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Comparison Of The Open Boat And The Law Of Life

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Naturalist writers of short stories in the early 1900’s often conclude their stories with a death or tragedy. Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” both follow this pattern by illustrating events leading up to and including death. More importantly, each author defines nature and it’s bearing on his or her ideas of society, hierarchy, and morality.

Whereas each author has a different definition of nature, their ideas on other aspects of life run both parallel and perpendicular to one another. In Jack London’s stories we find a very dramatic description of life, and on the other hand, Stephen Crane’s description is quite cynical.

Through setting, plot, and characterization, London’s “To Build A Fire” gives the reader a dramatic description of life and conveys a message that humans need to be social in order to survive. London sets an average, middle-aged logger on a deserted Yukon trail during the wintry season where the temperature is seventy-five degrees below zero. The logger, accompanied only by his husky, is traveling to a location ten miles away in order to meet his companions. The man is placed in this Yukon environment in order to symbolize that in this cold, cruel world one must learn to benefit from others.

Prior to embarking on his journey, the logger was advised from an old-timer at Sulfur Creek. He was told “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.” The arrogant logger regarded this as “rather womanish”, and assured himself that he was capable of making the trek alone. Not far in his travels, the character encounters death as he falls into a spring. “At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep. He wet himself halfway up the knees before he floundered out to the firm crust.” In this disaster, the logger proceeds to build a fire under the canopy of a nearby tree, but as the flames rose, the snow covering the canopy of the tree began to fall and ultimately distinguish the fire. London created these natural events not to destroy the character, but to illustrate his death as a result of his arrogance in believing he could survive independent of society.

Through the device of characterization, the author is able to display how the other characters of the story benefited from society. The old-timer at Sulfur Creek illustrates the ability of individuals to gain wisdom from other’s life experiences. Whereas, the logger’s companions at Henderson Creek convey survival through togetherness, the dog illustrates the importance of instincts and being suited to one’s environment.

In Jack London’s dramatic view of life and nature, the environment of which we are a part primarily defines humans. With this in mind, society, hierarchy and morality play a different role from which we are accustomed. As illustrated above, social actions are a necessary part of survival in London’s worldview. However, a hierarchy, or pecking order, as well as morality are non-existent or unimportant in his perception of nature.

In contrast, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” exemplifies other ideals of nature and the human psyche. In his story, three features of naturalist writing are apparent. Through determinism, objectivity and pessimism, Crane defines the human environment and his perception of the world.

Determinism is the most obvious and overwhelming factor of human struggle in the story. Throughout, the reader is given a sense that the fate of the four main characters, the cook, the oiler, the correspondent, and the captain are totally predetermined by nature, and that they are not their own moral agents. “The little boat, lifted by each towering sea and splashed viciously by the crests, made progress that in the absence of seaweed was not apparent to those in her.” The characters had no control over their boat; rather nature was totally in control. “She seemed just a wee thing wallowing, miraculously top up, at the mercy of the five oceans. Occasionally, a great spread of water, like white flames, swarmed into her.” There is also a sense that man is totally unimportant to the natural forces controlling his fate. “When it occurs to man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply that there are no bricks and no temples.” The one character who perishes, the oiler, is a victim of determinism. Even as he was so close to land and no longer out to sea, nature still takes its role in determining his fate.

Objectivity refers to how the author describes reality as it exists. That is, not glorifying something, but simply stating the observation. The fact that the narrator is the correspondent in itself gives an impression on how the story is going to be told in a journalistic sense, describing actual events instead of feelings or ideas. “In the meantime the oiler and the correspondent rowed. They sat together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then the oiler took both oars; then the correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they rowed.” Writing something repeatedly in the manner Crane does in this passage gives the reader a sense of the repetitiveness and the frustration the four main characters faced being lost at sea.

Finally, the idea of pessimism is apparent throughout the entire story. Although the four men do have the will to survive, it seems as if nature is playing the most important role. “If I am going to be drowned-if I am going to be drowned-if I am going to be drowned, why in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees.” This passage is repeated several times in the story, strengthening the idea that a sense of pessimism is present throughout, while also expressing the anger the characters feel toward the ever-present fate of nature.

The entire story is a portrayal not of the conflict between man and nature, but rather the effect and control nature has on human fate, strengthening the naturalistic ideas and views through this tale of four stranded men. The fact that the waves, the tides, the freezing water and all the other characteristics of the controlling force are ever-present make the sea the most important character in “The Open Boat”, the four men are just the vehicle which brings this through to the reader.

Whereas Stephen Crane’s idea of survival through social togetherness is very similar to that of Jack London, Crane introduces ideas of hierarchy and morality, which are nonexistent in London’s writing. In “The Open Boat”, a hierarchy is developed through character titles and the role they play in every day life. Morality is a much more important aspect of the story which is primarily expressed through the responsibility taken by the oiler and the correspondent in rowing the boat. Without this assumption of responsibility, the characters would have surely drowned at the beginning of the story.

Though Jack London and Stephen Crane have very different ideas about the description of life and nature, London’s being dramatic and Crane’s being cynical, Their ideas on other aspects of life such as society, hierarchy and morality run both parallel and perpendicular to one another.

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