“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane: When a Few Words are Enough

Pages: 5
Words: 1609


Describing a disaster inflicted upon characters by an unstoppable and uncompromising force of the elements while keeping each protagonist fleshed out and well-developed is an extraordinarily difficult task. However, Steven Crane, who had a first-hand experience in a similar situation that involved being shipwrecked and having little to no opportunity to save oneself, provides a chilling, exciting, and honest narrative of four people suffering the threat of an imminent death in the sea. Despite being seemingly restricted to navigation orders, communication in “The Open Boat” renders a clear message of camaraderie and support, which can be seen in the choice of words, particularly, the use of epithets, and the literary devices such as repetition and metaphor, which serve to express assertion and encouragement.


At first glance, communication in “The Open Boat” is scarce to the point where it might seem lacking emotion. Indeed, most of the cues from the characters are linked somehow to them navigating the raging ocean, which is understandably expected: “‘Keep her a little more south, Billie,’ said he” (Crane 5). However, scrutinizing their interactions further, one will notice the presence of carefully chosen epithets as the means of representing the spirit of camaraderie and mutual support between the protagonists. Specifically, in the scene where the characters repeatedly wonder why no one sees them, the narrator refers to the team members as “friends” (Crane 16). The described epithet adds to the sense of camaraderie while also portraying the friendship between the captain, the correspondent, the cook, and the oiler. Likewise, the epithet “old man”, which the correspondent uses to refer to the man who lent the crew a helping hand (Crane 62). A similar epithet is used to express amicability and camaraderie when the oiler notices that the boat is about to sink: “’Boys,’ he said swiftly” (Crane 26). Therefore, epithets are sprinkled across the paper quite generously to render the nuances of the relationships between the team members.


The presence of repetitions scattered throughout the short story increases the sense of calm and direction that the characters strive to maintain desperately. For instance, the problem of remaining apparently invisible to the people on the shore and the rescue crew is stated repeatedly throughout the story, often being mirrored by one of the characters almost immediately after being voiced by another one. The presence of repetition is evident in the following example: “‘No,’ replied the cook. ‘Funny they don’t see us.’ […] Tide, wind and waves were swinging the boat north. ‘Funny they don’t see us,’ said the men” (Crane 22-23). Apart from serving to indicate the presence of connection between the characters by mirroring their ideas and thoughts, repetition also serves to emphasize their attempts to cooperate and support each other even in a desperate situation.

Repetitions can also be found throughout the story. Being related primarily to the orders that the captain gives to the crew, they emphasize the dire situation and the need for the crew to keep the focus on sailing so that they would not succumb to despair: “Keep her head up! Keep her head up!” (Crane 36). In their inner monologues, the characters also use repetitions as the means of reconciling with the situation and accepting the possibility of death while refraining from panicking: “If I’m going to be drowned – if I’m going to be drowned – if I’m going to be drowned […]” (Crane 36). Thus, repetitions allow the characters to anchor themselves in reality and approach the situation rationally.

The described effect of repetition in literature has been noticed and explored by numerous scholars (Bekmuradova 1420; Kurbanova 161; Erkinbayevich 44). Specifically, Javed and Janjua explain that the use of anaphora allows maintaining “the emotive function” in a narrative, thus, allowing the author to keep the characters’ cues more assertive and supportive simultaneously (65). In turn, Crane uses repetition masterfully, embracing its potential and making it mark the like-mindedness between the characters, their efforts to support each other, and the sense of an impending doom at once.


Finally, the use of metaphor as a literary device that emphasizes the rapidly developing camaraderie between the characters and the warmth and support that they have for each other is worth consideration. Though the speech of each member of the crew, from the captain to the journalist, is stripped of unnecessary embellishments, certain metaphors still slip through the cracks, making their conversation livelier and more natural. Specifically, “The Open Boat” features several instances of metaphor use in communication, one of which includes the speech that the captain makes at the point when the crew reaches the point of despair: “It is crazy. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes” (Crane 25). The comparison of the fate to an old and often unkind or unjust woman is not a particularly original statement, yet it makes the sense of despair and exhaustion in the captain and the crew members almost palpable.

Epithet in a Metaphor

In fact, the speech under analysis also features an important use of an epithet as a tool for amplifying the effects of the statements made by the captain and promote the sense of mutual support within the team. Namely, by labelling the fate as an “old ninny-woman,” the captain expresses scorn and disdain for the challenges and misfortunes that the fate throws at the characters despite their desperate efforts to stay alive (Crane 25). Thus, even the metaphors that might come across as having lesser significance and being used solely for making the characters’ personalities more pronounced through their speech turn out to have implicit meanings that allow dwelling on the relationships between the protagonists, particularly, their mutual support and cooperation despite all odds.

