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The following excerpt taken from, Stephen Crane’s, “Open Boat,” clearly exemplifies how the naturalistic writer personified his setting in order to convey the message that the universe is apathetic towards the insignificant existence of mankind:

“When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, he wishes to  throw bricks at his temples, and hates that there are no bricks and no temple. (Crane)”

The personification of nature illustrates how Crane utilized the setting of his short story as an antagonist of sorts, and thus as a substantial main character. This is exemplified in the ocean’s ability to shape the events of the story, in that there is a gradual development of its characteristics as is conveyed through Crane’s description of the sea, and in how Crane creates a second overlooked character in the boat itself which represents the clash of the individual against nature. With consideration of setting in Stephen Crane’s, “Open Boat,” a comprehensive analysis of the various constituents associated with the backdrop of a literary piece demonstrates how the setting acts to function as a major character in a piece of literature.

According to, “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing,” by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, the development of a character is defined as, “a gradual process in which the character is introduced, advanced, and possibly transformed within a story” (Gioia and Kennedy 57). Bearing this in mind, the introduction of the symbolic character that is nature is the most obvious, as is depicted in the  first paragraph as Crane writes, “These waves were gray, except for the tops, which were white, and all the men knew the colors of the sea.” It is also seen in the title in and of itself, in that it denotes as to how vulnerable the members of the boat are to the forces of nature. Moreover, it implies that the setting is a substantial character, in that Crane chooses to introduce it above all other elements of his story. That being said, the emphasis that is placed on the way that the waves oscillate between extremes, is a clear exemplification of the setting’s advancement, in that it affects the events in the story, as well as the overall spirits of the men inside the small ship. For example, in the beginning of the story, Crane describes the surf as, “frightfully rapid and tall; and each boiling, white top was a problem in the small boat,” which left the captain and his men, “feeling defeat and despair.” However, when the captain and his crew find themselves close to shore, Crane notes how, “the sea changed from gray to green,” and how they could hear, “the low thunder of waves, beating on the shore,” which caused for doubt and fear to leave the minds of these men. What’s more, is that the development of the setting serves a crucial purpose in the story, in that it reflects how unpredictable nature can be to the individual as they from each moment to the next in life. Although this progression of the ocean provides ample evidence as to how the functionality of setting in Stephen Crane’s, “Open Boat,” is that of a main character, the vivid descriptions that Crane ascribes to nature further substantiates this argument.

Throughout, “Open Boat,” crane depicts nature as a powerful God-like woman, as is demonstrated when the correspondent thinks to himself, “This tower represent – the calm of Nature against the struggles of the individual. Nature did not seem cruel, kind dangerous, nor wise. But she was not interested, completely not interested.” Fundamentally, this narration exemplifies the characterization of setting in Crane’s short story, as it clearly indicates character traits. First and foremost, in using, ‘she,’ to reference Nature, it is irrefutable that this character is a woman, as in mother nature. In addition, by stating that Nature, is not interested, Crane brilliantly gives the setting a sense of feeling. as you would find in a character, even though it is one of indifference. Moreover, several references throughout the text portray nature as a God-like entity. One example is seen in the crew members musings of the fates, as Crane writes, ““It is crazy. If this old fool woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be forced from the management of men’s fortunes.” This depiction creates for one along the lines greek mythologies, in that a female God is used to encapsulate the forces of nature. While this characterization further bolsters the argument that setting operates as one of the main characters in, “Open Boat,” the overlooked character found within the boat itself validates this assertion.

Often, the most obvious answer or demonstration is so noticeable that it goes overlooked. In the case of Stephen Cranes, “Open Boat,” the most apparent demonstration of how setting serves as a character is found in the setting of the boat itself. On a macroscopic level, the boat is a metaphorical character that symbolizes humankind, and to a certain extent society, against the forces of nature. As the boat crashes against the waves of the sea, Crane prolifically sets the stage for the conflict between his two metaphorical characters, which is that of the tribulations of the individual against extrinsic powers greater than himself. Even the title of Crane’s work gives away the state of this character, in that it is defenseless, or open, to the ways in which nature governs the individual’s life. This vulnerable characteristic is further articulated in Crane’s descriptions of the boat, in that  it is a, “small boat,” with oars, “that seemed ready to break,” and that had, “comfortable sea water in the bottom of the boat.” On a rudimentary level, these descriptions are utilized by Crane to illustrate how the individual can be easily broken by the strength of nature.

A.W.

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