The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
from The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories
This Level 1 ELLSA lesson can be accessed on the internet at
Lesson plan and text: Jeffrey Taschner, John Morgan, 1999
Print and web-adaptation: John Morgan, 1999
? USIA, 1999. All rights reserved
The Open Boat is a dramatic short story based on Stephen Crane’s own real-life
experience, when a ship he was sailing on to Cuba sank in high seas off the coast of Florida. He was a correspondent for an American newspaper and he was on his way to write about problems that led up to The Spanish-American War in 1898.
As the story opens, four men: a cook, a correspondent, an oiler and a captain, are in a lifeboat in stormy seas. They are off the coast of Florida, just after their ship has sunk. Soon, they spot the light of a lighthouse somewhere in the distance, so they know they are near land. Although they can eventually see the shore, the waves are so big that it is too dangerous to try to take the boat in to land. The waves will destroy the lifeboat and possibly crash hard on the men in the surf, maybe killing them.
People on the shore see the lifeboat and try to signal to the men to come in, but the sea is just too rough. The four men in the boat hope that the people on land will send a bigger boat out to rescue them, but that does not happen. Instead, the men are forced to take the boat further out to sea, where the waves are not quite as big and dangerous. They spend a total of two nights in the lifeboat and take turns rowing and then resting. They are not sure if they will survive and they have exchanged addresses in case any of them should die.
On the morning after their second night, the men are weak and no fishing boat has come to rescue them. The captain decides that they must try to take the lifeboat as close to shore as possible and then be ready to swim when the surf inevitably turns the boat over and throws the men into the cold sea. This is exactly what happens. As they get closer to land, the waves get bigger and bigger. Just as they expect, a big wave comes and all the men are thrown into the sea. The lifeboat turns over and the four men must swim into shore. There are rescuers waiting on shore who help the men out of the water.
Strangely, as the cook, captain and correspondent reach the shore safely and are helped out of the water, they discover that, somehow, the oiler, the strongest man and best swimmer, has drowned after being smashed in the surf by a huge wave. As night comes, the men still hear the pounding of the waves on the shore — the voice of
the sea. Now, they understand the power of the sea, and how easily it can claim even the strongest man’s life.
1b) Vocab checkpoint
• dramatic (adjective) When something is dramatic it is characterized by strong feelings, emotions or adverse physical conditions (as in the meaning used here). It is often used to describe a written style or method of acting (compare with drama, a noun, which means play acting). Also, drama can be used to describe real events, and is often heard in news reports.
• high seas (noun) High seas is a term used to describe rough, open sea where the coast may be at a long distance or not visible at all. It may also be used to describe sea in independent waters (not covered by the law of any particular country).
• oiler (noun) An oiler is an engine room worker on a ship whose job is to keep mechanical parts oiled so they do not go rusty at sea.
• crash (verb) The most common meaning of crash is associated with the collision of cars. Crash may also be used with the action of waves breaking on the shore, or on something like a boat, swimmer or other object in the sea.
• signal (verb) To signal is to indicate using hands, a flag, a fire, lights or flares, etc., with the intention of seeking help from somebody else. A signal as a noun is a physical symbol intended to warn or indicate something to people (e.g. traffic lights may be called traffic signals).
• inevitably (adverb) If something is inevitable it means it will definitely happen, no matter what action is taken to prevent it from happening.
• smashed (verb) Smashed is another way of saying broken. In this case it is used figuratively to describe how the strongest of the men was beaten by the sea.
• huge (adjective) Huge means very large. Common synonyms of huge include
enormous, massive and gigantic.
• pounding (noun) The pounding of the waves describes the constant action and noise of waves breaking against the shore or against the boat. To pound is to beat or hit something constantly.
• claim (verb) To claim in this example, is to take. When a person claims something, they make a statement to say it is their own (as with lost property at a police station). In this case the sea claims the strongest man's life.
2a) Seven Scenes What is the most famous ship to ever sink at sea? What
happened? Have you seen the movie? Try to retell the story as just seven
important scenes or events from the movie. Work with a friend and use just one
sentence for each event.
Compare your Seven Scenes with other people and discuss the story.
Have you ever had, or witnessed an accident in a boat? If not an accident, think
about a frightening (or exciting) experience. What happened? Share your story
or write a short description for another group, who can plan some questions to
interview you about the event.
2b) Analyzing a story's plot: Freytag's Pyramid
Sometimes life is not simple. Stories are not always easy to understand, either.
Gustav Freytag was a Nineteenth Century German novelist who saw common
patterns in the plots of stories and novels and developed a diagram to analyze
hem. He diagrammed a story's plot using a pyramid like the one shown here:
Break Down the Pyramid
Not every story you read can be diagrammed perfectly according to Freytag's
Pyramid, but many can. Before we look at an example with Titanic, lets try to
simplify Freytag's Pyramid by breaking it down into just three parts: beginning,
middle and end.
• Which parts of Freytag's Pyramid would form the beginning of a story?
• Which parts would make up the middle?
• Which parts would make up the end?
The Stages of Freytag's Pyramid
1. Exposition: setting the scene. The writer introduces the characters
and setting, providing description and background.
2. Inciting Incident: something happens to begin the action. A single
event usually signals the beginning of the main conflict. The
inciting incident is sometimes called 'the complication'.
3. Rising Action: the story builds and gets more exciting.
4. Climax: the moment of greatest tension in a story. This is often the most
exciting event. It is the event that the rising action builds up to and that
the falling action follows.
5. Falling Action: events happen as a result of the climax and we know
that the story will soon end.
6. Resolution: the character solves the main problem/conflict or someone
solves it for him or her.
7. Dénouement: (a French term, pronounced: day-noo-moh) the ending.
At this point, any remaining secrets, questions or mysteries which remain
after the resolution are solved by the characters or explained by the
author. Sometimes the author leaves us to think about the THEME or
future possibilities for the characters. You can think of the dénouement
as the opposite of the exposition: instead of getting ready to tell us the
story by introducing the setting and characters, the author is getting ready
to end it with a final explanation of what actually happened and how the
characters think or feel about it. This can be the most difficult part of the
plot to identify, as it is often very closely tied to the resolution.
2c) Titanic Plot Pyramid
To help you understand the definitions above, try to apply each step in Freytag's Pyramid to the seven scenes you wrote down earlier. How well do they fit? Analyze with a partner. Next, copy Freytag's Pyramid on a piece of paper and label each point on the pyramid with these terms:
• Inciting Incident
• Rising Action