The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

In The Open Boat by Stephen Crane we have the theme of optimism, desperation, determination, disappointment, acceptance and gratitude. The story itself is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and the reader realises after reading the story that Crane may be exploring the theme of optimism. Though some of the men in the boat feel withdrawn and anxious while they are in the boat overall there mood is one of optimism. It is as though they have no option but to be optimistic and hope that they will either reach land or be saved by another boat. It is also noticeable that none of the men argue with each other. There is no conflict between them and they are in unison when it comes to their goal of reaching land. This may be important as it suggests that the men are not allowing themselves to be disheartened by the circumstances they find themselves in. Rather they remain determined in their goal despite how desperate their situation may be. It might also be worth nothing that there is an unspoken friendship between all four men with each man respecting the rule of authority (the captain). Something which may have actually helped to ensure that most of the men survived.

All four men are also greeted with disappointment when they see the man on the beach who is aimlessly waving his coat. Rather than this being a sign that help is on the way. The man on the beach is merely waving to all four men in the boat without understanding that they are in need of help. Despite this it is noticeable that the men’s spirits are not dampened and they continue to do all they can to ensure their safety in the boat. If anything not only do the men show a great deal of determination to reach land but they are resilient too. Though they might scorn the actions of the man waving the coat. They do not give up on their goal despite being disappointed. There is also no sign that any of the men despite being confined in such a small space do anything but accept the position they find themselves in. Most likely each man knows that they have just one option and that is to try and persevere. To unite as one and continue to the best of their abilities.

It is also possible that each individual character in the story represents a part of society. The captain for example may represent those who are in power or who lead other men. The cook would represent a follower. One who takes orders from others. While the oiler would represent hard-working people whose efforts are needed for society to function. The correspondent might represent those who are more inclined to think or observe things in life. The attitudes of all four men also change at times during the story. At the beginning of the story all four men are confused. As the story progresses all four begin to feel hopeful when they see the lighthouse and at the end of the story there is a sense that the correspondent has changed and is grateful to have survived. The fact that Billie (oiler) dies might also be important as he is the one who has put in the most effort when it comes to trying to reach shore. It is possible that Crane is suggesting that nature is unfair and that the strongest do not necessarily always survive. Regardless of the efforts they might put in nature is indifferent to man’s plight.

The end of the story is also interesting as through the correspondent’s eyes the reader gets an insight into the sense of relief and gratitude that the correspondent feels. He is grateful that his ordeal is over and that he has reached the beach. As too have the other men. There is also a sense that the correspondent has a deeper respect and understanding of the sea. Having experienced the power that the sea can wield over a man. It is also likely that none of the men will ever forget what they have went through and how fortunate they may have been. The reader aware that all four men have been driven by a desire to live and maintained an optimism when others would falter. The captain, cook and the correspondent have survived. Despite the odds of doing so being stacked against them due to the harsh conditions that they had to endure. If anything Crane may be exploring the power of the human spirit and how strong an individual’s desire to live through or survive a situation can be. He may also be suggesting that in times of doubt or need an individual is reliant on others. Just as each man on the boat was reliant on the other three men.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Open Boat by Stephen Crane." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 2 Aug. 2018. Web.


  • Not to be a bother, but…

    “If anything not only do the man show a great deal of determination to reach land but they are resilient too.”

    Shouldn’t that say men*

  • I was wondering why the Oiler kept on saying “funny they don’t see us” ?

  • Wasn’t it the cook who kept saying “funny they don’t see us?”

  • Can the guy in the island waving his shirt also be in desperate need of help. He could have experienced the same plight of these 4 people and be stranded on the island because if someone is waving his shirt at the boat all the time on the other side he may himself need help.

  • Thanks Dermot for the analysis!

  • how does the oiler’s death impact the story

  • Which character do you find most admirable? What are the qualities that make you admire him?

  • Any essay questions set on this short story ; please share. Thank you very much.

  • How does Crane vividly convey the men’s thoughts and feelings in part III, in the

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      One way is by forging the idea of a friendship between the men. Also the fact that the men see land before them is an optimist sign and each man’s thoughts are positive and in such Crane manages to delve deeper into each man’s mind. When a person’s thoughts are positive they are more free flowing.

  • Personally, I thought the ‘optimism’ in it was perhaps a mark of the futility of the situation. Although the correspondent begins by thinking that nature is harsh or unfair, he comes to realize that nature is is ‘indifferent’ and they are cosmically unimportant. Given that the ‘open boat’ is a microcosm of humanity in general, perhaps, then the ‘subtle brotherhood’ formed is not only a show of our want to make meaning out of nothing, but also, as you say, the power of community. In the end, there is no meaning to it all, but men on the boat have defined their own out of their experience. Maybe this is profound, maybe it’s just futile and sad – after all, the brotherhood fails in the end because the oiler dies. Interested to see what you think!

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