Study Guide

The Open Boat Mortality

By Stephen Crane


The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her, though he command for a day or a decade, and this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces, and later a stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it that slashed to and fro at the waves, went low and lower, and down. Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears. (1.6)

It's interesting that the captain begins the story already in mourning. The ship was his responsibility, and it sunk. Now he's responsible for these three members of his crew, and it seems like he's already imagining their deaths as well. He responds with a fascinating mix of apathy and heroism, dejection and resolve. Do you think he's giving any thought to his own death, or just focusing on the others? What evidence is there?

</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)

We can view this scene in a few different lights. The cigars—half-lost, half-saved—can easily be taken as metaphors of the men themselves. We can see them smoking and drinking, and imagine them celebrating their impending rescue, but is there something else? This scene sort of reminds us of a prisoner at the gallows, and a last request—one last taste of life's pleasures before the bitter end? One last fling with this mortal coil?

"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. As for the reflections of the men, there was a great deal of rage in them. (4.11-12)

For the first time, the men look death—their own death—squarely in the face. It seems like they've reached some sort of peace with it, but then you read that last line and see they're just playing tough. Inside, they're absolutely fuming, so angry that they've come to such an unjust end.

</em>During this dismal night, it may be remarked that a man would conclude that it was really the intention of the seven mad gods to drown him, despite the abominable injustice of it. For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural. Other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails, but still— (6.2)

Did you notice what Crane just did there with that last line in, all subtle-like? You're reading along and you feel bad for these guys—they think they're going to die, the universe doesn't care about them, and it really does seem terribly unfair. Boo, universe. But then, right there at the end, he has the men sort of shrug and say, "Well, yeah, I guess this isn't the first time someone died a tragic death, or otherwise lost their life unfairly…but this is me we're talking about! I'm way more important than all those other dumb dead people. If anyone should be dying, it should be them re-dying." Are we being too hard on the poor boatmen? Do you think there's another way to see this quote?

</em>The correspondent plainly saw the soldier. He lay on the sand with his feet out straight and still. While his pale left hand was upon his chest in an attempt to thwart the going of his life, the blood came between his fingers. In the far Algerian distance, a city of low square forms was set against a sky that was faint with the last sunset hues. The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. (6.10)

We've already covered the correspondent's sense of Brotherhood with the French soldier. This passage is a window into the where the correspondent's mind really is. Sure, everyone's mind wanders all day long, but the correspondent's mind cannot be pulled from thoughts of death, even (unpleasant as they may be) down to imagining the gory details of the soldier's demise. Also, notice how he makes a point of imagining the soldier lying on the sand—as in, hot and dry sand. Surely, to someone stuck soaking wet and freezing cold in the ocean, being hot and dry has to sound pretty appealing. Dying or not.

</em>As the boat caroused on the waves, spray occasionally bumped over the side and gave them a fresh soaking, but this had no power to break their repose. The ominous slash of the wind and the water affected them as it would have affected mummies. (6.23)

This passage gives us some conflicting ideas about the men's state of mind. The word "caroused" suggests that the boat is having some sort of party on the waves, and the word "repose" suggests that the men are calm and happy, at ease in their party boat. But then the waves are "ominous," and the verb "slash" rarely means anything calm and tranquil (we've all heard Guns 'n Roses, right?). Crane also describes the men as "mummies." Does he want us to think of the men as already dead? Or undead? Or just wrapped up in their own problems, and unbothered by the waves? It's a mist-ery. 

It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea. (7.3)

The men look back on their lives, regret their mistakes and misdeeds, and wish they could turn back time. For the first time, they see that there really is such thing as right and wrong, and that actions really do have consequences. The term "new ignorance of the grave-edge" is a little confusing, since it seems like being on the verge of death has actually given the men <em>more</em> awareness, not less. Maybe it refers instead to the realization of the universe's "ignorance"—that is, the fact that it's <em>ignoring</em> them. Let's hope the universe just left its phone on silent. 

As for himself, he was too tired to grapple fundamentally with the fact. He tried to coerce his mind into thinking of it, but the mind was dominated at this time by the muscles, and the muscles said they did not care. It merely occurred to him that if he should drown it would be a shame. (7.8)

The correspondent is finally unable to continue struggling against what seems like his inevitable death. Looking deeper, though, there's an interesting illustration here of the split between mind and body. His mind wants to keep on struggling, but his body just refuses. Crane claims that the muscles somehow take over the brain and convince it to stop struggling. It's like the correspondent's body is a mutant zombie parasite that's eaten his brain and his will to fight. 

He thought: "I am going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?" Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature. (7.28)

Just when we think it's the end of everything, the mind has makes a triumphant comeback. We might think of this line as the "death throes," the thoughts we have as we struggle to imagine that in a few moments we may cease to exist. Not only does the mind have trouble imagining itself not existing, but it has a hard time understanding that the universe will go on existing after it is gone. Get it? It's like the tree falling in the forest. When you're there in the forest, it makes a sound, obviously—but if you disappear, does it still? Does it even exist anymore? These aren't really the thoughts we'd expect to be thinking if we were caught in a riptide trying to swim to shore, but what can we say, our correspondent is a special dude.

In his struggle to reach the captain and the boat, he reflected that when one gets properly wearied, drowning must really be a comfortable arrangement, a cessation of hostilities accompanied by a large degree of relief, and he was glad of it, for the main thing in his mind for some moments had been horror of the temporary agony. He did not wish to be hurt. (7.30)

The correspondent's mental wheels keep spinning. Now he almost welcomes death, if only so he can finally stop worrying about it. It's like stressing and studying like crazy for a big test you have coming up, when at some point the thought occurs to you, "You know, even if I don't do well, I just want it to be over with." At this point, the correspondent is simply tired of struggling and worrying about struggling. Whatever happens, just make it easy and get it over with. Luckily for him, something does happen quickly and easily: his life is saved.

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