“The Open Boat” Short Story by Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” is considered among the greatest short stories in American literature. Written in the late 19th century, it is an example of modern fiction and is different from traditional writing of the earlier periods. The story incorporates the sense of human despair in the face of natural danger and the insignificance of humans in contrast to the forces of the universe. Such philosophical contemplations were specifically popular in 20th century written works which is why “The Open Boat” is considered an example of modernist literature.

“The Open Boat” tells the story of four survivors of a shipwreck who are incapable of fighting the reality caused by natural forces. The ironic narration of the story which uncovers the devastating understanding of the characters’ unimportance in the face of danger, further adds to the work’s modernist aspect. The use of irony to express deep psychological concerns of an existential nature is characteristic of modern literature.

Even though the characters understand their probable fate, through free will all except one can eventually save their lives. This suggests that humans are unable to know anything about reality when facing natural dangers. Crane writes: “it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important” (Crane, 2009, p. 23). Being too small in contrast to the scale of the universe, humans are hopeless and unable to save themselves. In this case, the universe decides whether they will survive or not.

Due to the rapid industrialization of the world in the early 20th century, artists and scholars were concerned with the questions of human power versus natural forces. In “The Open Boat”, the key theme is the battle between humans and the universe. Considering the technological advancements of the time period people could be seen as having immense power to create goods from simple materials and fight deadly diseases with new medicines. However, creators such as Stephen Crane found human abilities to be limited. Nature cannot be controlled by people which is why it may prove detrimental to them.


Crane, S. (2009). The open boat. Harper Collins Publishers.

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