Three men clamor from a sinking ship onto a lifeboat. They are known only as “The Captain”, “The Cook”, “The Oiler” and “The Correspondent”. The point of view is localized omniscient: more and more insight is available around the correspondent, and occasionally we even learn exactly what is going on inside his mind in a given moment.
The men spend some days and a couple nights in the lifeboat, hoping and fearing, rowing and sloshing, eventually capsizing and having to swim as they approach the shore. Actually, The Oiler’s demise is probably due to attempting to swim the whole way. The other three use flotation devices to roll in with the surf.
You feel like you are in the boat. The gray sky and sea. The sloshing dinghy, overspilling cold waters, general exhaustion, backbreaking rowing, sleepy camaraderie.
Melodic, soft. In the boat with the oiler, cook, captain and correspondent. The first surprised night. The long dark night while correspondent and oiler take turns rowing. The wind’s ashore and so they’re hopeful.
The light house or house of refuge or something, but held off by the crashing shore waves.
It turned out to be abandoned. They, not knowing that for sure at the time (although some having heard a rumor), curse the laziness and cowardice of the (nonexistent) station watchers.
And there’s a later dashed hope: The useless people on shore with omnibuses, and a man waiving a coat for hours signifying what??
Long night of exhausted rowing. “Can you spell for me a bit?” “Sure Billy!” The cook and captain sleep. A shark circles. The camaraderie of the four men that the correspondent already knows is the best experience of his life.
Infinite fidelity to the wounded and spirit-dashed captain giving gentle commands while lying in the soggy hull. “Bail her out, cook.” “Yes captain!” the cook replies cheerfully. Night turns day.
The second morning. Rowing towards shore. No life seen but there’s houses.
How can God let me live to be tempted by the shore only to drown after so much effort? Countless men have died at sea, but still —
They’ll row until the ship’s swamped and swim for it.
The oiler in front. The cook floating on a buoy. The captain’s good hand on the capsized dinghy. The correspondent with a flotation device around his waist doggy paddling slow to conserve strength. Caught in an eddy. Again prefers not to die.
The shining naked hero on the shore rescues them. But the oiler floats face down. Succor on the beach, but not for the oiler.
Men with blankets, clothes, flasks. Women with coffee pots. A type of heaven.
The white waves pace the beach. They think they can interpret the sound.
Drab gray days and sloshed about by and sprayed with cold seawater. You also lay in cold seawater against a wooden hull to rest and sleep. Nights dark. The vague beach. An unnamed lighthouse. Useless people milling and waving from the shore. Florida beaches and beach houses close but too far. Gulls float next to you, eyeing uncannily. Heavy, crashing, boat-swamping waves as you approach the shore. Precariousness of boat shown in th captain’s inability to wave the gulls off vigorously without fear of capsizing her; and by the extreme (and well-detailed) caution required when the correspondent and narrator traded places.
Brief cheery conversations between the men bound by their life-and-death struggle and shared total exhaustion.
The Oiler: Exhausted from working a double-shift before the shipwreck. A young man. One of the two spry enough to row. Cheery to relieve the correspondent or accept the captain’s orders. Grumpy to hear talk of pie. Sympathetic exhausted eyes when correspondent denounces people for enjoying rowing as a hobby.
The Cook: Fat arms. Exempt, probably from weight, age, and general condition, from rowing. Cheerful when captain says, “bail us out cook”. Happy to stand watch to let the oiler and correspondent both sleep one night (he’s watching to see that they don’t get to close to shore; if they do, the waves will get too big and capsize them). Arguing slightly with correspondent in the beginning: about exactly what houses of refuge do.
The Captain: Already injured, presumably from the shipwreck itself. Crushed by the sunken ship and seven gray faces. Lying in the bow, commanding with a gentle voice. Checks the men’s early hopefulness, but then says, “we’ll get to shore yet, boys.” Presence and empathy of mind to tell cook to lay on his back and us the oar to paddle to shore, and to tell the correspondent to swim over to the capsized boat, and to waive off the rescuer, directing him to the correspondent.
The Correspondent: He tells the story, though not head on.
The narrator is kind of third person. He calls the correspondent “the correspondent”, but we all know Crane is the correspondent, and we also sometimes hear the correspondent’s thoughts, but no other’s. Example from the beginning: The correspondent wondered why he was there.
The exhausted correspondent cheerfully exchanges places with the exhausted rower.
Since we identify the correspondent with the narrator, the irony of the former bleeds seamlessly with that of the latter (you see Crane’s personality in both, which makes sense, since they are both Crane). Example: the narrator speaks of a peculiar disadvantage of the sea being that as soon as one wave’s passed, another arises; the correspondent expresses his disdain for people who enjoy rowing as a sport (when he and oiler have been exhausted at the oars for hours on end).
On more than one occasion we hear of his consternation at dying after going through so much, which he also suggests (how? where?) is the universal opinion of the four in the boat.
These four men blend together. They are melded together in that tiny dinghy that tumbles along with the fierce, foaming, overbreaking waves. They’re forever cheery and gentle with one another. Even in their contempt for the useless people on shore (real and imagined), there’s a sense of lightheardedness* and distance in their mood. Maybe to some degree, the reality of the moment is subsumed by the narrator’s own sense of gentle irony. But the story’s sense is clear: Riding together with a shared exhaustion, danger, purpose, origin and goal, they become a shared light.
