Study Guide

The Open Boat Man and the Natural World

By Stephen Crane

Man and the Natural World

There's little doubt the relationship between humans and the world around them is central to the "The Open Boat." The story starts with the line, "None of them knew the color of the sky," and the last sentence describes "the sound of the great sea's voice" (1.1, 7.39), for Pete's sake. We're pretty sure Crane is trying to tell us something.   

Man's relationship to nature might just be the most crucial element of the text. The men go from thinking that the universe is intentionally making them suffer to thinking it's actually completely indifferent. Talk about a 180-degree turn. After coming to this realization and surviving their time at sea, the men ultimately see themselves as "interpreters" for nature, whatever that means (7.39). But where does that leave them? What changes when you go from thinking things happen for a reason to thinking it's all one big bowl of random soup? And why would this change allow the men to ultimately be "interpreters" for nature (7.39)? Let's wade in and see for ourselves—we hope you brought your swimming suit, because it's about to get a little beachy in here.  

Questions About Man and the Natural World

  1. At the end of the story, the men hear the voice of the ocean, and they feel they can serve as "interpreters" (7.39). Why? What about their relationship to the natural world has changed to enable them to translate (or transmit) its message?
  2. Is there something important (you know, like, symbolic) about how wobbly everything is out there on the ocean? They're constantly rocking around in the waves and it's really tricky trying to move around in the boat—what does this suggest about life on earth and humanity's relationship with nature?
  3. Do you notice a connection between the physical changes in the ocean (strength of the waves, etc.) and the thoughts the men have about nature's injustice?
  4. If the correspondent represents the everyday man and the ocean represents God, then how should we interpret the injured captain? He seems to have some special knowledge of the ocean, but he's (obviously) a human being. Can we think of him as some sort of intermediary?

Chew on This

Looks like we're out here on our own. Once the men realize the tourists are not going to help them, they begin to see them less as an extension of their brotherhood and more as just another aspect of the merciless natural world.

We're all in this together. Crane implies that teamwork and cooperation are essential on the boat. That if they hadn't decided to work together, and divide labor according to their abilities, they never would have stood a chance.

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