Existential Absurdity in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1897)

Is the universe a chaos or a cosmos?

Today’s quote comes from Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat” (1897).

Stranded in a small life boat and caught in huge ocean swells—yet tantalizingly close to shore—four men contemplate their absurd situation in Camus-like terms.

Though pre-dating the French existentialists by nearly half a century, the passage below is sometimes cited as an illustration of human existential problematics:

As for the men, there was a great deal of rage in them. Perchance they might be formulated thus: ‘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 tree? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decied to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble? The whole affair is absurd.—But no; she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. Not after all this work.’ Afterward the man might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds. ‘Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!’

The billows that came at this time were more formidable. They seemed always just about to break and roll over the little boat in a turmoil of foam.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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