“A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats” (Crane 585).
The sea is a cliche symbol representing the vast chaos of life; its rough waters and currents analogs for life’s problems and the unyielding movement of time. The excerpt above from Stephen Crane’s short story, The Open Boat, paints an allegory for life. There is always another wave trying to swamp one’s boat. Deeper implication lies in the fact that there must be someone viewing the waves to have made and recorded an observation. The value is that one can handle their future and current problems, and thus, destiny, more properly by adopting a Naturalistic attitude.
Firstly, one must look to some vital symbols that make up the allegory. Those symbols are the sea, waves, and boats. The sea is an age-old symbol for formless potential, infinite chaos, the plane of possibilities, nature, emotions, etcetera. It is often cast as that which must be conquered, or avoided –that if one falls into it, one is lost (drowned, death, end).
Waves are a symbol for repetition, or an unstoppable change in state with an added factor of elapsing time. These changes come as a transition from a peak to a valley; a high point to a low point and vice-versa. Abstracted, a wave is a repeated change in displacement of a dimension that a medium or particle undergoes.
Boats are made by man, for man. They are that which man has created to stave back and stay on top of the sea. They are, as well, artificial constructions (literally built) subject to entropy of nature, and accordingly, break down over time.
In Crane’s piece, one finds a boat riding upon waves in the sea. Analogously, substituting the aforementioned symbols, the structure (boat) that man is protected from chaos and potential (water) by finds itself situated in its intended environment (wave in the sea). All the while, the chaos-potential duality is oscillating, creating conditions that can speed along the structure’s collapse, and the occupant’s end. In a more relatable form, humans face the onset and swell of new problems in their life on a continual basis. Mankind’s structures help it stand fast against problems, but eventually the construction (no matter how big and how many people are working on it) breaks down, and so does it. The end is inevitable, and complications will occur on the journey there –a rather dreary message.
Yet, worry not, it is a singular disadvantage in The Open Boat. And a singular disadvantage is often one with which one can either amicably or objectively come to terms with. It is unique, alone, curious, but important in its own right. Stephen Crane’s sea’s disadvantage lies –but where, around what, from whom, or even, to whom? More interesting perhaps is its juxtaposition (if indeed the disadvantage is lying) with the noun fact. So now there is a disadvantage that lies in fact. It is either enveloped, concealed, or in direct opposition to fact. Then, to clear up these multiple meanings, what is the fact?
The fact is that there is another wave behind the one Stephen’s dinghy is precariously perched atop. Additionally, the next wave is “just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.” Here anxious is an interesting term as it implies imminence, state of worry, and an uncertain outcome. What the wave is doing is effective in moving towards the principle of swamped boats. A swamped boat would be one that has lost against the siege of the sea. The resultant metaphorical ‘fact’ is that the next encounter with a high state of chaos/potential is uncertain in its outcome (will it be the wave that swamps one’s boat?), but its tendency towards bringing chaos into the structure that keeps man safe is known.
Overlooked so far has been the phrase“after successfully surmounting one wave you discover” It is due to its critical role as the springboard, perhaps gangplank, from which one can dive off of into a new kind of potential, that of supposition. After successfully surmounting, at the peak state of chaos, you, the observer, discover the fact. Riding the swell of the wave the observer looks out and sees the next wave, and by extension, every wave outwards, until they make up a horizon of potential. One can imagine or, if one has surmounted a great wave, relate to, the feeling of angst and despair the observer would experience.
Those feelings do not aid in keeping the boat afloat though. They may in fact hinder its travels by the observer’s sabotage. Here, the naturalist reigns. The sea is disinterested in the movements of the boat. It has already determined it to be swamped. The observer should then meet the sea’s contempt with his own. He should be objective and indifferent, so as to maintain his vessel as it valiantly takes to the seas. He should develop theories and models, in order to become the master of sustaining his ark. For some day, long off, he may find the source of the waves, or ride out the storm…