Despite the unease it elicits, nature is indeed indifferent to human concerns. Western Civilization holds principles of fairness, justice and equality in high esteem. But a study of history would not reveal the triumph of these principles in any reasonable measure. Conversely, the forces of nature play a dominant role in determining the fates and prospects of human lives. To a lesser degree, fortuitous circumstances of life, as in being born into privilege and wealth, also play a major role. Hence, helplessness is an apt description of the human condition of various eras of the past. In this scenario, random fortune, on the one hand, and brutal determinism, on the other hand, squeeze whatever an individual could achieve through his/her free, creative and industrious will. In this essay, The Open Boat – a short story published by Stephen Crane in 1897 – will be studied in this philosophical context. The essay will concur with the core suggestion of the story, namely, that Nature is indifferent to human suffering. But this fact does not need to be viewed pessimistically, for in coming to terms with the workings of Nature, and through their own efforts, humans can relate to it in harmony.
The story is based on a near-death shipwreck experience that Crane survived off the coast of Florida. The work stands out for its technical excellence. Such literary devices as irony, imagery and symbolism are infused into the storyline. But its inclusion in the American literary canon is largely due to its humanist thrust and its ethical ponderings. It deals with such themes as survival, humanitarianism and the challenge posed to humans by nature (Eye 65). The character of the Correspondent in the story – the doppelganger for the author – asks several important philosophical questions:
“”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? It is preposterous. If this old ninny woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save all this trouble?” (Crane).
The authorial intent is deepened by such parallels in other key literary works. For example, a similar question could easily have been raised by Odysseus in the Odyssey as he navigated the seas for ten long years, though it would have extracted quite a different response. This is so, because “in Homer’s world the outcomes of Odysseus‘ situation are determined by responsive and involved gods, whereas in The Open Boat the four companions must face an impersonal and indifferent nature as the greatest determining force” (Meacham p.44).