Saturday, June 23, 2012

Take Home Essay: Stephen Crane, The Open Boat

As always, I apologize for any formatting issues. HTML is not condusive to block quotes, and I typically can't be bothered. Blessings, JB J. Broussard
English 344
J. Ladino
Take Home Essay


GLEE! the great storm is over!
Four have recovered the land;
Forty gone down together
Into the boiling sand.

   Ring, for the scant salvation!
         Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
Spinning upon the shoals!

   How they will tell the shipwreck
When winter shakes the door,         
Till the children ask, “But the forty?
Did they come back no more?”

   Then a silence suffuses the story,
And a softness the teller’s eye;
And the children no further question,
         And only the waves reply.

–Emily Dickinson


"When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters."


So ends Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat." Lovely as a forest in flame, it is a stark, terse story spanning fewer than twenty-four hours, gracefully sliding from the first person perspective to the omniscient narrator and back again, the prose wry as a Scotsman, dry as a desert and bare as a tree in winter, and it is the account of Crane's own experience in a ten foot dinghy off the coast of Florida, having survived the shipwreck of the Commodore. He and three others (including the captain) were among the last to leave the sinking ship, and when their dinghy capsized off the coast of Daytona Beach all four men attempted to win the shore. Three were successful. One drowned in water that, had he the strength, he could have walked ashore in.
One of the first rules of writing is to write what you know, and Crane follows this. My contention is that his chief aim in this story is to posit a worldview with an utterly indifferent natural universe. I'll assume, for simplicity's sake, that he was writing what he believed, as well as the necessary assumption that he is the correspondent in the (obviously at least somewhat autobiographical) story. But first, let's look at the text:

"When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no brick and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers."

This is easily one of the most blatant of all of his references to the indifference of nature, and it's pretty self-explanatory: the universe doesn't care about you. You are not essential. Were you to die tonight, the sun would still come up on the morrow. And if this makes you angry, there's nothing you can do about it. Your greatest attempt at blasphemy—for note, you are looking for a temple to desecrate—your greatest attempt at blasphemy, born out of whatever depth of volcanic rage, can do no more to offend indifferent nature than throwing tissue-paper can bring down the sun. It doesn't even help if you wad it up. But the text continues even more starkly:

"Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: 'Yes, but I love myself.'

A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation."

Here, with more religious terminology, prayers are nullified and the supplicant is left wholly alone with the unsympathetic world. "A high cold star." Pathos indeed. Though we are the center of our world, reality and our versions of it do not often converge. The final text that I'll use here is the correspondent's thoughts upon seeing the wind-tower.

"This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."

Flat indifference. Man is of no central importance—no, man is of no importance at all. Nature needs him not. And there is no court of appeal, no anthropomorphic god will answer his prayers: he is alone. And nature is entirely unconcerned. This is the greatest insult that a man can receive: glacial apathy.
So the correspondent's perspective is obviously that of an indifferent nature, but demonstrating this obvious fact is not demonstrating that this is the principle aim, the end-all of the story. But further study makes the centrality of this view clearer. For example, Crane never mentions the ship. We are dropped into the ocean with the correspondent, out of all context. Nor does Crane mention more than a few moments after their salvation. He intentionally flattens the characters: did they get onto the dinghy to save themselves at the expense of other lives? Were they the first off the sinking ship? The last? We don't know. And afterward, did the Captain get another commission? Was the wreck his fault, and did it ruin his career? Did the oiler have a family? At least he's given a name—a singular courtesy in a story rife with anonymity. The story is intentionally abbreviated to the time frame in which the dinghy is sailing to shore. Man at sea at the mercy of nature, and nature doesn't care.
The shipwreck would have been fascinating. The history of the life of the oiler would have deepened the pathos of the situation, would have made him seem more real. The seguĂ© to life after such a near-death experience for the correspondent would have been amazing—Dostoevsky at least gave us a short story when he got his reprieve five minutes before he was to be executed. But not Crane. These are all entirely outside the scope of his interest. He gives us four men in a floating bathtub off the coast of Florida; he gives us the incessant waves and the endless sky. And, for good measure, he throws in a shark or two. We know of little outside of this,—just a scene or two of shoreline. But this is the story he is telling: man vs. nature. And nature does not care. Nature does not care.
The argument could be made that this interpretation is too grand an interpretation, that Crane had no intention of presenting us with a worldview to walk away with. The story was just a narrative without a moral. Which is plausible. I mean, if you are a writer struggling to make a living, surviving a shipwreck might just be the kind of thing worth writing about. It couldn't hurt, and it would probably sell. And of course that is at least one of the primary reasons he was writing (as Dave Barry puts it, "the alternative is gainful employment"). But it doesn't explain why the main view of the main character is "indifferent nature." Moreover, not only is this the main view, but it's the entirely unchallenged view—can you imagine how fascinating a Jack London Sea Wolf-esque dialogue would be here? Further still, this view of the world is also attributed to the other characters:

"A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she (nature) says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

The men in the dingey had not discussed these matters, but each had, no doubt, reflected upon them in silence and according to his mind..."

