Crane’s Use of Companionship, Through the Effects of Nature, in The Open Boat and Red Badge of Courage
In both of these stories, The Open Boat and The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane uses the theme of companionship. The way in which he uses this theme differs in some ways but are also comparable in both stories. In both stories, it is evident that the men all need each other, both mentally and physically. Without one another, it would be inevitable that each and every one of the characters would not have been able to move on and survive without one another. Another similarity between both stories is that an act of nature is what really brings the men together. Yet, another similarity is the fact that in both stories, the men think of themselves throughout the massive ordeals. In The Open Boat, each man wonders to himself, why me, why now? Similarly, in The Red Badge of Courage, Henry feels compelled to believe that he will run cowardly during battle and try to escape death, of which he was terribly afraid. It is evident that in both cases, there is a moment of self-discovery where all characters are forced to take a step back from all the commotion and gather themselves in order for each of them to survive together.
In The Open Boat, the sea storm is the act of nature that draws the men to depend on one another, and in The Red Badge of Courage, the act of nature is a combination of both the squirrel and the dead man against the tree. In both cases, nature has the ultimate ?say? in how the men respond. In The Open Boat, companionship is what allows the men to survive. Without all of the men working together as a team, the small dinghy would have definitely sunk. Had the men not taken turns rowing and sleeping, the fate of those men would have been sealed. Again, it is completely evident that without one another, each of the men would have either gone mad or simply drown. This idea of companionship is comparable in The Red Badge of Courage.
In this story, Henry Fleming, who you will be introduced to later, doesn’t learn the idea and realize the importance of companionship until he himself goes through change and learns the necessity of being there for one another. Fleming learns the hard way, after realizing that he has shamed himself and what he stands for by running, and knowing all of this, makes up for his actions by putting in that extra effort when it was needed. Some may say ?too little, too late,? but in the long run, Henry proved his worth not only to himself, but to his fellow comrades. Like The Open Boat, the point of both stories is that this companionship means the world to each and every one character and it is evident that survival would not have been possible without it.
?Of all Crane’s works The Open Boat is the most direct manifestation of his belief that no man can interpret life without first experiencing it?(Omnibus 420). In Crane’s The Open Boat, the morale and simple idea of having someone, a companion, there besides you through it all, is what allows these men to survive. This is exactly the case with this story. The Captain, without the Oiler, Correspondent, and the Cook, and interchangeably, would not be able to survive without one another out at sea. ?It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. However, it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook , and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common?(Maggie 30). The comradeship between these four men was very strong and is what allowed most of them to live. The fate of all of these men lay in the hands of each other and it seems that the men felt assurance in that. It seemed as though every man had their own intuition of landing safely on shore. They even went as far as believing that there were people intended, in this world, t save them from danger. With the exception the oiler who has kept his head the entire time seeing the realism in their situation; although it is kind of ironic that he is the only one who doesn’t make it. ?A symbolic detail at the very beginning of The Open Boat prepares for the final incident, the death of the oiler. He is represented by the oar he steers:’It was a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap’?(Omnibus 417).
However, the idea that each of these men thought about themselves and how each of them were going to live, this idea of comradeship is questioned. Each of these men began to question the sea, Mother Nature, and each other. ?The whole affair is absurd? But no, she cannot mean to drown me. Not after all of this work?(Maggie 35). The anger built up over this frequently asked question seemed to take it’s toll on the morale of each of the men. The selfishness of each of the men is seen in the past quotation; the idea of the men thinking of ?me?. Again, it is not until such an act of nature to bring about the theme of companionship amongst these men. It is not until after each of the men, respectively, asked that same question that they realize that they must work together in order to survive. This is the same exact type of situation that occurs in Red Badge in which only an act of nature can bring about such a change of heart.
It is not until nature takes her toll on the men that they act almost like children, longing for the companionship of one another. After taking turns rowing, being exhausted from this task, and having ?Gawd? knows what running through their heads, do they come to realize the importance of each others company, both mentally and physically. ?Nevertheless, it is true that he (the correspondent)did not wish to be alone. He wished one of his companions to awaken by chance and keep him company with it?(45). It seems that this goes on throughout the entire story; each of the men feeling afraid and lonely through it all and then having that feeling of comfort through each other’s company. I definitely think that this is what allowed the men to survive. In the end, it is through the roughness of nature that each man gains some wisdom and is able to gain compassion for the worth of the lives of each other. At the end of the story, it is evident that each man, with the exception of the oiler, has beaten their fear of both nature, the sea, and death.
