woman” who mismanages human beings' affairs the individual is, thereby, ascribing blame to nature and inferring that nature does involve her- or itself in the affairs of the individual. In addition to humanistic qualities being ascribed to nature, deistic qualities are also used to describe nature, as evidenced by the following: “‘If I'm going to be drowned—if I'm going to be drowned—if I'm going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come this far and contemplate sand and trees?’” (20). The term “seven mad gods who rule the sea” alludes to Greek mythology. Greek mythology is a representation of the individual's desire to ascribe blame or provide an explanation for the occurrences of mysterious and painful experiences which take place in his physical environment, which includes the sea. The term “seven mad gods who rule the sea” alludes to Greek mythology. Greek mythology is a representation of the individual's desire to ascribe blame or give a name for mysterious and painful occurrences which take place in his physical environment, which includes the sea. It also should be noted that it is uncertain who makes the above quote about the “seven mad gods,” but the narrator makes the assumption that it could be a part of the internal “reflections” of the four men who had a “great deal of rage in them” (20). It can be inferred from the quote concerning the “seven mad gods who rule the sea” that the individual believes that nature, in its deified form, has control over his affairs to the extent that nature he can make him drown or not. Therefore, it is implied that nature does, in fact, have some involvement in the human being's affairs, and is an active participant in his life. Moreover, Billingslea confirms that nature does have some control over the individual's life by stating that there was “something that could kill [the oiler or Billie]” and that “[t]hat thing is sea” (27: 36). Billingslea explained further that the wave in its “undertow” may have “caught the oiler and pulled him under” (27: 36).
Additionally, the individual's dependence on nature as part of his method for survival is explored within “The Open Boat.” For instance, the four men had to rely on the wind to allow their boat to make shore (10). The captain assures the rest of the men that they will “get ashore all right” (10). Then Billie, the oiler, adds that this will be the case if the “wind holds” (10). It is obvious from the conversations of the men that the dinghy needed the assistance of the wind to arrive on the shore. These conversations reveal the individual's dependence on the benevolence or the cooperation of nature so that he can survive. Another example which illustrates the men's dependence on nature for survival is seen by the following: “A large wave caught [the correspondent] and flung him with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it” (44). The narrator explained that the wave moved the correspondent closer to the shore where the “water reached only to his waist” (44). The narrator explained further that the event struck him as a “true miracle” of the sea (44). However, it should be noted that this same wave could have possibly killed the oiler in its undertow, as indicated by Billingslea in the following: “The same wave—that miracle of the sea—that caught the correspondentmay in its undertow have caught the oiler and pulled him under” (27:36). Therefore, it can be argued that the author desires to show how the benevolence of nature is not only dependent upon by human beings as a means of survival, but to show how nature has the ability to show both kindness in the case of the correspondent and hostility in the case of the oiler. It appears as if the author would like to suggest that there is no practical or logical method which nature employs when it acts.
In conclusion, there is sufficient evidence within Crane's story, “The Open Boat,” which reveals how nature appears, in certain instances, to the affairs of humanity, while in other cases, it can be perceived that nature is an active participant in the individual's affairs. Moreover, it appears as if Crane in “The Open Boat” might be simultaneously arguing from the perspective of both viewpoints, and showing how perception can color an individual's reality. Interestingly, it is difficult to determine what is the philosophical or ideological truth that Crane desires to put forward to the reader in his story. Each reader will gain his own interpretation of the story based on his perception, thereby giving meaning to the following statement by Alan Moore: “we never really experience the universe directly, we just experience our consciousness of the universe, our perception of it; so right, our only universe is perception.”
Billingslea, Oliver. "Why Does the Oiler "Drown"? Perception and Cosmic Chill in ‘The Open Boat’." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 27.1 (1994): 23-41. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.
Crane, Stephen . "The Open Boat by Stephen Crane." University of Virginia Library: The Electronic Text Center. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.vahidnab.com/openboat.pdf>.
Crane, Stephen . "The Open Boat: A Tale Intended to be After the Fact. Being the Experience of Four Men Sunk from the Steamer Commodore." Washington State University. Washington State University, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/crane/open.htm>.
Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure. Mobile Reference, 2010.
Rogers, Rodney O. "Stephen Crane and Impressionism." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 292-304. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.
Schirmer, Gregory A. "Becoming Interpreters: The Importance of Tone in Crane's ‘The Open Boat’." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 15.2 (1982): 221-231. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.