Naturalism in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

“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.

Wholesomeness in “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps I’m too biased to properly write about this short story: male dominant sea stories are my least favorite (My peers get a good laugh when I say that I love Moby Dick up until they get onto the water) . But I did it; I read it. It is a psychological adventure tale, simple enough to understand. It definitely had moments of suspense and certain pages had me hold my breath in fear for its characters. Overall, I’d not recommend it as a challenging read.

This story is about a young man Leggatt, who committed a murder upon the ship Sephora, a previous ship to which he felt he did not belong anyway; he was an outsider. Naked and cramped, he floated by the ladder, clinging for his life, and asked for the captain. The captain had already been engaged in conversation with him, and identified himself.  Thereon, the Captain (nameless, featureless, and narrating in first person) calls Leggett his other self. Continue reading “Wholesomeness in “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad”

Color as Words, Anderson’s Brand in “Hands”

This essay first sheds light on how Anderson’s background in advertising influenced the climax of “Hands” and secondly, analyzes art’s influence in the shape of the writing. I’ll share how Stein (poetry) and Russman (painting) influenced Anderson, as written in “Words Not Plot Give Form to the Short Story”

Let us acknowledge that Anderson  spent fourteen years of his life as an advertising copywriter. Before we get the chance to start the first sentence, the title commands us to leap into the rabbit hole of associations. What comes to mind when we think of hands? Labor. Craftsmanship. Perhaps something precious, like touching a baby’s head, or carefully performing surgery, or pressing the keys of a piano to create a nocturne.

What of their gestures? To what extent do we realize or attend to the good or evil of our hands? (Lady Macbeth comes to mind). In “Hands”, Wing Biddlebaum is the “angel” and Adolph Myers (Biddlebaum’s previous name) is the “devil”. For Wing, his hands flutter. For Adolph, they touch little boys. For Wing-Adolph, they are horror.

Anderson repeated the word “hands” ad nauseum: the word appears in all paragraphs except three. Anderson uses the word eight times in a single page: HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! (which left me thinking to myself: WHAT ABOUT THEM, ANDERSON? TELL ME!) If this isn’t advertising strategy, I don’t know what is.  Continue reading “Color as Words, Anderson’s Brand in “Hands””

Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Tattoos

My best friend Basak is getting a tattoo, of a skull, on her right ankle. I said I’d get a matching one. Surprised and touched, she yelled in excitement and curiosity “Baby!” . She didn’t question me “Are you sure?” She already knew that there was something deeper. I’m not the type of woman to follow just to follow. I’m not silly enough to get a permanent mark on my body just to fit in. I’m not that whimsical. So…. why?

Life is surprising, that is why. Unpack that: Continue reading “Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Tattoos”


Is a haunting tale that crept into my siesta and grabbed hold of my heart. Playing with the borderline of reality and dreamland, the emotion lingered and tore me slowly, patiently, and gently. I had experienced waking up, both the feeling of fear and sadness.

Frankly, the plot is pointless to follow. Reported speech–liberally drenched in fantasy—makes it difficult for to really understand the gravity of any given event. Some slight details are exaggerated; some great events are offhandedly casual. Perhaps this is an element of beauty, as we entertain the possibility that we are within a deranged mind, in which values are mixed and skewed. Morality takes a different form through the narrator’s account.

The most beautiful part of this story is its writing. I admire any writer that maintains a strong friendship with punctuation and syntax. Nabokov paints with words. His word choice is of the highest grade, if not a bit effusive.

Some kitsch remarks above the novel: its repetition of the color blue and its frequent use of French is eye-roll worthy. I won’t bother with the basely symbolism of colors but without it, we wouldn’t get the full impressions of manic obsession which brings about unapologetic and revealing characterization. Secondly, there is a sufficient amount of French with no translation (in the advent of online translators this is no issue). Comprehension commentary aside, it reminds the reader of a different time where knowledge was self-contained and not as easily accessible and a great deal of detail would have been omitted if one was not able to speak French.

Quotes I particularly enjoyed:

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