Who is in Charge Here?
Brenda Sanders

What is the one struggle that all human beings have in common? It is life itself. As important as humans think they are, in the scheme of reality, the human race is not that significant. During the late eighteenth century and the earlier nineteenth century, authors such as Émile Zola, Jack London, and Stephen Crane and poets such as Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens were struggling with leaving behind traditional attitudes and finding a new philosophy of life. These writers, along with many others, are known for writing during the Naturalistic time period. Literature of Naturalism, just as all literature does, reflects the attitudes and events happening during this time. The world was changing in many more ways than ever before. Traditional unquestioned beliefs had fallen by the wayside because of many factors but especially with the introduction of Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s view that humans evolved and were not created by some Supreme Being startled society, especially the religious community. For the first time, society began to question the mainstay of their religious beliefs.

In the economic realm, Karl Marx was expounding his view of socialism. Economic factors had a profound effect on the people of this time as well. The industrialization and the urbanization that were occurring were forcing changes on every front of life.

Along with the scientific and social advancements of the world at this time, psychology was breaking ground to become an important science of its own. Freud with his view of why people act the way they do and Jung with his thoughts on the collective unconscious were offering new thought and insight about human behavior. However, with the removing of the old beliefs that gave humans a sense of direction and order in their lives, the search, which often included the loss of oneself, needed to be embarked upon so that people of this era could find some sort of direction in the new world of knowledge and confusion.

Never before or since this time has there been such a wandering in the desert of uncertainty. Therefore, it is quite natural that the authors of this period reflect all of the turmoil created by the amount of knowledge that was being shared and that was trying to be comprehended. Authors of this time were at the forefront of this investigation.

Naturalistic writers tend to write in a somewhat scientific method because their characters are placed in a situation where the forces of nature or the environment are imposed upon them. The characters are then observed to see how they handle the challenge. Stephen Crane’s "The Open Boat" follows this pattern of writing. The reader is allowed to observe as the four characters fight against the natural elements to survive. Crane himself embodied the naturalistic view in the following statement:

                                 A man said to the universe:
                                 "Sir, I exist!"
                                 "However," replied the universe,
                                 "The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation"
                                 (Crane qtd. in Naturalism in American Literature).

The different forces of nature applied to the characters of "The Open Boat" are encountered by all human beings in life. The survival of whatever nature or any force beyond our control is the goal of all people. Life is not easy, but by enduring the trials of life, human capabilities are oftentimes proved to be far greater than ever expected.

Crane’s dinghy crew includes the cook, the oiler, the correspondent, and the captain. Each of the characters represents a view of society. The cook represents those in society who do bare minimum to survive. While on the ship, the cook fulfills his responsibilities but once out to sea or out of his normal environment, he does not function except to do the bare minimum that he is forced to do to survive. The cook’s unresponsiveness to the situation could be a result of many elements. The cook could be in shock, and, therefore, not capable of realizing the necessity of all the crew’s taking their turns rowing. He could be just unmotivated because of his belief that it will not matter whether or not his actions will have any effect on the outcome. Whatever the reasons, he chooses to retreat to the world he knows best, which is food. This escape is expressed when the cook asks Billie what kind of pie he likes best. Of course, the oiler and correspondent do not understand and become agitated. The oiler and the correspondent do not understand the comfort that the cook gets out of thinking about food. The cook seems perfectly content to take what life hands him and just float along until he is forced to react. Even today, there is a segment of society that takes life as it comes, never participating unless forced to do so. The cook is the person who survives in the story and in society but never attempts to dream of bigger and better achievements for himself.

On the other hand, there is the oiler, who is hard working and dreams of better days brought forth by this hard work. He has earned the respect of others, and he respects himself. He is strong both physically and emotionally, and he is not willing to let the wind just toss him along in whatever path it chooses. He is determined to survive and eventually thrive. However, he is the lone character that does not survive. Just as what is happening in the towns and cities of society at this time, just because one is willing to work hard does not mean that one will have a job at which to work. The economy is changing because of industrialization and the influx of immigrants. Life is not always fair, even to the ones that have lived by societal rules of behavior.

The injured captain is the part of society that has achieved its goals. He is a leader, and his crew honors and respects him, but he feels it is his responsibility to encourage others. At times, however, he feels isolated and dejected. Crane expresses this ambiguous sense of responsibility when he writes about the captain’s commands that "[a]lthough steady, [were] deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears" (820). In society, some of the richest and the most outwardly respected people are also some of the unhappiest people on earth. Although the captain does not seem to be that distraught, he feels he has a job to do and does not know if he will succeed at it. He does not give up easily and continues to command his crew until they reach land.

