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. Analysis
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...