Arguably one could claim that the tradition of comparing fate to an old woman dates back to Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman mythologies, where fates were, in fact, represented by old goddesses (moiras and parcas respectively) (Wilson 10; Joubert 226). While the specified assumption seems to be true due to the enormous cultural impact that Ancient Roman and ancient Greek cultures have produced on literary traditions globally, the portrayal of fate as an old and capricious woman seems to represent not only an allusion to the specified myths, but also an attempt to set the tone for the conversation between the characters (Grohsebner 25.). By incorporating the specified metaphor into the narrative, Crane establishes a common foe that the protagonists must defeat by joining their efforts, which places the focus once again on camaraderie, cooperating, and mutual support. Therefore, the metaphor as one of the many literary devices used in the story contributes to the exploration of the characters.

Metaphor: Continuation

The speech in question as the second example of communication in the short story being advanced with the help of repetition, metaphors, and epithets, demonstrates the importance of metaphor in the narrative especially accurately. Being one of the few examples that contain metaphoric expressions, the captain’s speech serves as a major boost to the crew members’ confidence. The specified outcome of utilizing metaphor in communication becomes possible due to the effective use of a visual shorthand that immediately evokes a clear image in the reader’s mind, namely, that one of “the metaphor old woman = goddess of faith Parca” (Božić 89). Therefore, the metaphor functions on multiple levels in communication within the story.

First, it makes the conversation in “The Open Boat” significantly more nuanced than it might seem at first glance. Furthermore, the mentioning of fate sends an immediate message of despair and hopelessness to the reader, signaling the characters’ readiness to abandon their efforts and give in to the fate. Thirdly and finally, the specified metaphor helps establish the sense of mutual support and cooperation between the characters. By emphasizing that all of them are bound by the same circumstances and depend on fate and luck rather than their skill, the specified statement might seem slightly morbid, yet it emphasizes that all of them will deal with these challenges together (Titlestad 107). Rendering the importance of mutual support, the few uses of metaphor in the short story makes communication between the protagonists make the message all the more palatable and prominent.


Therefore, “the Open Boat” features communication that conveys the importance of collaboration and support in the time of extreme hardships by integrating devices such as metaphor, repetition, and epithets into the conversations between characters. As seen from the examples above, the focus on keeping each of the team members calm and composed while also encouraging a jo0int effort to address the seemingly desperate situation is rendered perfectly with the help of the dialogues between the characters. While the inner monologues of the latter also contribute to the narrative substantially, it is their interaction that makes the key message all the louder and more effective.


Though the dialogue in “The Open Boat” might seem lacking in diversity, with its main focus being kept solely on the characters navigating the open sea, communication between the characters in “The Open Boat” sends a clear message of support and cooperation by using literary devices such as repetition, epithet, and metaphor. Thus, Crane manages to convey the warmth and appreciation that the characters have for one another. As a result, the protagonists of “The Open Boat” turn out to be unbelievably strong emotionally and spiritually, which contrasts strikingly and quite harshly with the treatment that the ocean gives them, nearly making death an inevitable outcome for all four. Thus, communication serves as a powerful device for expressing the underlying sense of friendship building between the characters.

Works Cited

Bekmuradova, Iroda. “Anaphora, epiphora and their lingvopoetic features in Halima Ahmedova’s Poetry.” ACADEMICIA: An International Multidisciplinary Research Journal, vol. 11, no. 10, 2021, pp. 1419-1422.

Božić, Rafaela. “On Translating Metaphors. Problems of Research Methodology.” Croatica et Slavica Iadertina, vol. 14, no. 14, 2018, pp.: 87-99.

Erkinbayevich, Eshchonov Sanjar. “Theories of the Stylistics of The Composite Sentences.” Eurasian Research Bulletin, vo. 2, 2021, pp. 43-45.

Grohsebner, Sabrina. “Threads of Life: The Golden Age Midwife admdist Cloth, Tissue and Antique Deities of Fate.” Avisos de Viena, vol. 1, 2020, pp. 20-28.

Javed, Saira, and Fouzia Janjua. “Using ‘Verbal Parallelism’as a Tool in Developing Jakobsonian Six Functions of language: A Case study of Dastoor by Habib Jalib.” Hayatian Journal of Linguistics and Literature, UOG, vol. 1, pp. 58-70.

Joubert, Stephan. “When God alters our fate: Relational freedom in Romans 5: 1–11 and 8: 18–39.” Stellenbosch Theological Journal, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 223-241.

Kurbanova, Nasiba. “Parcellation, Its Importance in Speech, Features and Stylistic Units.” Mental Enlightenment Scientific-Methodological Journal, vol. 2, 2020, pp. 158-166.

Titlestad, Michael. “Stephen Crane and James Hanley’s Open Boats.” Shipwreck Narratives: Out of our Depth. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2021. Pp. 103-112.

Wilson, Jeffrey R. “The Fortunes of Fate in Hamlet: Divine Providence and Social Determination.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 1, 2020, pp. 10-26.