Relationship between Nature and Humanity in The Open Boat by Stephen Crane


The Open Boat by Stephen Crane is a thrilling story of four men who are forced to search for survival in a January sea. Throughout the narrative, the author constantly refers to the theme of a man versus nature. Among the numerous episodes when four characters fight against the raging sea, the thought of a dying soldier that comes to the correspondents mind can be distinguished as a crucial moment showing indifference of nature towards the plight of man. The character recalls this memory from his childhood because the current situation is also full of despair and sorrow the soldier has experienced. This scene demonstrates the fact that life is not guaranteed and when the correspondent realizes this idea, he comprehends the power of nature. Hence, the knowledge of the sea force and emotional reaction of the character shows that such experience has supported him to find the sense of human endurance in unpredictable and inexorable universe. Therefore, Cranes The Open Boat raises the question of relationship between nature and humanity, specifically the lack of mans awareness of the natural world and its power.


The Role of Nature in The Open Boat

In the short story, the role of nature is crucial because it is not only the main setting of the narrative but also a great force that influences the characters and motivates them to obtain priceless knowledge. Crane starts his story with the line none of them knew the color of the sky, pointing the desperate position of the characters. The restless waves are huge for the little boat where the men have found salvation. Being a true opponent of the main characters, the storm affects peoples lives causing a dynamic series of events. The image of the disturbed sea evokes the feelings of loneliness, as well as danger nature possesses. Furthermore, the waves are compared to the thoughts of the four men unpredictable and threatening. The horizon appears and hides again behind the waves, and the characters are unsure about their future. Mens expectations are vulnerable and fragile because of the sea, which becomes the only force that controls the fate of the crew. Hence, in the story, the sea is depicted as a strong and severe power governing further events and impacting the characters.

Throughout the narrative, the four men experience the change under the influence of natures strength. Initially, the characters feel that nature is cruel towards them because the storm makes their steamboat sink. Moreover, while the men attempt to survive in the sea, the waves have no mercy to them. Nature is very powerful and the crew can hardly resist its strength. The men are lost and isolated from the world and they have nothing to do but blame nature for its cruelty. Hoping for natures mercy, the crew is helpless in their struggle. At the same time, being in the hands of nature, the men eventually understand that it is apathetic about the individual fates. The author sees nature as a force managing the world and referring to a human as a tiny piece of the universe emphasizing the existential theme. The story ends with the line the sound of the great seas voice showing that nothing has change in the universe and nature remains great and powerful despite anything.

Human Insignificance in the Universe

Although the characters believe that they are strong and enduring people, the truth is that they overestimate themselves in front of natures power. Being placed in the severe conditions, the captain, the oiler, the correspondent, and the cook are all equal in the boat, all aiming to survive the savage sea. Working as a team, the characters rely only on themselves, but their future appears beyond their control. Indeed, the violent waves persistently test mens desire to survive. This physical and mental challenge shows that they are only humans who cannot resist the powerful nature. At the same time, the characters believe that nature is enormously cruel towards them. However, the sea does not change during the plot; it is mens perception of the sea that develops throughout the story. The unaltered activity of the sea snarls, the gulls, the sky and clouds demonstrates that nature remains the same. It is a human, who interprets its behavior differently considering the events that unfold.

While nature constantly wins in this unequal struggle, the knowledge of mans worthlessness eventually comes to the characters. The correspondent realizes that he cannot do anything against natures power. Indeed, men are miserable in their position, as well as in the entire universe:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. 

The correspondent also realizes that the sea is a formless phenomenon. While before this moment the character has considered nature a part of a higher power that controls everything in the universe, now he understands that neither he nor the rest of the crew is important to the universe. Personifying nature, the correspondent loses himself and his beliefs. It is quite ironic because the correspondent has believed in something he does not know for sure, but blames and accuses nature in all his miseries.

The Thought of a Dying Soldier

While Crane mainly focuses on a man and his existence in the world, the correspondent, his feelings and thoughts also become authors concern. Thus, the correspondent is the one who asks the important philosophical questions on natures power and human existence. As the boat sails through the waves, the correspondent begins to ponder on the possibility that the crew may not survive. Suddenly, the character recalls the poem from his youth about the dying soldier near Algiers. This thought can be regarded as the most profound moment in the story it reveals the deep feeling of helplessness and human insignificance that can be observed throughout the narrative. Although the character has never thought about that soldier, now he is in the position that forces him to comprehend the tragedy of that story. Sitting in the boat in the huge ocean, the correspondent understands what it means to be a human whose future is vulnerable.

Thinking of this specific experience, the correspondent ponders on the sense of human sufferings in general, questioning the importance of the human in the world. The memory of the dying soldier shows the feelings of alienation and human insignificance in the universe. Similarly to that soldier, the correspondent appears in alien territory, powerless against the natural forces. Hence, the character is afraid he also will die without a connection to things that give him a sense of self. In this respect, the character understands the pain of the soldier because he is placed in similar situation. He is helpless to overcome nature and this new awareness that the universe is indifferent towards the crews fate makes the man wiser, but mentally and physically exhausted. The correspondent understands that there is no higher purpose in their sufferings and their blames towards nature are meaningless.

The Realization of Natures Indifference

While at the beginning of the story the four men think that the universe intentionally forces them to suffer, at the end of the narrative they come to realization that nature is completely apathetic about their fate. Indeed, the seas noisy movement is wholly indifferent to the crew, as well as how it affects the characters in the boat. While survival has become the primary focus of the men, they desperately attempt to protect themselves against the natural forces. Observing nature as their enemy, the four men constantly blame the sea for their miserable conditions: the struggles of the individual nature in the wind and nature in the vision of men; she did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise; but she was indifferent, flatly indifferent. After coming to realization that nature is apathetic about the mens fate, the crew understands that their future depends on them. Natures lack of concern towards the characters fate, specifically mens knowledge of this fact, helps the crew to survive through persistence and cooperation.


The struggle between the human and nature can be observed throughout the story. The authors view on a man as a helpless being opposed to the powerful nature finds its representation in an uncaring sea and the four men in a boat. The role of nature in the short story is crucial because it is both the setting of the narrative and the great force the main character should fight. At the same time, the thought of a dying soldier is a crucial moment in the short story because it helps the correspondent to understand the power of nature. Hence, The Open Boat provides the reader with a dose of reality showing human insignificance in the universe.

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