The challenges of battling out nature take it’s toll on these men, who fought with all of their heart, souls, and mind. With the example of the correspondent having the naked man save his friends rather than take to the needs of himself, it is apparent that each man is completely engulfed with the well being of each other. In the end, none of the men are thinking about their own lives, rather they seem to be more interested in seeing each of the men that helped them survive, be the ones who make it out alive. Through the hardship that they have just endured, they feel that their visions of safety must be met. Unfortunately, all but one make it out alive. ?Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature?(54). It is obvious here that ?every detail or image is patterned, one thing linked to another, and thus designed, the short story evokes a significance transcending the literal, experienced, event?(Biography 257).
As I have shown, it is evident that each of the men, naturally, through their hardships, thinks of themselves first and what is going to happen to them. It is not until some force of nature literally smacks them upside the back of the head before they realize the importance of each other and how none would have survived without each other. This idea is also strongly proven in Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. It isn’t until Fleming realizes that through his ordeal with the squirrel and the dead man that he realizes he must act as one with his fellow soldiers in order for any good to come of it. Unfortunately, like in The Open Boat, not everyone escapes death, but if the characters in both stories had not acted as one, would any of them have lived?
In the course of the novel, Henry Fleming, a young soldier from New York State, gives up his romantic dreams of war once he makes it through the trials of battle and begins to understand the true meaning of courage. As Henry will soon realize, war changes men and the mentality of these men. The experience of war transforms even Wilson, a loud, headstrong, and proud soldier, to overcome his anxiety. In short, Henry is somewhat wiser to the brutal affairs of war, and as a result, he understands more about himself and his own prowess. Henry can see himself as the hero of the group, for his seizure of the flag is Henry’s ultimate rite of passage. Like Henry, Wilson also begins the book as an immature, boastful young soldier, but through battle, he reexamines himself and gains wisdom and compassion. As the regiment prepares for their first battle, Henry Fleming asks Wilson whether he shares his fears, but the loud soldier spouts confidently, We’ve got ?em now. At last, by the eternal thunders, we’ll lick ?em good! (Great 18). His joy irritates Henry, who challenges Wilson, saying that he may well run when the battle comes. Wilson replies cooly, Oh, that’s all true, I s’pose . . . but I’m not going to skedaddle. The man that bets on my running will lose his money, that’s all (19). Henry is not the only one experiencing problems with bravery. Despite his outward appearance, Wilson is similarly insecure and fears fighting in the upcoming battle. He copes with his fright in a different manner than Henry. Rather than ponder over his fears, Wilson obnoxiously exhibits that he feels sure of himself. In fact, just before the battle begins, Wilson hands Henry a packet of letters for his family after his death, for Wilson is certain he is about to be killed. By the battle’s end, Wilson matures and develops. The loud soldier is not more. The narrator now calls him the friend. In other words, he has fundamentally changed to the point that he needs a new name. Henry notices these changes himself. Wilson becomes irritated easily, and is no longer interested in demonstrating his valor. The loud soldier who boasts about how well he will fight but through battle gains a sense of tranquillity.
?The Red Badge of Courage is not simply one of the earliest realistic novels about war, it is a poetic fable about the attempt of a young man to discover a real identity in battle?(Red Badge viii). To begin, the Civil War’s hardships compel Henry Fleming into a journey of self-discovery, and it is not until an act of nature that he realizes the true courage that he has deep down within his soul. As the novel opens, Henry, determined and anxious to fight in the war, fantasizes grand battles and heroic struggles for life and death; neither the Union cause nor the possibility of cowardice arise in his initial thoughts of battle. He knows that he wants what is best for his regiment and for himself. However, once he leaves home, Henry’s visions of glory sink quickly as he becomes concerned about his potential. While lying in his tent, realizing that he has finally about to enter his first battle, it occurs to Henry ? that perhaps in a battle he might run.? This is where, as I have mentioned earlier, Henry begins to have selfish thoughts about his own fate, which, like in The Open Boat with all of those characters, is only natural.
Henry, searching for some reassurances, begins to talk to and question some of the other soldiers in his regiment. It is evident that Henry wants to be a legendary hero like the ones he has read about, but at the same time, his fears nag at him, making him doubt his own self-confidence. He questions his fellow soldiers in an attempt to gain some confirmation on his anxieties and wonders whether they will accept him later should he run from the battle. When he does not find the answers that he is looking for he begins to feel very frightened, alone, and even more confused about what he believes he will do. Finally, the army moves and Henry gets his first look at battle. Henry stands and fights like most of the other men in his regiment during the first skirmish of the day, but by the time the day’s second skirmish rolls around, Henry is exhausted and terrified. He sees two men near him throw down their weapons and run, so Henry also threw down his gun and fled. There was no shame in his face. He ran like a rabbit? (39). Instantly, it seems that Henry feels that he has acted out of cowardice and tries to justify his flight in his own mind. He convinces himself that the regiment was about to be defeated and that’s why he ran. In reality, the regiment fought off the Confederate Army and won the battle.