[*Really?? The narrator says, “The light-heartedness of a former time had completely faded. To their sharpened minds it was easy to conjure pictures of all kinds of incompetency and blindness, and, indeed, cowardice. There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign.”
But then the captain, who is the kind competent leader throughout speaks:
“Well,” said the captain, ultimately, “I suppose we’ll have to make a try for ourselves. If we stay out here too long, we’ll none of us have the strength left to swim after the boat swamps.”
This reader still felt an all-pervading gentleness from the characters, and considers the bit about “the light-heartedness of a former time had completely faded” as a somewhat ironic way to say they blustered on a bit. Blustering on does not necessarily correlate to real anger.]
Word Choices: Dialogue sparse. Inner world of correspondent breaks forward from time to time. Colors prominent. Vivid description of bucking bronco boat. Irony throughout.
The story makes you feel yourself in the boat, but wrapped up in the irony of the narrator, and imbued with the gentle kindly fellowship of the four men. The language is always beautiful, and you roll with the sea, and sit commiserating with the usually calm, but occasionally a little blustery (which in this case, seems really just a kind of hale and hearty way to blow off a little lavender while remaining essentially calm) of the life-or-deathers. You worry Billie’d been too noble: thought he could swim for it and so let the others to the floatables. You wish he’d stayed with the boat with the captain. Or maybe he’d been too ambitious or vainglorious, thinking himself still up for the swim. Or maybe a little of everything. But most of all he’d been like 20 and completely exhausted from days of effort beyond which most of us ever attempt.
The correspondent, who’d been trained to be cynical, knew right then and there that this was the greatest experience of his life. What was the experience? It came years after writing “The Red Badge of Courage” (which he wrote at 23, having never experienced combat), but it was the real experience of life or death, completely relying on oneself and a band of brothers. And it turned out to be full of love and friendship. It was as if people want most of all to be good: when they are at the edge of life and death, they find there’s nothing left but to be friends, live kind and gentle, and work together with a common joy and resolve.
It’s harder to be good in larger and more anonymous groups, or in settings where there’s more leeway, or that go on beyond the limits of one’s endurance. Here in that sweet-spot of a small group with clear roles, a clear goal, a dire not but not insurmountable situation, and a limited time; they were able to transcend themselves while partaking of a healthy community. Each was able to go beyond their personal selfishness in a rewarding and pleasant way because everyone else did too. This communal spirit partook perhaps of tribalism, but without an enemy or much of a real “them”, and thus without the primary negative within tribalism. Sure, they rail at the shore-lubbers a bit, but they’re too caught up with the reality of the elements and the fatality of their situation to really have enemies. They are held accountable to one another and are all able to live up to that emergency bond. And that success is a spiritual victory that they share: it is holy, but it is not lonely: think Moses at the burning bush, but four of them, and with no duty to do anything but make it to the shore and be gentler with everyone they meet.
What is it about the indifference of the elements that made the narrator know that if he survives, he’s going to be kinder to everyone? What is the relationship between the indifference of the elements and the brotherly love of the boat’s inhabitants? Nature is indifferent, and humans have that indifference within them, but also love, caring, a desire to share. Perhaps on the boat, strung between life and death, sharing hope fear exhaustion and the mindless rocking of the waves, the men were able to feel both the indifference of the God and the caring of God. God is perhaps in some sense indifferent to our material situation, but God loves us all infinitely and cares for our eternal beings no matter what? And friendship is the effort of caring in this world, while staying grounded in God’s perspective??
“Sun swung steadily up the sky, and they knew it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald green streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow.”
“It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.”
“By the very last star of truth, it is easier to steal eggs from under a hen then it was to change seats in a dinghy.”
“Occasionally, a great spread of water, like white flames, swarmed into her.”
(Of the coast:) “From a black line it became a line of black and a line of white, trees and sand.”
(First Lines:) “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were foaming white, and all of the men know the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.”
“A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking bronco, and, by the same token, a bronco is not much smaller. The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal. As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously high. The manner of her scramble over these walls of water is a mystic thing, and, moreover, at the top of them were ordinarily these problems in white water, the foam racing down from the summit of each wave, requiring a new leap, and a leap from the air. Then, after scornfully bumping a crest, she would slide, and race, and splash down a long incline, and arrive bobbing and nodding in front of the next menace.”
“Canton flannel gulls flew near and far. Sometimes they sat down on the sea, near patches of brown sea-weed that rolled over the waves with a movement like carpets on a line in a gale. The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dinghy, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland. Often they came very close and stared at the men with black bead-like eyes. At these times they were uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny, and the men hooted angrily at them, telling them to be gone. ….”
(Beginning of section III): “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. But it was dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.”
(Before they head into shore, where they’ll have to swim once the heavy rollers swamp the craft, they discuss what’s to be done if one of them dies.):
“They then briefly exchanged some addresses and admonitions. As for the reflections of 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 trees? … “
(After the captain tells the correspondent to swim over to the capsized hull):
“‘All right, captain.’ As the correspondent paddled, he saw the captain let himself down to the bottom and leave the boat. Then the correspondent performed his one little marvel of the voyage. A large wave caught him and flung him with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it. It struck him even then as an event in gymnastics, and a true miracle of the sea. An overturned boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man.”
(End of book:)
“It seems that instantly the beach was populated with men with blankets, clothes, and flasks, and women with coffee-pots and all the remedies sacred to their minds. The welcome of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land’s welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave.
When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”