Study Guide

The Open Boat Brotherhood

By Stephen Crane

Brotherhood

The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dingy, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland. (2.10)

The men are in the boat and seagulls sit in the waves surrounding them. If this were the Man and the Natural World section, we might point out the happy relationship between the birds and the tumultuous sea, and argue that the men in the boat are a little jealous of their happy calm (not to mention that, as birds, they easily and naturally float in water). But it isn't, so instead we'll point out that this is the first time Crane mentions community, or the idea that things are easier and nicer when one has other people to work with and rely on.

</em>It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingey. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. (3.1)

Man, this paragraph is so sweet that it almost makes us cry. We love how the feeling of brotherhood is described as "warm[ing]" to the men, and how they're too shy or macho to talk about it. We love how the men are both united in their devotion to their captain, and united in their equality as a team. We also <em>really</em> love how this feeling overwhelms the correspondent's lifelong cynicism, making him feel this might be the best experience of his life. Who would've thought? 

He mentioned to the boat in general how the amusement of rowing struck him, and the weary-faced oiler smiled in full sympathy. Previously to the foundering, by the way, the oiler had worked double-watch in the engine-room of the ship. (3.8)

The correspondent likes to talk. We wouldn't go so far as to call him a chatterbox, but he is definitely looking to make conversation more often than the others. Even his "name," the correspondent, makes us think that he's a bookish type, and maybe not the toughest guy in the world. The oiler, on the other hand, sounds very tough indeed. Even his name alone gives us the feeling he's big, strong, and gruff. Oh, and "by the way," he'd been working his butt off on the ship before it sunk, and hasn't slept in days. Nevertheless, he connects with what the correspondent says to him, and gives him a genuine smile, as if to say, "I was just thinking the exact same thing."

</em>The correspondent thought that he had been drenched to the skin, but happening to feel in the top pocket of his coat, he found therein eight cigars. Four of them were soaked with sea-water; four were perfectly scatheless. After a search, somebody produced three dry matches, and thereupon the four waifs rode in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water. (3.16)

What do you want first—the good news or the bad news? The good news is that the correspondent found some dry cigars in his coat. The bad news: only half of them survived the journey, and a fifty percent chance of survival doesn't bode well for the men in the boat. At least they share them together—can't you just imagine them carefully passing around the three matches and lighting the four cigars, then, most importantly, sharing a celebratory gulp of water. Ahhh, refreshing. 

</em>"If we don't all get ashore—" said the captain. "If we don't all get ashore, I suppose you fellows know where to send news of my finish?"

They then briefly exchanged some addresses and admonitions. (4.11-12)

By this point, things aren't looking too good. Note how the captain repeats the first half of his sentence, as if he gets choked up a bit at first, and clears his throat to continue. This is a heavy moment. As they exchange information about how to contact their loved ones, it goes without saying they'd each be picturing their fathers, their daughters, their wives. We are left to imagine for ourselves what sort of "admonitions" they exchange. 

</em>"What do you think of those life-saving people? Ain't they peaches?"

"Funny they haven't seen us."

"Maybe they think we're out here for sport! Maybe they think we're fishin'. Maybe they think we're damned fools." (4.18-20)

Here's a great illustration of how this feeling of brotherhood is not exactly universal. The affection and devotion the men feel toward each other doesn't extend toward anyone else. So when they spy people on the beach, they go from a neutral feeling of "Hey, those people can rescue us" to outright hostility: "Hey, why the heck aren't those people rescuing us"? 

The presence of this biding thing did not affect the man with the same horror that it would if he had been a picnicker. He simply looked at the sea dully and swore in an undertone.

Nevertheless, it is true that he did not wish to be alone with the thing. He wished one of his companions to awaken by chance and keep him company with it. But the captain hung motionless over the water-jar and the oiler and the cook in the bottom of the boat were plunged in slumber. (5.22-23)

Cue the Jaws theme. It's the correspondent turn with the oars when a very unwelcome shark comes circling around the boat. The correspondent's (relative) calm is certainly noteworthy—things are already so bad that he really doesn't seem too surprised by the shark. What makes this quote significant, though, is how he emphasizes that he wishes he had some company—he wouldn't find the shark so scary if only someone else were there to share the experience with him. What does that tell us about the correspondent? And what about brotherhood?

In his childhood, the correspondent had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded the fact as important. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil's point. 

Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine. [. . .] He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers. (6.8-10)

This is another great example of the correspondent's growing sense of connection to his fellow human being. We've already been told that he had been taught to be "cynical of men" (3.1). Here he compares a man's death to breaking a pencil point. No, not even that, he considered it less significant than breaking a pencil point. That is some serious cynicism. But now he totally cares about the dying soldier. What's changed? It sounds to us like he now feels a connection with the soldier, and can not only sympathize, but also empathize with his situation and his suffering.

At last there was a short conversation.

"Billie. . . . Billie, will you spell me?"

"Sure," said the oiler. (6.26-28)

We've already addressed how much the correspondent appreciates communication, but this is another good one. The relief suggested by the words "at last," it's almost like the correspondent is nourished by the conversation, like he's taking a long drink of water. Of course, there's the strong possibility that Crane is being entirely ironic here, lampooning the idea that a four-word question and a one-word answer could possibly be considered "conversation." What do you think?

Presently he saw a man running along the shore. He was undressing with most remarkable speed. Coat, trousers, shirt, everything flew magically off him. [. . .] Then he saw the man who had been running and undressing, and undressing and running, come bounding into the water. He dragged ashore the cook, and then waded toward the captain, but the captain waved him away, and sent him to the correspondent. He was naked, naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint. (7.31, 35)

Remember earlier when we talked about how the feeling of brotherhood didn't extend past the borders of the boat? Well here's where that ends. Fittingly, it happens once the boat is tossed, and the men are swimming toward shore. A man appears on shore, and immediately runs to help rescue them. Trust us, it's no accident that he takes off all his clothes and runs to them as pure and naked as a newborn babe. As if there were any doubt about this, Crane helpfully describes a halo appearing over his head. So what do you think this means? Do the men now feel brotherly toward all humanity? Or just the ones who help them out?

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