A dinghy like the one being towed by this skiff figures in Stephen Crane's gripping tale "The Open Boat."
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
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. Those experiences informed his short story "The Open Boat." Alternating between the harrowing moments of waves crashing over the bow of the dinghy and the development of a certain kind of brotherhood in the face of overwhelming danger, "The Open Boat" remains one of Crane's best works and a wonderful example of American literary naturalism. In this lesson, students will examine the relationship of man and nature as portrayed in "The Open Boat."
What is the relationship of man and nature in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"?
In this lesson, students will learn how to
Introduce your students to Stephen Crane's biography and contextualize him in American literary history, using the biographies and other information available in the "Preparing to Teach" section. Discuss Crane's background with students, and remind them that Crane suffered from a shipwreck on The Commodore and spent thirty hours on a small boat at sea before being rescued.
Have students view the following images to help them contextualize Crane's seafaring experience and background for the story itself. Images and videos relevant to Crane:
From the Library of Congress American Memory Project
Now that students have encountered some of the literary and geographic context for the story, they are ready to begin reading the story. Assign students "The Open Boat" to read at home or, if you prefer, have students read the story in class. As they read ask students to consider the journey the men take in "The Open Boat." The four characters of "The Open Boat" are attempting to reach a faraway lighthouse on the Florida coast (Mosquito Inlet) in an effort to save themselves after a shipwreck.
As part of their reading assignment, ask students to choose an image that represents the end goal of their journey and to find at least one passage from the book highlighting that goal.
Students might point to a number of passages from the text, such as the following example:
The captain, rearing cautiously in the bow, after the dingey soared on a great swell, said that he had seen the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet. Presently the cook remarked that he had seen it. The correspondent was at the oars, then, and for some reason he too wished to look at the lighthouse, but his back was toward the far shore and the waves were important, and for some time he could not seize an opportunity to turn his head. But at last there came a wave more gentle than the others, and when at the crest of it he swiftly scoured the western horizon.
"See it?" said the captain.
"No," said the correspondent, slowly, "I didn't see anything."
"Look again," said the captain. He pointed. "It's exactly in that direction."
At the top of another wave, the correspondent did as he was bid, and this time his eyes chanced on a small still thing on the edge of the swaying horizon. It was precisely like the point of a pin. It took an anxious eye to find a lighthouse so tiny.
As they read, ask students to note key moments in the story where there seems to be a significant shift in the crew's journey. This exercise will encourage students to note the progress of the plot and begin to think about the symbols and imagery used throughout.
Ask students to turn to the beginning of "The Open Boat":
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. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.
Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.
Next ask students to point out some of the descriptive language in this opening scene:
Then ask the following questions:
Students should note that the characters in the boat are so overwhelmed by the sea and the waves that they cannot even see the sky (some might also suggest that the passage implies stormy weather). They should note the imagery of the passage—the dull slate of the jagged waves that were like rocks—and that the men in the boat are miniscule in the face of the dominating sea. Students might note that reading the passage made them feel like they were on the waves, as in the passage "jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks," with "up," "points," and "rocks" as the peaks of the waves, and the dips with "in" and "like."
Distribute the Open Boat Characters handout, available as a PDF or an online interactive chart, and ask students to take notes on the four men in the boat. Questions students should keep in mind as they detail the characters include:
Students may use this chart either as a reading exercise or a post-reading classroom group activity. Students should track initial impressions of characters and then note the final outcome for each character in the conclusion of the story, citing passages from the text that reveal elements of their character. Students might note, for example, that only the oiler is given a name (Billie), or that the captain is hurt, and so on. Since students know something about Crane's biography, ask them which character in the open boat most closely resembles him. This activity is particularly useful as a segue to the next activity on narration.
Your students should note that the narration is from a third-person perspective, since the narrator is not using "I" to describe him- or herself. Remind students about the different kinds of third-person narration: limited and omniscient (definitions available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets).
To discern which of these options is invoked in Crane's story, ask students—individually or in groups—to survey section I and II in the story, noting how the narrator relays information about the crew of the tiny boat.
Students should provide specific passages to answer their questions. Students also might not that the correspondent seems to be slightly favored in terms of point of view. At the end of section II, the narrator reports that the captain and the cook both "said" or "remarked" that they had "seen the light-house at Mosquito Inlet," but the reader doesn't actually see it until the correspondent, currently "at the oars," "for some reason … too wished to look at the light-house." Only at his second attempt to see their goal do we, as readers, actually see it described as well.
Ask students to consider
Crane's story is remarkable for a number of reasons, including his evocation of a vast range of emotions—from chilling tragedy to brotherly companionship. Ask students to read the first part of section II of the story (through to "The cook was bailing.") The captain has just expressed his pessimistic view of their situation:
Then the captain, in the bow, chuckled in a way that expressed humor, contempt, tragedy, all in one. "Do you think we've got much of a show, now, boys?" said he.
While the captain manages to rally his remaining crew, his statement reveals the range of emotions written into the story. Continue reading with students, beginning with the sentence "Canton flannel gulls flew near and far..." to the end of that paragraph. Ask them:
Start with humorous, since students are likely to recognize the humor of the bird landing on the captain's head, and the captain's breathing easier "on account of his hair" (given the situation, worrying about one's hair seems almost ludicrous). Students might then point out the seeming indignity of a bird on the captain's head, and the contempt nature seems to show for the crew of the dinghy. The gruesome and ominous feelings shared by the other crew-members gives the paragraph a tragic air, as though some doom was just foreshadowed. Emphasize Crane's ability to evoke such a wide range of emotions from a single passage, and ask students to consider:
To complete the activity, ask students to suggest other passages that combine emotions to evoke a complex mood. Ask them to consider the relationship of man to nature in each example they put forward. The most obvious, of course, is the mixture of relief and tragedy at the end of the story, when the oiler—ironically the strongest of the entire group—drowns, and the captain—his injury having made him weak—survives.
Some students might argue that the situation appears to be a twist of the "survival of the fittest." Encourage them to consider the whole of the story—since the oiler exerted so much energy rowing, in what way did his choice disrupt this natural order? How does the captain survive (he holds on to the overturned dinghy)?
Ask students to write a brief essay considering how the third-person omniscient narrator enabled the author to relate this tale of tragedy and survival in the open seas. If you are also teaching the EDSITEment lesson plan on Jack London's "To Build a Fire," ask students to write an essay comparing and contrasting the narrator in each story.
1-2 class periods