No doubt.
Also, if Crane had no intention of leaving us with this worldview—this central, unchallenged, universally held worldview—why is he, famed for being niggardly with his prose, suddenly a spendthrift when it comes to this? We are given repeated sections reiterating the same thought from different angles. If Crane was not aiming to leave us with this thought, that "Nature will not pity, nor the red god lend an ear," then why does he? It seems out of character for him.
But, it can be argued, hitting a target you didn't aim for doesn't necessarily mean you didn't hit the one you did aim for. Better yet, you may have had more targets than just the one, and this interpretation of Crane's story—to demonstrate the indifference of nature—may be too limited. It may be that he had a far grander scope in mind. We've demonstrated that pointing pitiless nature out is at least part of his scope—it's too often presented, too unchallenged, too central to be accidental—but what if it's a minor part of his scope? Then the obvious question is: what's the major part?
The most noticeable feature of the story is the thrice-repeated "If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far?" But how is this anything but yet another demonstration of the indifference of nature? Had nature cared at all, it would not have drowned the oiler and left him in water that wouldn't have hit his ankles if he'd had the strength to stand. But it did. Nature did not care. And what other theme will the story support? Nothing political, nothing religious. There's a magnificent section about the brotherhood of men, but it's by no means central. There is no other theme that's as recurrent as the flat incomprehensibility of the situation, explained only by the fact that nothing cares.
The final argument to be made is that the correspondent seems to love nature, and he appends beauty to it, even when it is about to kill him. "There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests." Or:

"Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque... The sun swung steadily up the sky, and they knew it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald-green, streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow."

Lovely indeed. But it makes it no more gentle, no more cautious for the sake of man. A man can love the thing that kills him—it's not uncommon—and it's no proof that the thing loved him. Nature, Crane would argue, is just as indifferent as a bottle of Jack or a pack of cigarettes. So this argument falls flat as well.
So the central theme of this story is that nature is indifferent to these little man-beings, these upright, bifurcated mammals. Man is very small. The world is big, and it doesn't need me, and it doesn't need you. Nature is not, as (pre-Christian) C. S. Lewis asserted, "red in tooth and claw," nor is nature some type of pantheistic benevolence. Nature is, and there's an end on it. This is the argument presented by Stephen Crane.
But why should we care about any of this? What does it matter what Crane thought? Well, what you believe determines how you live. So ask yourself: was he right? We each have our own views on this, but we ought to recognize what has shaped them. As the great medievalist Dorothy Dunnett says through her main character, "We are each our nurses' turn of speech, our sword master's dead men, the courage of our first horse..." Everything in our lives makes up who we are and what we believe, including, now, Stephen Crane, who here makes a tremendously compelling case for the indifference of the world:

"In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea...The welcome of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land's welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave."

Most of recorded human history up through the present disagrees with Crane's thesis; most humans have at least professed to believe in some type of a benevolent force behind nature, whether the Faeren of the Druids or the Christian God of the Bible or any of a host of others, but, I suspect, even most of these people don't like to think about it: it's a nice thing to occupy a Sunday (save Super-bowl Sunday, of course). Dillard, ever potent, agrees:

"On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry set, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

I posit that we prefer to view nature from a house rather than a hill-top, in a coat rather than a coracle. We build very expensive boxes to shut out the world, and seeing stars as you're going to sleep is so rare an occasion that everyone cherishes a memory of it. So it is good for us, every so often, inside our climate controlled little box, with our hot cup of tea, our warm, purring cat, a fire in the fireplace—in a word, our life as we like it, nice and controlled—it is good for us to come across a Stephen Crane with his worldview as inexorable as the waves he describes, disquieting as Donner Pass on a dark night, nihilistic as Nagasaki. It is good for us to notice his worldview. And we ought to know if we agree. We ought to care. We ought to care.
Or we just ought to avoid large bodies of water.

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