Written on January 11th, 2007 by Shawn Anthony
Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat is the story of four ship-wrecked men struggling for survival against forces well beyond their control. Their ship sunk, the cook, the correspondent, the oiler and the captain are forced to float their lifeboat close enough to land to see it, but far enough away to escape the sharp, rough, crushing and ice-cold waves and surf guarding it. It is an awful and cosmically-ironic situation. The four men, sea-weary from the traumatic ordeal experienced thus far, are forced to endure their own awareness of the potential lose-lose situation they now find themselves in, unfortunately. They are forced to float in the deep but gentle waters of the sea to sustain their own slow death, while all the while holding in full view their ultimate but seemingly unreachable goal for survival - dry land. Should they attempt to make it to land, their lifeboat would surely be destroyed and they would be ferociously tossed into the water. There they might suffer hypothermia, death by drowning or both! None of the men have the strength required to make a swim of such great distance. So, the cook, correspondent, oiler and captain spend two long, sleepless, cold and helpless nights thinking about it in the lifeboat.
The cook, correspondent, oiler and captain spend their two nights floating in the deeper parts of the sea rowing, sleeping, freezing and trying to figure out what exactly the people on the shore are doing. Yes, it seems people from the shore can see them, floating there, dying, out in the deep, gentle parts of the sea. One person waves a coat from shore at the four men. The coat waving proves to be an act which draws serious criticism from one of the four in the lifeboat, who says: “But look at him! He just stands there and keeps his coat revolving like a wheel. That ass!” The four men thought, for a fleeting moment, that a lifeboat was finally being launched from the shore in a sensible rescue attempt. It proved to be not be a lifeboat, but an Ominbus. It was a big hotel Omnibus, not a rescue boat. Another man standing on the shore, starring at the four men floating in the deep of the sea, was joined by another man who was riding a bicycle. They both waved at the cook, correspondent, oiler and captain, from the shore. No rescue boat was ever sent.
A thought is repeated a few times throughout Crane’s story. It is a thought repeated almost word for word at each uttered occasion. It makes a great deal of sense too, given the dire and seemingly hopeless situation in which the four men seem to be trapped. Remember, the four men are forced to float far enough away from their salvation (land) to render it unreachable, yet they still can see it, or risk being crushed and surely drowned by the harsh waves existing between them and their precious terra firma. It is quite a choice. The men summarize the situation with the following repetition:
“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 and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”
What a great question! It is one with which all of us should - and will - wrestle with at some point in this life.
The cook, correspondent, oiler and captain, after two nights of floating in full view of people who happily remain on the shore, and send no rescue boat, decide to test fate, before they become even weaker, and charge the crushing and cold waves in an attempt to reach shore. The captain warns the men of the impending tossing they are bound to receive. The lifeboat will be destroyed, he warns, and they will end up in water far from the shore. Swim they will. Swim they did. The lifeboat was crushed and sunk, just as the captain predicted. The men were tossed. They all made it to shore, save the strongest and most capable in their midst - the oiler. Their strongest drowned before reaching shore. Cosmic irony? Indeed. Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat is cosmic irony, epitomized.