Short Story Review: The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

“To teach is to learn twice.”

– Joseph Joubert

Intro

Writing is an art form. Writing is also a labor of love. Learning to write is one of the most exciting things I have ever done. I want to share my love of writing with you and what I’ve learned.

Being a Writer

I choose fiction writing as a career because of a compulsive need to write. Others choose writing as a way of expressing themselves. I was drawn into writing at an early age because I loved reading.

It was one of the few things I enjoyed in school. Writing was the only thing in school, I wasn’t intimidated by. I felt it was the one thing I had control over. I could create any story I wanted, and the only rules I had to follow were those of English grammar.

At the time I was a voracious reader of anything from combat memoirs and horror to literary classics. These stories would help spawn ideas for stories of my own, and I would write them in my spare time. My problem was that I was a closet scribbler. I never tried to write anything except in secret.

As I moved through high school, guidance counselors tried their best to focus me on a career path. I found none that really sparked my interest except writing, even after I joined the army.

Now I am writing my first novel,

Teaching to Learn

I wanted to start sharing with you some things I have learned in class about literature and literary techniques for better writing. I want these emails to act as a sort of Master’s Class for writing.

I am not an expert on English grammar, writing or books. I am an aspiring author learning how to write.

My aim is quite simply the same as with any creative writing course: to upskill, inform and inspire. By giving you writing advice, tips, and techniques I will become a better writer, hopefully you will too.

I will give you useful insights and concrete examples of great writing by literary heavyweights. I will discuss, critique and talk about books. I will express my opinions about what I am learning, reading and most important what I am writing.

These instructive emails are very much about talking shop. I really enjoy sharing what I am learning.  I will share my observations on the craft: for instance, dialogue is important because it clearly displays the interactions between your characters.

Another tip is knowing what genre you are writing for (each one of them has “rules”), not so you can imitate what’s been done, but so you can avoid imitating. The importance of choosing what point of view (whether first or third person) you are writing in. Point of view makes a scene more interesting.

I don’t think I will ever be a writer of immense success and fortune or even a lot of skill. I do think good advice is important to any writer or reader. I hope you find this information enjoyable and most important, useful.

The Short Story

A short story is a piece of fiction that can be read in one sitting. The short story features a small cast of characters. It focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood.

Short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far lesser degree than a novel. You have a small amount of room to do a lot of work. Authors of short stories generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques as writers of novels.

Short stories have no set length. In terms of word count there is no official demarcation between an anecdote, a short story, and a novel. The rule of thumb is usually 1,000 to 6,000 words makes a short story.

The short story is considered an apprenticeship form preceding eventually to more lengthy works like novels. A well-crafted short story is an art form in its own right.

Stephen Crane

Many literature professors think Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” is the perfect short story. Crane was a 19th Century American writer and journalist.

Crane came from a line of strong-willed men who helped found and build America. He was born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey. He was a bright and busy student who studied literature and science.

At the age of 22, he wrote “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.” The story is about the underbelly of New York City. It was a declaration of enslavement of the poor trapped by poverty.

Two years later, in 1895, “The Red Badge of Courage” was published. It is a naturalistic novel set during the Civil War.

Crane told the story from an infantry soldier’s point of view. There is the constant threat of the unknown, the feeling of helplessness of someone else’s plan, the suppression of identity and self-doubt.

These themes are in all of Crane’s fiction.

Crane was a war correspondent. He was on the frontline of some of the grimmer scenes of his time. He covered the Greco-Turkish War. He traveled to England and became friends with Henry James, H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad- we’ll talk about these literary heavyweights later, I promise.

He went to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. It was the war that made Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” charge up San Juan Hill famous.

On his way to Cuba his ship sank. He spent 30 hours adrift at sea in a lifeboat off the coast of Florida. This experience forms the basis for “The Open Boat.”

After Cuba, he returned to England. In Germany, he died of tuberculosis. He was 29 years old.

Crane’s Style of Writing

Crane’s writing style is committed to Naturalism and Realism. A “naturalist” writer approaches the subject they write about scientifically, almost detached. A ‘”realist” strives to portray their subjects as realistically and truthful as possible.

Crane’s writing was characterized by his naturalistic perception of man caught in conflict with some other alienating force (war, weather, depression) that defines the human condition.

Crane lived by the proverb “The nearer a writer gets to life the greater artist he becomes.” This maxim killed him at the young age of 29.

His story is truly one of the most tragic of American Literature. He produced an amazing body for such a young writer.

The Open Boat

Snapshot: The story is about four men on the open sea after a shipwreck. The men are the narrator- a war correspondent (Crane), an oiler, the ship’s cook and captain. They are in a lifeboat the size of a bathtub in a stormy sea with sharks.

Themes-

Man Vs Nature

From the start, the boat (and the men in it) and the ocean are described as adversaries. Not really enemies, but playing for rival teams. The boat is representative of man, and the ocean is symbolic of nature.

Crane is commenting on man’s relationship to the natural world. The story is told from a human perspective. The ocean’s actions are indifferent to the plight of man.

Brotherhood of Men at War

There is an “us against them” vibe in the story. The “us” is the four men on the boat. The “them” is everyone and everything else: the ocean, the birds, the shark, and the imaginary rescue teams that are not rescuing them.

The relationship of the four men share is profound. They feel a “subtle brotherhood,” being out there at sea together. They don’t talk about it much, but they feel it just the same—it makes them feel strong, safe and it gives them a unified sense of purpose.

The narrator admits that before the shipwreck, he had never cared much about other people. But after his lost at sea ordeal- being terrified, vulnerable, and soaking wet with three other men he was forced to work and get along with- he comes to realize he really does love the people around him.

Strength and Skill

This theme is sort of a red herring. The narrator really focused on strength and skill. For example, the oiler is strong and stoic and the ocean is strong.

The correspondent is impressed by these qualities. As you go through the story, you start to think that this story is all about the importance of strength.

At the end of the story the four men swim toward shore. The oiler swims ahead of the others, strong and brave. He’s going to make it, we know it.

The cook clumsily tries to row himself to shore. The correspondent gets ungracefully washed to the shallows by a rogue wave. Suddenly, the oiler is face down in the shallows, inexplicably drowned. We thought his strength would save him—so what went wrong?

Impression

The narrator’s ideas about fate, however, take a decidedly different turn in the story. I wonder how I would respond in a situation like this.

Some questions I asked was: Would I consider it all part of some divine plan, or instead decide it’s all just chaos? Would I even have a choice in the matter?

These are all pretty heavy questions to grapple with, and Crane manages to discuss them all in this incredible short story.

Crane is a great writer. He keeps you guessing until the end.