Study Guide

The Open Boat Plot Analysis

By Stephen Crane

Plot Analysis

Initial Situation

Four Dudes in a Boat

Four guys are in a lifeboat off the coast of Florida. Their ship sank, and they're pretty bummed about the whole ordeal. As you might imagine, the sea is really violent, and they're having a hard time keeping the lifeboat afloat amidst the massive waves. The men are the ship's captain, cook, oiler, and a correspondent. The captain is injured and the cook is jolly. The oiler is strong and the correspondent is thoughtful, and may (or may not) also be our narrator. They feel a strong sense of brotherhood, being together on this boat.

Conflict

Man vs. Wild!

Let's get one thing straight—the ocean can be really rough. We're talking waves that are taller than apartment buildings. (The wind isn't so awesome either, and what's more, the birds are also pretty annoying.) So, four guys against the ocean. It's sort of like that TV show Man vs. Wild, but instead of a cheerful, handsome guy eating bugs and finding his way out the wilderness way too easily, we're introduced to four guys who are soaking wet and miserable, and find themselves trapped in a pretty hopeless situation. They're trying to get to land and try to aim themselves toward a lighthouse, or a life-saving station, or a house of refuge, or something, anything, as long as it's on solid ground. This should be easy enough, right? The cook claims there's a life-saving station close by, and when they spot a lighthouse on the horizon, they row in that direction. But they feel like the sea is actively working against them, being intentionally cruel. It's a formidable opponent. It is the ocean, after all.

Complication:

Don't Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch! (No, seriously, don't. You might be disappointed.)

After rowing through treacherous waters in a boat that's about the same size as a bathtub, the four men reach a nearby lighthouse. Hallelujah! They have no doubt they're going to be saved—the lighthouse is right there in front of them, and the life-saving crew should come rescue them any moment.

The correspondent finds some (miraculously) dry cigars in his coat, and they smoke them in celebration. They even drink some of their precious water. And they wait…and wait…and wait…but nothing happens. They finally admit that no one is coming. They think it's too dangerous to try to reach the shore, and cannot waste any more energy fighting the waves in the shallow water, so they row back out to sea. Boy are they disappointed.

This is an important part of the story, because it's where a bad situation goes from hopeful to worse. It serves as a pretty big test to the four men in the boat, the first of many they will face, and forces them to confront their own mortality and understanding of the world in a different way than before.

Climax

A Flash of Insight, and a Taste of the Absurd

The men start to wonder if maybe the sea isn't out to get them after all. In fact, maybe the sea doesn't care about them in the least; maybe it doesn't even know they exist. Maybe there's no reason for anything, and the universe is just a steaming pile of random chaos. Is your head spinning yet? Because ours are.

For a moment, they resign themselves to death, but then, wait—what's that on shore? It's a man walking on the beach, and he's waving his jacket in the air. Once again, the men believe they'll be saved. Yee-haw!

Another guy even shows up, and he's…on a bicycle? And who are all those people? And what's with that bus? Oh, no, it's not a rescue team at all. It's a beach resort. The people on the beach are tourists.

That glimmer of hope back there? That was nothing but a flash of lightning—gone in a split second.

As far as climaxes go, this is a pretty sarcastic one. It starts out so promising and exciting, and ends up being a ridiculous and farcical scene. It's like biting into what you think is going to be a delicious piece of fruit, only to realize it's made of plastic. Yep, that's definitely happened to us.

Suspense

Darkness, Sharks, and Death

Night falls. They row back out to deeper water. The oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing through the night. While the oiler sleeps and the correspondent rows, a huge shark shows up and swims in circles around the boat. What a bully.

In case the correspondent thought things couldn't get any worse, well, he was wrong. The thing is—he's so exhausted that the shark itself doesn't really bother him too much. He just wishes someone else were awake, for the company.

Denouement

Every Man for Himself! (Sort of.)

After a long and dark night, the sun finally rises and a new day arrives. There's a lot of action in this part of the story, so play close attention—it's not a typical denouement, since everything turns around so completely. Here's how it all goes down:

The captain decides that no one is coming to save them, so they should quit lollygagging around and try to make it to shore on their own while they still have the strength to swim. The men agree. They row toward shore, and—splash—a wave throws them from the boat. The oiler somehow swims powerfully toward shore, while the captain clings to the half-sunken boat. The cook and correspondent have life-preservers and float on them. Someone shows up on shore and comes to help them. The oiler drowns; the other three men survive.

Conclusion

In Memoriam

Suddenly, a whole darn parade of people shows up at the beach carrying blankets, coffee, and all sorts of other wonderful things. The oiler's body is hauled up onto shore. That night, the surviving men hear the sounds of the ocean, and feel like they can serve as interpreters.

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