The story opens in the month of January with the oft-quoted line: “None of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane 57). “Them” means four individuals who are aboard a dinghy, having been shipwrecked: the captain with an injured arm, the correspondent, the cook, and Billie, the oiler. Except for Billie, the rest of the characters remain unnamed. The oiler and the correspondent row the dinghy, while the captain provides directions and the cook bails water out of the boat.
The captain instructs the men to keep the boat heading more to the south. The waves are tumultuous, often dunking the boat with water. Understandably, the men are occupied as they contemplate their possibly dire fate. The cook and the correspondent engage in an argument with regard to the difference between a lifesaving station and a house of refuge, from which they could seek aid. The cook believes such an establishment is located at Mosquito Inlet Light, though the oiler points out that they have not yet reached this place.
The men find it difficult to communicate with one another, since they are unwilling to sound foolishly optimistic, but also are unhappy to make dire predictions. The captain assures them that they will reach the shore eventually. Seagulls fly close to the boat, “uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny, and the men hooted angrily at them, telling them to be gone” (Crane 60). One bird lurks very closely, and the captain must be careful to wave it away gently for fear of disturbing the dinghy’s precarious position. In the far distance, the men finally glimpse the lighthouse.
Though the men do not communicate openly, they share a “subtle brotherhood” (Crane 61). The captain uses his overcoat as a sail so that the correspondent and the oiler can rest. The lighthouse becomes more easily visible, and the cook surmises that they are opposite New Smyrna. He also thinks that the lighthouse has been abandoned. The correspondent and Billie are quite tired, since they have been the primary rowers throughout the ordeal. The captain warns them to save their strength because they will at some point have to swim to shore.
Whereas Maggie presents a fairly gritty and realistic view of a poverty-stricken life, “The Open Boat” adopts a more impressionistic tone. Furthermore, this short story addresses broader themes of man’s existential situation and relationship to nature. The opening line of the story indicates the existential disembodiment experienced by the shipwreck survivors. They are so consumed by their predicament that they are unaware of something so apparent as the sky’s color.
In addition, by not often using their names (and referring to them as their professions instead), Crane expands the scope of the story. The reader can more closely identify with the four men. Their obscure naming renders them more anonymous and therefore relatable and generalized. As a result, the correspondent’s later musings about man’s plight and significant more directly engage the reader.
A key theme in “The Open Boat” is misinterpretation or misconception. The men do not communicate with each other that extensively, but they do entertain various misconceptions. For example, the cook and the correspondent have differing notions of the location of the nearest station that could launch a rescue mission; both are incorrect. Later in the story, the correspondent believes everyone is asleep in the boat, but the captain is in fact awake, just silent. Similarly, the men believe they are to be rescued, but the people on the shore who see them simply think they are a fishing boat and not in any danger.
The narrative style of “The Open Boat” shifts throughout the story. The narrator follows most closely the thoughts of the correspondent in third-person narrative, which is logical, given that Crane himself was the “correspondent” in the real-life incident that inspired this story. Occasionally, however, the narrator uses a second-person perspective referring to himself: “A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one way you discover that there is another behind it...” (Crane 58). Again, this narrative style draws in the reader so that he or she becomes better engaged in the survivors’ predicament.
The seagulls that the men encounter at sea are also a significant symbol. To the men, they appear to be “somehow gruesome and ominous” (Crane 60). This perception of the birds is accurate, as they represent human frailty and nature’s indifference to it. The bird attempts to land on the captain’s head, as if he were an inanimate object instead of a live human being. Due to the precarious position of the dinghy, the captain cannot assert himself and knock the bird away. This scene further demonstrates that the men are subject to nature’s whim and can exert little control over their situation.
At the beginning of the third section, Crane openly discusses another significant theme in the story: companionship. “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas.... there was this comradeship, that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life” (61). Despite their dire prospects, or perhaps especially because of their common, dire situation, the men generally manage to maintain solidarity. In spite of nature’s seeming indifference, man is a social being who seeks companionship, understanding, and warmth in relationships.
As they approach the lighthouse, the men see no signals. They also realize that other boats like theirs (most likely from the same shipwreck) must not have arrived at the shore, since rescuers are not searching for them. The men repeat amongst themselves: “Funny they don’t see us” (Crane 64). However, the refrain becomes less musing and more hopeless, as it becomes clear to the shipwrecked men that they are not about to be saved.
Though the lighthouse looms close, the tide prevents the men from floating close enough to jump out and swim. They are forced to return to the open sea. The arduous rowing continues, with only the oiler and the correspondent taking turns. Furthermore, the conditions on the boat are extremely uncomfortable, with frigid water constantly seeping in.
Suddenly, the shipwrecked companions realize that there is a man on shore who has seen them and is waving. He is soon joined by another man, then a large vehicle—an omnibus. The people on the shore wave enthusiastically to the men in the dinghy, and the men struggle to understand their meaning. One wonders if the people are signaling them to go in a certain direction. The four cannot understand that the people on the shore are not actually starting a rescue mission.
