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Seth Cassel
October 2005

Human Response to Nature in "The Open Boat"

In "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane, the men realize and accept that they are powerless against nature; however, they find that a way to endure the force of nature is through comradeship. The men, on the sea, have formed a brotherhood where they depend on each other to survive, and they find comfort in being together. In the outcome of the story, the realization of the power of nature also helps the men overcome their fear of death. When one of the men dies, the surviving men come to accept their comrade's death because they know that they had no control over who perished. The story suggests that the proper human response to what the men realize about nature is to form a brotherhood for comfort and to aid in survival, and to be fearless in the face of death.

The men go through a progression of thought that leads them to their final realization that nature is all-powerful. Initially, the men react with hatred to the knowledge that nature is stronger and could kill them on her whim. "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important and she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple." However, once the men realize that they cannot change nature's wrath by getting angry at it, the men create a different plan. Each man wants to find something that represents nature and bow down to it, pleading with it that he should be pardoned from death. Finally, when the men come to the conclusion that neither showing outrage towards nor begging with nature will exempt them from death, they understand that nature is indifferent to their tirades and pleas. The men realize that they cannot influence the strength of nature, and thus they respond by finding ways to endure its power and their situation.

In response to their realization about the power of nature, the men act by forming a brotherhood, which gives them comfort and strength, and allows them to tolerate nature's might. "It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas." Adrift in the boat, the men were "friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common." They are brought together by the severity of the situation that they are in, but the friendship that they form helps them to survive nature's onslaught. For example, when the correspondent is the only one up at night and sights a shark, he "wished one of his companions to awake by chance and keep him company with it." Although having another person awake with him would not have helped fight off the shark if it had attacked, the correspondent wanted someone with whom he could talk, to make the situation less ominous. The sighting of the shark is symbolic of nature itself, threatening man's existence. The correspondent's reaction to the sighting of the shark is part of a feeling that runs throughout the story; companionship can provide comfort from the feeling of helplessness in the face of nature's power.

At the end of the story, the men's realization of the strength of nature helps them to overcome their fear of drowning and accept the death of the oiler. The men were afraid of drowning as evident when they recite, "If I am going to be drowned- if I am going to be drowned- if I am going to be drowned." This is recited at three different times, before and during their long night out on the boat, thus suggesting that the men are afraid of drowning. During the long night, "A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation." Each man realizes that nature is greater than him; therefore, each man understands that he must endure whatever nature throws at him. Also, during this night on the boat, each man comes to the conclusion that his fate is in the hands of nature. In the morning, the men see that they will not be rescued by anyone. As a result of their understanding of their situation that was acquired during the night about the might of nature, they are able to overcome their fear of drowning, and thus death. Prior to the time when the men jump out of the boat, "the correspondent, observing the others, knew that they were not afraid." The men, because they understand the strength of nature, are able to conquer their fear of death. The men accept their fate; whatever it may be. "There were no hurried words, no pallor, no plain agitation. The men simply looked at the shore." The correspondent, in the face of mortal peril before leaving the boat, is also not afraid of dying, "it merely occurred to him that if he should drown it would be a shame." When the men swim onto shore, they know that they could die or just as easily live; the outcome was out of their control. Thus, it comes as no surprise to the men when they see one of their comrades, the oiler, dead. The fact that he was the strongest of the men when he "was swimming strongly and rapidly," further shows the power of nature that the men have come to realize. The men's understanding of nature allows them to overcome their fear of death by drowning and make a run at the shore without trepidation.

The men's action and the story's outcome suggest that forming a brotherhood and overcoming fears of death is the proper human response to the men's knowledge of the power and invincibility of nature. A "brotherhood of men" has been formed among those on the boat in response to their dire situation. The brotherhood provides them with comfort and gives them strength to go on together. The way the men act as comrades throughout the story upholds the idea that they realize and admit that nature is mighty, but their friendship undoubtedly helps them cope with their situation. In the outcome of the story, the cook, correspondent, and captain, all names beginning with the letter "c," for comradeship, maintain the brotherhood, while the oiler does not, swimming ahead of everyone else. While in the water, the captain is helping the cook and correspondent make their way ashore. The captain yells to the cook, "Turn over on your back, cook! Turn over on your back and use the oar." The captain also calls out to the correspondent, "Come to the boat!" The oiler, however, does not continue the brotherhood and drowns, while the three other men, who continue as comrades in the water, live. Also, the men's action of swimming towards land without fear of death, and the calmness with which the men handle the death of the oiler, both support the idea that the men accept the power of nature as dominant, and thus they are vulnerable to nature's assault. The way in which the men form a brotherhood and overcome their fear of death is the proper human response given their experience with nature's undeniable force.