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The  Open Boat, Research Paper Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1284

Research Paper

Abstract

The paper discusses two principal aspects of a short story by the American writer Stephen Crane. It first touches upon the role of the storm in the story, and then how that leads to the question of the language used in the dialog among the four primary characters, particularly the limited use of profanity. It concludes that the story has aged to the point of becoming an historical artifact, and can no longer be viewed as literature in its own right.

The Open Boat

The Open Boat was first published in 1897. It is based on the actual sinking of the SS Commodore that the story’s author, Stephen Crane (1871–1900), experienced and reported on as an eyewitness account for a New York newspaper.  In fact and in fiction, the ship was loaded with rifles bound for Cuban rebels, and after first striking a couple sandbars, finally sank after its boiler began to leak. In this paper I will discuss the way that the storm is central to the story.

The first point to address is whether there even is a storm. The word itself does not actually appear in the fictionalized account (nor in the original non-fiction one). But clouds are mentioned three times, most importantly as follows: Afterward the man might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds: “Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!” And from a reading of the story, it is clear that it is storm-level waves that are repeatedly threatening to sink the rowboat as it repeatedly bucks against them. The fact that the craft remains afloat is a wonder expressed by the narrator (presumed to be Crane himself).

The existence of a storm is important because of the subtle effect is has on the reader’s mind about the critical factor of being lost at sea: drinking water. The drinking of water is mentioned only once in the fictional version, in conjunction with the lighting of four still-dry cigars: After a search, somebody produced three dry matches, and thereupon the four waifs rode impudently in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water. (The impending rescue proved to be a false hope.) A “water-jar” is given several perfunctory mentions, as is the whisky that appears later as if by magic. One is left to wonder if whisky and a water-jar are part of a rowboat’s default supply.  By contrast, in the original non-fiction account, three mentions are made of a 5-gallon jug of water being brought on board the rowboat.

The existence of a storm implies rain, and rain relieves the reader of a natural concern about whether the four survivors are eventually going to try to drink their own blood, or, finally, sea-water. And critically, even if it doesn’t quite rain, at least it must be cloudy, and so the men are shielded from a merciless sun that would otherwise be playing a starring role as torturer. As it is, the word sun is mentioned by itself once: 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. The process of the breaking day was unknown to them. They were aware only of this effect upon the color of the waves that rolled toward them. So the sun itself is a bit player, confirming the story’s first sentence: None of them knew the color of the sky. That point having been implied by the author, the modern reader is free to confront another concern that begins to rear its head, one the author could not have shared.

The presence of the storm is important in this short little tale because it can determine whether it is still a relevant example of a literary ism. This is a legitimate point because, while Crane is often taken as writer in the naturalism mode, H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad expressed their belief in Crane’s essential impressionism (Rogers, 1969).[1] It’s a deceptive question, because it assumes that once the ism is decided, it can’t or won’t morph into another ism over time. But I contend that it can, and has, in the process changing the meaning of the story fundamentally, in this case as if a new generation has discovered that the story’s spirit has become a corpse.

“Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!” But exactly what would that sailor say? We can guess that profanity is the point of his exclamation. But there is none in the story that would even remotely shock the reader of today, but possibly not in 1897 either. Can a story about sailors facing death on the open sea, with a good deal of bottled up rage (As for the reflections of the men, there was a great deal of rage in them) simply ignore the matter of their occupationally natural language? Written today, it’s lack would have to be accounted for artistically one way or the other. The producers of the TV series Deadwood faced a variation of this problem and dealt with it by liberally using late 20th-century profanity (Nunberg, 2002). The problem is that, until about World War I, Americans swore differently. It sounds rather tame today. A modern reader doesn’t know just how much the original publisher was suppressing the conversational truth in hopes that the resultant art would still retain enough sense of reality to satisfy its paying readers and that era’s Post-Office censors. It did satisfy the latter, and so few read the story today outside of school. The story’s single use of ass, two damneds, two hells (and two idiots) just lets us know that their real speech would have been much saltier still. The Open Boat is no longer an example of literary naturalism or impressionism. It’s become artifactism.

Twenty-five years ago, one critic wrote an article on the shifting image of Stephan Crane, yet referred to The Open Boat as being of a high caliber (Mitgang, 1987). In my view, it is no longer. It’s dead because its main characters are not fully human to us anymore, almost as if the mariners had actually drowned, and the story is about their speaking, two-dimensional ghosts.

Yet the people on shore do have a life-force: That’s just a winter resort hotel omnibus that has brought over some of the boarders to see us drown; and What’s that idiot with the coat mean? He just stands there and keeps his coat revolving like a wheel. People acting strangely in a crisis: what could be more alive than that? And they are redeemed too: It seems that instantly the beach was populated with men with blankets, clothes, and flasks, and women with coffeepots and all the remedies sacred to their minds. The bystanders, without speaking, still come alive. But not enough to rescue the story — there is only so much a supporting cast can do.

Such are the forensic thoughts that confront the reader of The Open Boat today. RIP.

Bibliography

Mitgang, H. (1987, December 23). http://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/23/arts/stephen-crane-s-shifting-image.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. New York Times. An interpretative review   of Prof. Paul Sorrentino’s two-volume “Correspondence of Stephen Crane.”

Nunberg, G. (2002). Obscenity rap. Retrieved from http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/deadwood.html (Hauser, 1999). A version of this commentary was broadcast on “Fresh Air,” June 20, 2004.

Rogers, R. (1969). Nineteenth century fiction. (Vol. 24, pp. 292-304). Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2932859?uid=3739560&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101100388471. The URL is linked to the relevant article, entitled Stephen Crane and Impressionism.

[1] A worthy if debatable point somewhat beyond the scope of this paper.

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