Finally is the correspondent, who is the one person for whom the water is not his normal environment but who has ended up in the dinghy with the other seamen. The correspondent represents those people who are the most active in their participation of life. He is the one who is the most uncomfortable with what is going on because it is unfamiliar to him. He feels life has handed him a raw deal, and he demands better treatment than what he is receiving. It is not coincidental that the character is a correspondent or a writer that portrays this part of society. People that bring forth change are usually people who know how to communicate well and are not afraid to take risks. The correspondent expresses these characteristics so well several times when he importunes contemptuously and incredulously whatever powers that may be:

"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 on the beginning and save me all this trouble. The whole affair is absurd [. . .]. But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. She cannot drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work." (826)

This kind of attitude belongs to people who are confronting their problems. They have the attitude that the problems are not fair, and they will not allow these problems to master them, for they will fight with every ounce of energy and power they possess to not let the problems have victory over them. Crane has placed the characters from different walks of life in the dinghy and allows the reader to observe the characters’ reactions. Observation and the commonality of the characters are typical of the writing that occurred during the Naturalistic time period.

Naturalistic writing such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and this story by Stephen Crane uses common themes of Naturalism, which are the human versus nature and the human versus himself. Nature is considered to be more powerful than the human, but the human, although perceived to have no free will in the situation that he is placed, usually overcomes and successfully survives the challenge. This loss of control is definitely the feeling of the time period because of the turning away from traditional beliefs and searching for a new stronghold of thinking. In "The Open Boat," Crane represents the natural forces to be far larger than the characters and definitely out of their control in the symbol of the ocean’s waves. The ocean’s waves are crashing upon them, and their fight for survival is the means by which they might or might not survive. Surely the force of nature, the ocean, is much more powerful than four men in a dinghy. Human insignificance and nature’s greatness are apparent. The ocean’s waves, constantly beating upon them, are representative of life itself. The constant struggles just to survive everyday situations and problems one faces are enough to make one question if one has any control over his life. Or does fate have the control? This never-ending struggle is revealed as the waves batter the boat, and Cranes writes, "A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats" (821). These characters, as well as society of the world of this time, are surmounting many different waves. Changes that are happening in all areas of life, the social, the economic, and the spiritual, are crashing upon the minds and hearts of people. Society’s survival will depend upon decisions made, some of which the people themselves will make and other forces such as the government, industrialization, and urbanization make. Constant rolling of the waves throughout the story represents the daily struggles of life and how life sometimes can take humans to a place they never desired to be but are forced to go against their wills. War is a prime example of such a force, and before much longer World War I would begin. Life can be a humbling experience, which humans beings sometimes seem to have little or no control of.

While the dinghy is the means of transportation of the men in this story, symbolically it represents how people of this era were being force to interact in the world’s society at this time. Urbanization and industrialization are forcing people to live much closer and to interact more intensely than ever before. This closeness is bound to create unique situations where people are forced to cooperate to survive. Crane is calling for cooperation and shows how the men of the boat must act intricately even to change position without tipping the boat over. While there might be some challenges to living so closely, some benefits—friendship and comradery—occur which otherwise might never exist. Crane allows the reader to watch as this bond forms between the characters, for he writes, "It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him" (823).

The role of the gulls is to remind the reader that life, a natural force, will place pessimistic people along the journey to see if it will encourage one to fight harder to overcome or if the traveler will be become discouraged and relinquish control and give up. The gulls seem to mock the men because to gulls "the wrath of the sea was no more [. . .] than it was to a covey of prairie chickens, a thousand miles inland" (822). The advantage that the gulls have creates anger in the men, and how they handle the anger will determine if it is beneficial or not to them. In the real world, the rich and advantaged often create feelings of anger or envy in those that are less fortunate. Really, do humans control over their own destiny?

Life is not always trying, however, to beat one down, for along the journey is the prospect of hope, which Crane represents by the brown mats of seaweed. The seaweed allows the crew to realize that they are making some progress, although slowly, toward the land, which is their goal. Although the world is in a state of confusion, it has the hope of learning to coexist and thrive. On a more personal level, people are learning more about themselves through new advancements of psychology. Knowledge requires action. People are acting and searching for their ways during this time and will become a much more deliberate and determined group in the years to come. Many authors are questioning if the struggle is worth this outcome, such as Frost in his poems "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Hope can encourage people to achieve what they think is unachievable. The brown mat of seaweed is a bit of encouragement that land is near to the men in the dinghy. In life, there are many brown mats in the forms of friendships and family, little successes that encourage one to keep rowing along so one finally can reach the land of achievement.

Finally, the land represents the desired goal. Crane uses the land to restate that life is a powerful natural force and that humans are not in control. The survivors are the cook, who gives the least amount of effort, and the correspondent, who dares the sea to claim him for its own. However, the oiler, the one who gives his all and the strongest of the crew, fails to reach the land alive. Does this seem fair and just? No, but life is not always fair, and humans do not always control their fates. In this story, Crane vividly states the confusion that is caused by not having beliefs that give one a sense of purpose and sense of control: "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples" (831). Who is in charge? During the Naturalistic period of American literature, this is the question to be answered.

Works Cited

            Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat." The Harper American Literature. Ed. Donald
                 McQuade et al. 2nd ed. 2 Vols. New York: Longman, 1993. 2: 820-836.

            Naturalism American Literature. Bellow-Malamud Society of Korea. 24 Apr 2001. 30
                 April 2001. <
http://dragon.taejon.ac kr/~msahn/bellow 2/natural.htm>.


"Who is in Charge Here" was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class in Spring 2001 semester by Brenda Sanders, a sophomore majoring in Social Work.