“The Commodore sank. She lurched to windward, then swung afar back, righted and dove into the sea, and the rafts were suddenly swallowed by this frightful maw of the ocean. And then by the men on the ten-foot dinghy were words said that were still not words—something far beyond words. The lighthouse of Mosquito Inlet stuck up above the horizon like the point of a pin. We turned our dinghy toward the shore. The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here and now. John Kitchell of Daytona came running down the beach as he ran the air was filled with clothes. He dashed into the water and dragged the cook. Then he went after the captain, but the captain sent him to me, and then it was that he saw Billy Higgins lying with his forehead on the sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead.
This passage is how Crane describes the beginning, middle, and end of being stranded at sea after the sinking of the Commodore, a ship running contraband arms to Cuban revolutionaries. Nothing more, nothing less. This simple paragraph expanded to the 18 pages of one his most famous tales, Open Boat, leading us to the perennial, if not paradoxical question: is fiction more real than fact?
Crane is widely known as a naturalist: a movement marked by its description of realistic methods and subjects to convey a philosophical form: everything exists as a part of nature and can be explained by natural causes. He focuses on the shortcomings of human beings and the greatness of the ocean.
The cook, the oiler, the correspondent, the captain, and of course the sea are not just people against nature, they represent much more. The cook represents hope, and though the correspondent is our most relatable protagonist, he represents the folly of our reasoning against nature, and the oiler is best representing the idea of naturalism. What Crane could not explain in his article, he could convey in his short story the meat and bones of naturalism. After he paints the perfect picture of the perfect storm, a poor dinghy bobbing up and over and speeding downward then upward, over and over again, rocked by rocky-colored waves. Self-aware of this picturesque scene, the narrator denies that the characters would partake any pleasure from it: “they had no time to see it… if they had leisure, there were other things to occupy their minds”.
In the first dialogue of the story, we get a clear sense of the purpose of each character. They see land afar and the cook continues to talk hopefully about the house of refuge. The correspondent is skeptical and tells the cook all the reasons why there is no crew to rescue them on the island. The oiler then reminds them, realistically “We’re not there yet.” Here it seems that Crane is reminding us that neither worry nor hope serves as a guidance. The present is what needs to be the focus, the anchor of our mindset. Why worry about whether something is or isn’t? You’ll get there in a moment and see for yourself. There is no sense in getting emotional in anticipation of an event that hasn’t occurred.
One of the greatest example of how Crane shows us the immensity of nature against the debility of humankind is the scene with the bird which “struck them as gruesome and ominous”. It seemed as if the birds were mocking them. Stranded at sea, the four mates had to move in the most careful of ways, so as to not further rock the dinghy and capsize her. The seaweed was described as “steady islands” and the birds as “uncaring” and “restful.” The birds flew around, perched on floating seaweed, and looked at them with cold, beady eyes, probably staring at these foreign creatures with curiosity and sympathy; the crew, to the bird, is certainly pathetic. The seaweed’s ability to remain intact and steady, coupled with the bird’s ease, tortured them. The ocean is great and immense and perfectly fine without human life. Human life is so small and so weak, and so vulnerable against the greatest elements of the earth.
We pretend to know so much, we grapple to know even more, we rationalize and reason what must and must not be, and yet the omniscient narrator clarifies the matter: little did they know that there was “no life saving station within 20 miles.” This very fact inspires fear to the center of the readers core: the crew is going to die. The entire next section of the story is the futility of their efforts. “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—-if I’m going to be drowned, why in the name of the seven made gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?….If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.” It is ridiculous on the verge of hilarious that the character confuses fate’s duty to man. Nature has no duty to man. It is like a man to think that he is entitled to some reward for his work. It is like a man to think he could “fire” nature or relieve her of her duty. What does man know of her?
As they confront death, they feel the most injustice toward the amount of hard work they had put in, only to die anyway. When people confront death, Crane argues, they first are angry, then wallow in self-pity and self-love, and finally understand their circumstance. This is naturalism. Of all the characters, only the oiler gets a name, highlight the importance of his role. His death is the only one and reinforces the idea that it is the end that meets us all.