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Naturalism and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"

Naturalism and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"

Naturalism is frequently cited as one of the dominant literary movements of 19th century America. Naturalism aimed at a detached, scientific objective portrayal of a natural self controlled by instincts and ruled by passion. Since a self was not perceived to have free will, naturalism debunked moral judgment. Historically, naturalism is perceived to have been more inclusive but also less selective than realism (Hart 525). Naturalism was boxed-in by a determinism established by Darwinian theory and Marxist economics. The compelling writings of Stephen Crane which celebrate a fierce self battling against the harsh elements of its environment offer a striking example of American naturalism. In Crane's often anthologized short story "The Open Boat", the careful reader can detect Crane's careful mixing of naturalist elements which results in one of the most powerful American tales ever told.

Beginning with its compelling and often cited opening line, "None of them knew the color of the sky" (Lauter 715), "The Open Boat" functions as a tour de force. None of the four men bobbing helplessly about the ocean know the color of the sky because they are so intent on survival. Crane immediately sets the tone for this harsh tale by suggesting that there can be no room for a tourist's observation or aesthetic appreciation when one is battling for one's life. Crane indicates that he has lifted his tale from actual facts. In attempting to render the struggles of four men set adrift in a small boat bouncing about on rough waters, Crane frame his tale according to the dictums of naturalism. In order to underscore the reality of the dangers which accost them at the toss of every wave, from the beginning the reader senses that not every man will successfully arrive on shore.

One of Crane's naturalist techniques is to present inanimate objects as if alive. The boat in which the four men ride is described as if a "bucking bronco" (Lauter 715). Yet set against this animation of the objects and environment in which they find themselves trapped, these men are continually assaulted by an ominous and pervasive "greyness" (Lauter 714-5). The waves are described to be like "slate" in the first paragraph (Lauter 714). Crane coyly adds that although none of these men know the color of...

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