There are more characters than just the captain, the correspondent, the oiler and the cook in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. There is a fifth character: nature. Nature can be seen as the main character in the story as it is constantly affecting the four men in the boat and is ever-present throughout their ordeal. Many different views of nature are expressed in this work: nature as the causal agent of the entire trial, as being personified in it’s action and as being indifferent to the plights of man.
Nature is the force that drives the action in The Open Boat. The four men battle the waves, the wind and the cold from start to finish in the short story. Every page describes the “wrath of the sea” (398), the strong, howling wind, the “cold-sea water” (404) and how the four brave men fight against them to survive. Obviously, were nature in a calmer state, none of the events would transpire. As it is, nature, through it’s thrashing waves and torrential wind, force the four men to struggle and fight until they can not fight anymore. This battle against the forces of nature propel the story as it goes through seven phases.
Each phase of The Open Boat has it’s own sensibility and how nature relates in that respect. The first phase is shortly after the four men begin their adventure aboard the dinghy. Their fear is new and sudden as the crests of waves threaten to swamp their over-crowded vessel. The entire experience is more frightening for the men because they have never been “at sea in a dinghy” (397) and have never felt the strength of nature in such a diminutive craft. The waves throw the tiny boat “like a horse making at a fence outrageously high” (396) while the men strive to adjust to their current berth. Still, despite their powerful antagonist, the sailors try to remain optimistic and think of ways to end their frightening saga. Phase two depicts the men’s optimism flowing away with every unrelenting wave that threatens to tip their boat and end their lives. There is still hope in the minds of the stranded men as the captain’s “anxious eye” (399) spots a lighthouse in the distance that could spell an end to the men’s harrowing tribulation. The waves and the wind make for hard rowing in the third section of the short story. The oiler and the correspondent are growing weary from battling the waves for headway. Dwindling hope is all the men are riding on as they approach the life-saving station. A “quiet cheerfulness” (401) is felt by them at the possibility of ending their struggle with nature, and getting off of the “wild colt of a dinghy” (401). Hope of an early finish is lost when no one comes to save them in phase four. As well, the four stranded sailors talk seriously about the chance that they will not all make it through the ordeal and exchange information and addresses of loved ones. The men head back out to sea to escape the slapping breakers that nature sends at them. They see people on shore and talk about their upcoming rescue but, like the other contemplated deliverance, this one is swept away with the wind. The men talk a little about drowning and how fate brought them so close to rescue. The men are tiring, but nature is not. The waves are still coming, the wind is still blowing and there is no respite in sight for the tired, struggling men. Nature continues it’s pummeling into phase five. Overly worked and weary, the oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing while the other sleeps. Nature propels wave upon wave of frigid water into the boat that leaves the men “shaking with the new cold” (408). The contemplation that nature may eventually beat the men is still in the speech of the crewmen. They felt that it was “an abomonable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard..” (409) and that nature does not regard a man as important. Finally, the men reach shore. However, after a long swim and bout with the crushing waves, only three men make it alive. The oiler, who had worked so hard to ensure the safety of the others, did not make the swim. Nature had beaten him, but not before he
helped the other men. It is apparent in this short story that nature is a very important aspect, and should be considered a character and not simply as a background environment. Nature is the cause of all the action and plays a prominent role in every page of The Open Boat.
Nature is personified in this story. The captain and the crew use the personal pronoun she’ when referring to nature. This in itself demonstrates the attitudes that the men had for the sea. The waves are said to be “furious, implacable” (413) as they move with a “terrible grace” (397) to the “snarling” (397) crests. The “play of the free sea” (397) tests the men to keep their tiny lifeboat afloat long enough to find a place to land. When the men are fighting to swim to shore in the final phase of the story, the current of the sea is referred to as a “strange new enemy” (414). The men hear the “great sea’s voice” (416) in the closing scene of the tale. It is obvious that the men in the story view nature as an entity as they constantly gives it characteristics of animate objects. In The Open Boat, nature plays the greatest role and is given descriptions as if it were alive and reacting to it’s surroundings.
Nature is seen as indifferent and uncaring. This goes along with the idea that nature is personified. It is thought to have actions of animate objects in the story and there is an attitude that the men attribute to nature that correlates with it. There are frequent mentions that nature is
uncaring, indifferent and that the trials of one person do not matter in the overall view of the universe. To the men, their situation on the boat leads them to believe in this attitude. The waves slap against the small dinghy relentlessly despite the worries or pleas of the men involved. This makes the men reflect on nature as having a disposition. It occurs to the men that “nature does not regard them as important” (409) which, of course, angers them. Despite the terror and desperation the men felt nature remained “indifferent, flatly indifferent” (412). By demonstrating that nature, as depicted by Stephen Crane, has an attitude, the impression of nature as a main character is greatly increased.
In conclusion, The Open Boat portrays nature as a main character in the story. Many devices are used to culminate this interpretation. Through the many descriptions of nature as a causation of the action and as a constant force, it is easily interpreted as a primary persona in the story. The attitude and indifference of nature, as expressed by the sailors, greatly aids in developing nature as a crucial character in the short story.