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A Look at Naturalism through a Review of "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane

Updated on February 25, 2015

The concepts of realism and naturalism are closely related but are also very different. Naturalism has so many subtleties and we all unknowingly live by its laws each day. “The Open Boat” is a clear example of man’s plight with naturalism and how it relates to every human being’s life experience.

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The story is told so you can live it through the correspondent’s thought processes regarding the situation he and the rest of the crew are in. Their deaths are almost inevitable. His thought patterns and processes exemplify naturalism. They also show the spin people put on naturalism in attempt to save their sensitivities on the experience of life. Naturalism can very simply be described as the apathy that the world holds for all things. Complete equality and fairness are not always as romantic as people believe at first look. In the human realm it is also the battle of awareness and thought versus religion.

In the beginning of the story, the men describe the waves as “wrongful” and “barbaric”. The use of these words are against the laws of naturalism because it gives the waves intent. "Barbarism" suggests cruelty and the word “wrongful” is extremely interesting in this portion of the reading because it implies that the waves are doing something to the men that is against what is “right”. The men think that they know what is right and what is wrong.

They dare to suggest that they make the rules. What type of egotism allows that? Human kind does not run the show. Human kind is merely a player in an almost insignificant portion of the show. Naturalism gives nature apathy. The waves are a part of nature; they have no vendetta. “It was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water” (Crane 604). By the concept of naturalism, what we see is what it is. The water has no “effort” to do anything to these men.

Humans have great imaginations and often use them to put themselves in the center of everything. Nature does not revolve around us. The crew of the boat are a clear example of how in people’s heads they make themselves the most important thing. “If I am going to be drowned, why…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” (Crane 609). He is asking all of these questions as one usually does when one is in such a dire state. The reason this story is such an example of naturalism is because of its tragedy. Life is not fair. The good never come out in the end. People are doomed by their shortcomings. Half of the people die in this story to personify that. When looking at that passage, who is the correspondent asking those questions to? He’s really asking them to himself because that’s all he has anymore. Nothing brought him there to die. Nature is not malevolent. Nothing brought him there to have that experience. Nothing has a plan for him. He is simply a pawn in life, just as is everything else.

He also discusses the concept of fate, “If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble…. She cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work” (Crane 609). He feels that he is somehow connected with this idea of “fate”. He even goes so far as to think of fate as a human. He gives fate a sex, “she”. This shows the egotism of man in their attempts to block out the concepts and realities of naturalism. He rationally knows that fate is not a human but to comfort himself he thinks of it as such. The idea of fate in naturalism is dispelled. There is no fate because there is nothing. Everything just simply is. People take away the simplicity of life and fill it with coping mechanisms. Naturalism is often described as pessimistic. Why do people view pessimism as a bad thing? Pessimism is real unlike the lies most people live by. The story plays into naturalism because according to the correspondent fate could not kill him because he worked so hard. The other men worked just as hard but they died.

The concepts of naturalism really begin to pour together near the end when the correspondent begins to come to grips with his almost inevitable death:

"When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels that she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelted with his jeers” (Crane 614).

He finally begins to understand that he is not the center of everything. He is not important. The idea of one person’s death being harmful in the vast, massive, infinite idea that is the universe is asinine. He feels pain and anger in his new skin of humility. He wants to lash out but realizes there is nothing to be lashed out at. There is no way he can win because apathy is static.

Naturalism is harsh and brutal but when you look around the world, what do you see? Most of the men died even though they had worked so hard and hoped so much. This story exemplifies naturalism by showing the thought process of one who is about to die. The idea that the correspondent actually lives is almost despicable to the theories of naturalism. One of the biggest differences between realism and naturalism is that in naturalism people usually do not emerge from their consequences. In “The Open Boat” the correspondent does live but he may well be the only one. Nature does not hold a spot for anyone. If he had died it wouldn’t have mattered, just as if you or I died.


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