Naturalism in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (Book Review Sample)

Saturday July 16, 2022

Naturalism in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”
Naturalism in literature refers to the notion that all literary works should treat the natural man through detached scientific impartiality (Papineau 1-2). The theory is based on realism but goes beyond the precincts of authenticity by depicting social reality. Naturalism is a harsher version of realism that integrates philosophies that hold the notion that: despite the strength of human desires, they are always diminished by the hostile, rudimentary, and apathetic nature of the universe (Putnam 313). This implies that human life is not an easy thing and nothing more than a brawl for survival. As a result, humans are subjected to a state where survival depends on environmental adaptation and the endless struggle for individual responsibility. This state is highly facilitated by human nature, characterized by a lack of free will and ecological and heredity principles. The fact that human impulses are subject to cruel whims also plays a significant role. To achieve frankness and extreme objectivity, naturalists focus on capturing the reality of society in a mechanical record. According to Saad, the naturalists strictly disregard the behaviors and characters present in society (1). In most cases, naturalist writers explore healthy and supercilious characters, who appear to be strong physically, but are weak-willed. Such characters are usually from low economic and social classes, tainted with animal desires, and often have awful endings (Newlin 3-4).
Most famous writers, especially from the United States of America, embrace the alleged “naturalistic” view of man, which appears to be just a cynical view of realism (Freitag 97). This is the case with Stephen Crane in his short story “The Open Boat.” Crane supports the notion that an individual’s environment plays a massive role in determining their fate. In his short story, Crane observes that nature is just flatly indifferent, rather than antagonistic, as it often appears to be. This paper explores “the Open Boat” by Stephen Crane to determine how naturalism plays a role in delivering Crane’s thoughts and ideas to the readers.
Background of Naturalism
The most elegant figure in the history of naturalism is Emile Zola. Zola proposed a theory that depicted a novelist’s purpose as that of a scientist; the novelist places characters in a particular situation then makes observations on how environmental and hereditary influences affect them (Zhang 195). The strong growth in power and more cultural impact, while individuals who appear to be weak are usually diminished, and their cultures’ demarcation takes place over time. This means that the vulnerable in society typically fall victim to the natural course of economic forces and associated events. The period between the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century was characterized by a rise of industrial, financial giants and a growing mass of industrial workers (Den Tandt 4).
Consequently, urban centers were plagued by the high growth of slums and an impoverished city population that is subjected to the life of anguish, insecurity, and violence. As the economy fast developed at the turn of the century, self-reliance among the people slowly diminished. The period was also characterized by the popularity of Darwinism, which held the principle of natural selection and struggle of the fittest (Den Tandt 4-5; Zhang 195).
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane is widely known for his contributions to naturalism. He argues that the universe does not care for human beings, mainly because their minds are clouded by heredity and environmental issues (Parker 8). This is evident in his short story, “The Open Boat”, where nature is presented as hateful and cruel and against human beings. For instance, he observes the waves as “frightfully rapid and tall; and each boiling, white top was a problem in the small boat”(Crane, 1). Crane’s first novel is known as “Maggie: A girl of the streets” and is highly considered by critics to be a work of American naturalism literature. Crane also wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” which is the novel that brought him international popularity towards the turn of the century. The fascinating fact about the writing was that Crane did not have any experience in the battlefield (Library of Congress). Crane last visited Cuba serving as a war correspondent, after which the vessel he took met an accident and sank. This was when he left together with other passengers for more than 30 hours adrift in a small open boat. During the time, his experience led to the short story’s birth, “The Open Boat, ” which has famously been regarded as a real representative work of literature (Ferhati 17).
Craned died at a young age of 28, after suffering from tuberculosis while living in Germany. He is widely known for his unique and prolific writing style and writing in various types, such as impressionism, realistic traditions, and naturalism. After his death, Crane was forgotten by critics and the public for about two decades, until his works caught their attention came to be known as a ground-breaking writer of his generation (Dooley 1). Through his books, Crane established a connection with the public through his writings and impelled them to think about various themes, such as alienation, fear, human nature, and spiritual crisis. Crane’s literary works also significantly impacted other writers that emerged in the 20th century, such as Ernest Hemingway. Subsequently, Crane’s works also inspired the imagist and the modernist movements in American literature (Poetry Foundation).
Naturalism in “The Open Boat”
“The Open Boat” is a short story by Crane that depicts his real-life experience. Crane begins the story with four characters stranded at sea, hopeless about getting rescued and having a strong desire for survival. The four people decide to form a team with a clear division of responsibilities, with the captain as their leader. The four characters combine efforts in an aim and hope of finding rescue, but they were disappointed on several occasions. For instance, the captain spotted a life of refuge near Mosquito Inlet Light, and the hope for survival filled the air. However, to their disappointment, there was no one to help them in the life of refuge, leading to a state of disenchantment. Hope was reignited again after spotting a figure flashing on the beach, but it seemed that people could not comprehend the dilemma they were in, and thus no help was called. Crane observed that, despite the limitations of human strength, the human spirit remains relentless, and it was the driving force that kept the survivors alive until they came to shore.
In “The Open Boat,” Crane presents the relationship between God, human beings, and nature. Crane focused on the meaning of human nature and life in general regarding naturalism’s quintessence through symbolism. The short story featured characters who were not presented with actual names, except for the oiler. By integrating allegorical factors in the development, Crane gave the readers room to reflect on their real lives through the characters’ experiences. The boundless sea can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the society and nature, usually indifferent and rudimentary. Despite the desperate need for rescuing and the struggles the characters had to go through, the sea maintained its inherent indifference characteristic without mockery or offering any help. In the story, Crane states, “As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously high” (Crane 2). Crane likens the sea to society through descriptions, which depict it as crazy, quiet, and relentless. He uses the word “she” when describing the sea, a synonym for maternal, mild, and merciful. This shows that just like the society in the real world, the characters relied on the sea for survival, but simultaneously had to face the fact that the same sea could destroy them. The open boat adrift at sea is a symbolism of how humans adrift in the boundless society.
The four characters in the short story present different symbols and unique personalities. For instance, the captain can be interpreted as a symbol of paternal love and leadership. He showcases his administration when he instructs the oiler how to keep the open boat balanced, while at the same time comforts the other three characters. Apart from comforting his partners, the captain showcases paternal love through his willingness to sacrifice himself to save the other characters. The oiler represents energy and masculinity, as he bears the hardest work of paddling and keeping the boat balanced while struggling with the sea. The cook can be perceived as representing children in society, who are usually innocent, optimistic, friendly, and curious about their culture. The author sees himself as a representation of the inner world and romance. All the characters in the short story can be interpreted as a symbolism of human nature. Symbolism is also seen in the lighthouse and the seagull. Crane states,
“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” (Crane 19).
According to Crane, the lighthouse represented a beacon for the hope that gives people a reason and the necessary energy to keep fighting for survival. On the other hand, the seagull represents despair, particularly when people…

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