The evening darkens, and the cook grows sleepy. He asks the oiler what kind of pie he prefers. However, the oiler and correspondent want to dispel thoughts of food, as this will only highlight the danger and discomfort of their circumstances. The cook and the captain sleep, while the oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing throughout the night. During his turn, the correspondent confirms with the captain that he should continue heading north.
By the time night falls, the cook and the oiler are both asleep. The correspondent is unsure if the captain is also asleep, but he feels very lonely. He spots the fin of a shark lurking around the boat. The correspondent wishes that someone else were awake to witness the shark with him, to no avail.
Left alone to his thoughts, the correspondent contemplates his status in the world: “During this dismal night, it may be remarked that a man would conclude that it was really the intention of the seven mad gods to drown him, despite the abominable injustice of it” (Crane 71). The correspondent suddenly remembers an old poem he had once learned, describing a dying soldier in Algiers. Though the poem had not previously touched him, the correspondent “plainly saw the soldier ... was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers” (Crane 72).
The captain sits up, confirming that he has in fact been awake and did see the shark. The correspondent trades places with Billie in order to rest for a while. Then, they resume taking turns at the oars. At one point, both the oiler and the correspondent are able to rest while the cook mans the dinghy.
The correspondent falls asleep, but when he awakens, “the sea and the sky were each of the gray hue of the dawning” (Crane 73). The captain decides that even with rescuers waiting on shore to receive them, the men will have to attempt to swim to safety. He also offers them guidance with regard to jumping out of the dinghy safely. Then, the oiler takes the oars and begins the dinghy’s journey toward the shore.
Harsh waves crash against the dinghy. “The tumbling, boiling flood of white water caught the boat and whirled it almost perpendicular” (Crane 75). Finally, one immense wave topples all of the men out of the dinghy.
The correspondent is surprised at how cold the water is, given that they are off the coast of Florida. “The coldness of the water was sad; it was tragic” (Crane 75). He is aware that the oiler is able to swim ahead toward the shore. The captain, due to his injured arm, remains by the dinghy, holding on with his good arm. Meanwhile, “the cook’s great white and corked back bulged out of the water” (Crane 75). Taking a reasonable pace, the correspondent swims toward the shore.
From the dinghy, the captain shouts advice to the cook. He instructs the cook to turn onto his back and use an oar to reach the shore. The dinghy passes by the correspondent, still riding the waves wildly, and the correspondent marvels at the captain’s ability to hang on to it. The correspondent becomes embroiled in a wild current that prevents his progress to safety. The captain, clinging to the dinghy ahead, calls out to him in an effort to help.
The correspondent sees a man running down the shore, quickly stripping off his clothes as he runs. Suddenly, a great wave flings the correspondent to safety. However, he is so weakened that he can hardly stand. Meanwhile, the rescuer from the shore helps the cook to safety. The naked rescuer approaches the captain, who directs him instead to the correspondent.
The correspondent thanks the rescuer, as soon as he reaches land. However, the rescuer notices another figure in shallow water, lying face down. Billie the oiler has not survived, even though he was swimming ahead when they first went overboard. The correspondent becomes confused and only realizes that suddenly, many people are on the beach to offer their assistance to the survivors. “[B]ut 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” (Crane 77).
Repetition plays a key role in “The Open Boat.” This technique seems to lengthen the men’s journey, providing the reader with a more vivid impression of the despair and hopelessness they feel. When discussing people on the coast, the men repeat several times, “Funny they don’t see us” (Crane 64). Repetition in this context suggests that the men, despite their efforts, do not make progress.
A more significant repetition throughout the story is: “‘If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned” (Crane 64). This line reinforces their sense of danger and their fear of what might happen next. The entire passage here discusses the meaning of life, given the inevitability of death. This is an existential situation.
In the second half of the short story, the tone grows more introspective. Crane explores more deeply the thoughts of the correspondent, especially as he spends much of the night awake, alone. The correspondent considers the conflict of nature versus man, as well as man’s significance to the universe. “For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard.... 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 bricks and no temples” (Crane 71). The reference to “no temples” and “no bricks” indicates not only that the correspondent is separated from almost all civilization while he is out on the water; it also suggests that that man’s attempts to establish some lasting presence on earth are futile.
Nature is personified in one significant passage: “She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent” (Crane 74). Once again, this is a nod to the existential theme. The ocean’s tumultuous movement is wholly indifferent to how it affects the men in the dinghy. Indeed, their boat is eventually capsized, leaving the captain to direct the men regarding how to reach land safely.
From the first sentence of the story, when the men were unaware of the sky’s color, color has played a significant role in Crane’s imagery. Late in the story, the correspondent ses that “the sea and the sky were each of the gray hue of the dawning. Later, carmine and gold was painted upon the waters. The morning appeared finally, in its splendor, with a sky pure blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves” (Crane 73). Noticeably, the open sea is always described in drab colors that evoke hopelessness. In contrast, other aspects of nature are described vibrantly.
Ironically, the only man who dies in his attempt to reach the shore is Billie, the strongest of the four. “The oiler was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly” (Crane 75). Nonetheless, despite his familiarity with the sea and his experience as an oiler, Billie might have weakened himself while rowing and then set out for shore too quickly, missing the captain’s last swimming advice.