In his flight from battle and effort to rejoin his regiment, a change begins to occur in him. Over and over in his mind he tries to justify his actions and reassure himself that he had not run out of cowardice. At one point while walking through the forest, Henry receives a sort of reassurance from nature. He threw a pine cone at a squirrel ?and it (the squirrel) ran with chattering fear? (45). To Henry this meant that running in the face of danger is a natural instinct and did not arise from cowardice. This ?omen? from nature was the reassurance that changed his attitude towards his entire task at hand. ?This chattering fear of the frightened squirrel, fleeing when Henry Fleming throws a pine cone at him, parallels the plight of the hero under shellfire?(Omnibus 417).
When Henry finally rejoins his fellow troops, he seems to be changed. Again, not too long after Henry got there, the regiment was yet again thrust into battle. This time Henry stood his ground. He stayed up on the front line and even continued to fire even after all those around him had ceased. Henry had become so fierce during this second battle. He realizes that he had been a barbarian, a beast (99). In his mind, Henry feels that he has become a hero yet he had been oblivious to the process. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself (10). Crane communicates the initial stage of Henry’s transformation when Henry expresses uncertainty of who he is. This also relates to the fact that he wants to make a difference. One can only be lead to believe that he was thinking of not only saving himself here, but the lives of his comrades.
He then comes across a dead man leaning beside a tree. Crane notes Henry’s reaction to the corpse: The youth gave a shriek as he confronted the thing. He was for moments turned to stone before it. He remained staring into the liquid-looking eyes. The dead man and the living man exchanged a long look. Then the youth cautiously put one hand behind him and brought it against a tree. Leaning upon this he retreated, step by step, with his face still toward the thing (64). Because the squirrel fled from the pine cone, Henry believes nature’s law to be that threatened animals flee from danger. Now, Henry reaches a place in the forest that resembles a chapel, an incredible metaphor for the heart of nature. Here, he realizes that the image of the decaying man truly reflects the laws of nature?not the fleeing squirrel, but the death he had been trying so hard to escape from at the battle site. When the dead soldier and the living one stand facing each other, the young soldier realizes that although he can cowardly run from a battle, he can not evade the fate of death; a fate, not only that he will encounter, but his fellow soldiers will endure as well. Here, he realizes that if he doesn’t fight as one with the other soldiers, nature, moreover death, will have the final say as to the fate of them all.
Towards the end of the novel, the final charge begins. Henry, almost not even realizing it, has taken control of the entire regiment and is leading them to victory. It is his courage and will that allow him to keep going, yelling ?come on,? ?come on,? leading his comrades to victory. During the final battle, Henry runs like a madman . . . and the scene a wild blur. Pulsating saliva at the corners of his mouth (89). Henry’s madness is derived from the pressures of war. The pressures from the commanders and the enemies make him speed forward toward the firing guns. Thus, Henry, aware that he must face some form of death, moves beyond his terrified and cautious childhood that prompted him to desert the first battle early on, and, instead, courageously rushes to rescue the falling American flag. Henry feels it is his personal duty to save that which represents his regiment’s achievements and is a tangible sign of their success. He risks being shot at, for he is an easy target, and displays courage and willpower. He feels love for the flag and feels it his duty to save this flag, which represents all that he and his comrades are fighting for. It is here, that Henry has finally realized the importance of companionship with his fellow soldiers; without all of them fighting together, they all would have died.
It is evident that in both of these stories, this theme of companionship is strong. Whether it be on the battlefield or in the sea, one relies on another to make it through. Through Crane, I have also shown that as important as comradeship is, one will ultimately think about themselves first and think of how one can save himself. It isn’t until some act of nature enlightens those characters into being lead away from the selfish thoughts that ran through the minds of these men, and make them concentrate on the whole picture and makes these characters realize that they need each other in order for survival. Again, whether it be on the ocean trying to stay alive, or on the battlefield trying to help out the cause, nature has the ultimate say in how one will react to any given situation.
Crane, Stephen. Great Short Works of Stephen Crane. Harper
And Row, Publishers. New York. 1965, 1968. (Great)
Crane, Stephen. Maggie and Other Stories. The Modern
Library. New York. 1933. (Maggie)
Crane, Stephen. An Omnibus. Alfred Knopf, Inc.
New York. 1952. (Omnibus)
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Oxford
University Press. New York. 1969. (Red Badge)
Stallman, R.W. Stephen Crane A Biography. George
Braziller. New York. 1968. (Biography)