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Symbolism allows writers to suggest their ideas within a piece of literature. This is found in most types of writing. Stephen Crane expresses this in his short story, The Open Boat. Through symbolism and allegory, it is demonstrated that humans live in a universe that is unconcerned with them. The characters in the story come face to face with this indifference and are nearly overcome by Nature’s lack of concern. This is established in the opening scenes, the “seven mad gods” and in the realization of the dying soldier.

The descriptions that Crane uses in the opening scenes illustrate nature’s lack of concern for their tragedy. He discusses the waves in the ocean that continually roll and crest. The waves are problems or situations that are unavoidable; moreover, the “waves” continue to flow one after another towards the poor rowers. Also, the “birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dingey” because the birds were indifferent towards the sailors’ situation. They were sitting happily as if nothing was going on around them. The sailors were envious of this because they were forced to confront nature’s trials. The sun continues to rise and set daily, maintaining this routine regardless of what occurs in the world. The shore is also “lonely and indifferent.” This indifference causes the men to feel a certain isolation from nature.

The men feel as if fate (the “seven mad gods”) controls their destinies. Their thoughts are given: “If I am going to be drowned…why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea…If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this…” However, the men realize that there is no “fate” and that there is no purpose for where they are. There is also a shark that is “playing around” near the boat; curiously, it does not seem to even acknowledge their presence. The realization that they have no purpose brings them to the brink of despair. In the beginning of the story, the author describes the “dawn of seven turned faces.” These are faces of the “seven mad gods” who are apathetic towards the men; moreover, they are part of nature.

Towards the end of the story, the correspondent recalls a childhood verse that helps him to understand nature’s indifference. Through their experience together, the four men realize that all they have is each other. The correspondent feels sympathy suddenly for a dying soldier, one who does not even exist, “The correspondent, …dreaming…was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.” Being in the current situation, the correspondent finally understands the tragedy of the dying soldier. He realizes what it is like to be alone in a cruel world and more importantly, he realizes he does not have to be alone. When he first heard the story, he was also indifferent towards the soldier, just as nature is indifferent towards the rest of the world. He now understands what it is to be human.

Crane opens a view of reality that first seems bitter, but in the end, stands as testament to the human spirit. The Universe will never bend to the will of man; however, man will always have each other. When man contemplates “a high cold star on a winter’s night,” man will not feel alone, for he can always turn to another person.


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