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In Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat, Crane uses a personal experience that happened to him to pattern this short story after. Crane’s writing style consists of a very prominent use of naturalism. Naturalism is simply the struggle between nature and man, with nature being the most powerful force. In The Open Boat, Crane writes about a sinking boat, therefore placing his characters at nature’s mercy. The story line for The Open Boat is based on a true experience Crane had while smuggling guns to Cuba, where he found himself in a dinghy with three other men. Crane uses naturalism to personify nature and to reveal his personal feelings of overwhelming insignificance in the face of nature, and effectively uses color to symbolize their journey.
One characteristic of naturalism is the use of personification of nature. Crane humanizes nature many times throughout his story. One example of this is description of the horizon in the opening paragraph (page 859). Crane describes the horizon as almost a living breathing being by stating that it narrowed and widened, dipping and rising. This view of the horizon can be seen as a threat to the passengers. The four men envision the horizon as human-like because it has become their enemy. Later Crane describes the waves as snarling (page 859), giving the waves an animalistic persona. The characters probably felt as if the waves were going to attack and devour them. Another example of
Crane’s literary use of naturalism by personifying nature occurs when the men spot a group of people on the shore and Crane writes that the shore swallows the potential rescuers (page 867). Crane here is showing the power of nature, by its ability to take away the hopes of a rescue. The people on shore were the men’s only hope, and when the night swallowed them, despaired loomed.
Another quality of naturalism is the use of colors as symbolism. Crane used colors from the beginning to the end, serving as a timeline where each color represents a different phase of the journey. Crane begins the short story by stating that none of them knew the color of the sky but they all knew the color of the sea (page 858). Here Crane places emphasis on the men not paying attention to the sky, only to the sea. The boat is sinking and the men could only try to salvage their lives. Another example of color as a literary tool comes when Crane writes that the faces of the men must have been gray (page 860). The color gray is synonymous with despair and a dreary feeling of hope. The men thought at this point that they would probably die. Then the color scheme shifts to black as Crane writes that the lighthouse cast a long black shadow into the sea (page 862). Although the sight of land should be a bright ray of hope, Crane writes that it is a long dark shadow, possibly telling the reader that something bad is going to happen, fulfilled by the death of the oiler. A little later, Crane again uses black when describing the shore (page 863). First the passengers see it a black line then it becomes white. Here obviously Crane is making visible the thoughts of the men. Ordinarily black is the color
of doom, but with black turning into white, there is truly some hope of rescue for the men. Shortly after the men regain some hope of rescue, Crane again describes the sky as gray desolate east (page 865). Here the men are loosing hope of being rescued after surviving on the open seas this long. After nightfall, the men see the setting golden sun and a bluish gleem (page 868). These two lights are all that the men can see and all that they can rest their despair on. The only hope that the men have is these two lights.
The last topic of naturalism produced by Crane is the overwhelming power of nature over man. This can be seen in the theme of The Open Boat, where four characters are faced with all nature’s fury. Crane writes that after successfully surmounting one wave the crew had to face another (page 859). This alludes to the fact that when one overcomes an obstacle, nature has put another one in the way to cause a stumble. Crane saw nature as a very powerful thing, not to be overcome. Another example would be the fact that the passengers felt childish and stupid (page 860). The rough sea had toyed with their emotions. Upon seeing the lighthouse, the men had to remind themselves that they were indeed men, and had certain duties and responsibilities. The all-powerful sea had previously taken this train of thought away from them. Crane also uses seagulls to remind the men how much they are under the power of nature (page 861). The men envied the seagulls freedom of flight and their seemingly mastery of the environment.
The bird’s effortless flight also reminded the crew of a lost sense of comfort. Later in the story, Crane vents his frustration about the power of nature and his lack of trust in God
when he writes, why in the name of the seven mad gods, would they let me come this far only to drown (page 864). Once again Crane is recognizing the fact that he is only a man in natures cruel and cold world. The correspondent does not understand why he is being kept alive and played with only to be eventually drowned at sea.
Crane depicts the life of a naturalist to perfection in The Open Boat. He is incredibly inferior to nature. He portrays nature’s indifference to insignificant human beings by strong and clear words. For sure Crane felt that nature was against him, due to his own misadventure at sea. The men on the dinghy all worked together as a team to defeat nature. They all shared the work, and supported each other to the end. With nature taunting them, it is amazing that only one passenger died and that the rest survived to see another day. Crane masterfully uses the literary device of naturalism to its fullest by personifying nature, using color to symbolize the crews journey, and including his own insignificance in the face of nature.
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