Stephen Crane Once Upon a Time Essay

Pages: 7 (2578 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology

Stephen Crane

Once upon a time: The fable of Crane's 'naturalistic' "The Open Boat" and the life lesson of the Blue Hotel

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When Stephen Crane "found himself floating in a dinghy for thirty hours after The Commodore, the steamship he was on, wrecked on its way to Cuba," he was inspired to write one of his most famous short stories, "The Open Boat" ("Stephen Crane's 'The Open Boat,'" NEH, 2006). Today "The Open Boat" is called one of the greatest works in the movement known as American literary naturalism. However, although it is based upon real events, there are elements to the story that seem incongruous with the genre, such as the schematic nature of the characters and the fact that the story is very deliberately, by Crane's design, unfolded in a third-person, retrospective style. It could be argued that the frequent characterization of the story and Crane's career as a whole as exemplary of American naturalism or realism has clouded a more nuanced view of "The Open Boat." Merely because the story takes place 'in nature' does not make it naturalistic. In contrast to his novels, such as the novella The Blue Hotel, "The Open Boat" has a deliberately symbolic, fable-like, almost fairy tale-like style. Even the idea that it is about 'four men in a tub' undercuts the realism of many of the descriptions of the natural world. And unlike The Blue Hotel, because the characters are buffeted by nature, rather than individuals who make poor choices who bring their fates upon them, the fable-like quality is further underlined -- the men have no choice but to resist the sea or die, they do not seek out their own demise.

Essay on Stephen Crane Once Upon a Time: The Assignment

By deploying a style of narration where the narrator uses his distance from the events to give each character's role symbolic weight, even Crane's selection of scenes in "The Open Boat" from nature are quite deliberate and calculated to suggest an artificial, fable-like quality. And though irony is perhaps the dominant literary device in both stories, the distance between Crane the correspondent in the boat and Crane the author is necessary to appreciate "The Open Boat," much more so than The Blue Hotel, where the narrator exists omnisciently off-stage, without an implied, invested role in the proceedings. The Blue Hotel's irony is more verbal, such as Crane's depiction the final gaze of the dead, gambling Swede upon the cash register.

In "The Open Boat," the four main characters are stranded in dinghy "four sailors, bound together by misfortune and camaraderie, form a community, and insofar as each of them is defined and limited by our understanding of their joint predicament," (Rath & Shaw 97). Much like in a fable, the characters are defined primarily by their vocation, role in the plot, and a few generalized character traits: their complexity as individual actors does not fully evolve. The problem in defining the style of "The Open Boat:" "lies somewhere between the story's two poles: the narrator's journalistic duty to maintain strict fidelity to the events of the marine accident that inspired the tale, and the author's artistic desire to dramatize the ethical conflict underlying an intensely human situation" (Rath & Shaw 97).

Although Crane's reference to himself as a correspondent may seem to increase the realism of the story upon first glance, upon repeated use of the phrase it begins to suggest distance and a kind of lack of realism, as he views himself as a character, a representation of helplessness, rather than someone he identifies with in retrospect. Symbolically, his power as an author on the dinghy is temporarily gone as 'the correspondent': Crane as a character is only a helpless newspaperman, without the ability to use his talent at words to save his fellow crewmen. "Stephen Crane's works present sudden shifts in tone and point-of-view, and frequently the works end without establishing either certainty about characters or resolution of thematic issues" (Vanouse 2009).

The lack of realism of the fable "The Open Boat" is also underlined in the way that Crane the narrator claims to know what the other men are thinking, as is immediately apparent by the first paragraph of the story: "None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea" (Crane 728). Crane assumes the collective consciousness of all the men, not just the persona of himself, which indicates the crafted and deliberate nature of the story. The perspective is both limited, given that Crane, even in retrospective, can never know the color of the sky, yet limitless in that he claims to know what the fellow crewmen were thinking in the moment of the action. Impressionistically, it is as if they have one mind, but this is the work of Crane the artist. These types of creative uses of point-of-view typify all of Crane's work, even though he had a background as a reporter interested in presenting 'just the facts' (Colvert 2006). Crane's other works, such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and The Red Badge of Courage may catalogue naturalistic detail, but those details are carefully selected to have a 'moral,' a moral that is explicitly presented at the end of "The Open Boat."

Even if the plot of story "The Open Boat" is 'all real,' in terms of its connection to actual, lived events, Crane's fashioning of it, such as the accidental death of the oiler, is presented in a way to suggest a fable. The death, rather than being arbitrary, because of the nature of the oiler's character "acts as a vindication of Crane's belief in the helplessness of humankind and "perpetuates the naturalistic doctrine of nature's capricious ferocity toward humankind" (Rath & Shaw 97). If the story is judged according to more formal standards of realism and plot structure of the plot "the death presents an incongruous conclusion to the dramatic developments in the story. It suddenly silences several voices audible throughout the story, voices that appear independent of the narrator's telling" (Rath & Shaw 97). If viewed in purely realistic terms, the story seems to be in a state of tension, "caught between two contrasting demands: the correspondent's for historical accuracy and the author's for a formal retrospective logic to the plot," a tension which is only resolved by viewing the story as a fable (Rath & Shaw 97). .

One interesting reading of the ironic and uncomfortable tension between Crane the narrator and Crane the character is presented by Sura P. Rath and Mary Neff Shaw in their essay "The dialogic nature of 'The Open Boat'," where they state there are more than four characters in the structure of the story due to the active persona of the author, and the tale's irony involves the "curious triangular relationship among the three Cranes in the story: Crane the 'correspondent' / character, who experiences the Commodore accident as a passenger on the wrecked ship; Crane the sailor/author, who relives the trauma by telling the story and who agonizes over the irony of his mate's death; and Crane the author/narrator, who re-witnesses the accident for us as a fifth character observing himself and his companions" (Rath & Shaw 96).

The irony comes from the distance of the author's voice, viewing the past and the reliving of present events, while he teaches both the reader and his past self what he has learned, namely the moral of the fable: the awesome power of nature. This awesomeness is not a lesson one can use as a prescription for changing one's self, however, unlike The Blue Hotel, as human beings are powerless to resist nature, and even the strong oiler will die, if that is what nature wills. The more one resists nature, as manifested in the strong man's rowing ability, paradoxically and ironically, the more he is apt to die.

Of course, "The correspondent Crane, who suffers and survives the capricious fury of nature, has no foreknowledge of how it will end," hence the ironic distance between character and narrator and the crafting of this moral by Crane the author with hindsight, not Crane the correspondent (Rath & Shaw 96). Crane the correspondent exists only in the present but the author has the privilege of structuring the story and presentation of the characters through hindsight, even taking on the perspective of various other characters. "The author Crane, privileged by his distance from the accident, can look upon the experience retrospectively and see the irony of its outcome. He carries the burden of his omniscience. Finally, the narrator Crane, who forges the correspondent and the author into one, must reconcile the dramatic unfolding of the events in time and his own foreknowledge of the narrative irony of the oiler's death at the story's ending. As a third-person witness to the first… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Stephen Crane Once Upon a Time" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Stephen Crane Once Upon a Time.  (2009, July 17).  Retrieved September 26, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Stephen Crane Once Upon a Time."  17 July 2009.  Web.  26 September 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Stephen Crane Once Upon a Time."  July 17, 2009.  Accessed September 26, 2020.