In his short story, “The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane shows us a Universe totally unconcerned with the affairs of humankind; it is an indifferent Universe in which Man has to struggle to survive. The characters in the story come face to face with this indifference and are nearly overcome by Nature’s lack of concern. They survive only through persistence and cooperation.
The story opens with four men, known simply as the captain, the oiler, the correspondent, and the cook, stranded in the ocean in a small boat. Crane’s descriptions in these opening scenes show right away the antagonism of the men and the sea and nature’s lack of concern for their tragedy: “The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dingey, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland.” The men are in a desperate situation, but nature continues in its ways regardless of what might happen to them. The Sun continues to rise and set everyday. The shore is “lonely and indifferent.” They are even regarded by a shark, who apparently finds no use for them.
Although the men are pitted against an uncaring sea, they still at this point seem to think their destinies are controlled by some outside force. Their collective thoughts are given thus: “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?…If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the managemant of men’s fortunes.” It soon dawns on them, though, that there is no “fate,” no purpose for their being where they are. It is the realization of this fact that brings the men to the brink of despair: “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” It seems to them that their situation is hopeless. At one point, one of the men asks the captain if he thinks they will make it, to which the captain replies “If this wind holds and the boat don’t swamp, we can’t do much else.” Statements like these, along with Crane’s journalistic prose, show the futility that the men feel in the face of indifference, yet it also makes evident the fact that there is still hope