The Open Boat by Stephen Crane Summary

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

''The Open Boat'' tells a brooding tale about their struggle to survive. This lesson will provide a section-by-section summary of Stephen Crane's classic short story about four men lost at sea.

'The Open Boat'

'The Open Boat', a short story by American author Stephen Crane, tells the tale of four men who are adrift in a dinghy and desperately trying to reach the shore. Their interactions with each other and their environment create an atmospheric tale of human struggle against an indifferent natural world. Although the story is based on Crane's real experience of surviving a shipwreck off the coast of Florida, 'The Open Boat' is a fictional tale.

The story
Old Boat


Section I

The story begins in a tiny boat, where four men watch the churning sea around them. The cook is crouched in the bottom of the boat, while the oiler steers with one oar. The correspondent propels them with the other oar, and the captain lies injured in the bow. The cook and the oiler seem most engaged with their surroundings, but the captain is despondent, and the correspondent ponders their fate.

The cook and the correspondent argue about the difference between a 'lifesaving station' and a 'house of refuge.' The oiler ends the argument by reminding them that they are not at either yet.

Section II

The men alternately express optimism and doubt. Gulls surround the boat, and one of them lands on the captain's head. He waves it away, but the men take this as an omen. The men row, delicately moving across the boat to take turns at it.

The captain thinks he spots a lighthouse and the cook agrees, though the correspondent sees nothing but a 'still thing' that looks 'like the point of a pin.' They row towards it as the cook bails water that has settled in the boat.

Section III

The men make a sail out of the captain's overcoat, and the oiler steers toward the lighthouse, which has become larger on the horizon. The cook estimates their location, but remembers that the lifesaving station he thinks is nearby has been abandoned. The wind dies down, and the oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing again. They are tired and hungry, and the rowing becomes difficult. The captain cautions them to save energy for the swim they may have to make to shore. They get closer to land.

The correspondent finds eight cigars in his pocket, four of which are still dry. They smoke the cigars, drink water, and feel hopeful that they will be safe soon.

Section IV

The men can see the shore now, but the water is getting rough, and no one appears to rescue them. They decide to row towards the shore until they swamp the boat and then swim. The men exchange addresses with which to notify kin in case of death. The men rage privately at the possibility that they could make it this far and still die.

The seas get rough before they are close enough to swim, so they take the boat back out to sea, hoping they will eventually be spotted. They take turns rowing, battling wind, waves, and currents. One of the men spots a figure on the shore. They tie a towel onto a stick and wave it to make themselves more visible. They see the figure run, then stop, then meet another figure on what appears to be a bicycle. The men imagine that they see these figures with a lifeboat, but it turns out to be an 'omnibus' from a resort hotel. The man waves his coat in the air as if to signal them, but no one understands his meaning. Night falls and they can no longer see the shore.

Section V

The oiler and the correspondent take turns sleeping and rowing throughout the night. The sea calms, and they steer toward a light. The correspondent is rowing as the others sleep when a shark begins to swim next to the boat.

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