Narrator as Meta-character in Standard Fiction

4 Oct 2018


Upon rereading Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” I was struck by Crane’s inclusion of the snippet of Marshall Thomas’ poem, “Soldier of the Legion.” As I had read the story before I expected that the description that the correspondent had in his mind of the dying soldier would mirror the death of the oiler at the end of Cranes’ story. However, the correspondent saw the soldier “on the sand with his feet out straight and still. While his pale left hand was upon his chest in an attempt to thwart the going of his life, the blood came between his fingers” (Crane 141.) I did not remember the exact details of the oiler so I assumed that he would be seen by the correspondent at the end of the story on his back in the sand and instead of blood seeping through his fingers it would be water from the surf lapping at his hand, but that was not the case. The oiler was found floating face down floating face down rising and falling with the surf while only his forehead would intermittently touch the sand (Crane 146.) The image of the fallen soldier could be a mirror of the correspondent falling to the sand after being saved but the correspondent does not lay dying as he reports being nursed back to health (Crane 146.) But while one could see the correspondent to the sand as an echo of the soldier from the poem, there could still be a better fit, a character that is left on the beach never again to see his native land.


In Sura Rath’s article, “The dialogic narrative of ‘The Open Boat,’” Rath speaks of three more characters in the story that are not traditionally read as characters. Through a synthesis of Henry James’ and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of fiction Rath lists the narrator, Stephen Crane (speaking in the voice of the narrator), and Stephen Crane (as the author of the work) as three additional characters to be studied within the context of the story (Rath 1991.) I would like to be able to explain Rath line of logic that brought him to see these three meta-characters as characters within a story that is clearly not intended as or written in the form of meta-fiction, but Rath’s article is tangled with so many small technical details of fiction theory that I do not understand much of it.


However, if the narrator can be seen as a full-fledged character in Stephen Crane’s story, “The open Boat,” the narrator can be shown as an anachronistic holdover character from earlier genres of literature that were accepting of romanticized views of nature that just do not fit in the context of the Naturalism offshoot of the realism genre. In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator Says, “The waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall” (Crane 126.) The narrator’s use of words that ascribe intentions good or bad to a natural process such as waves on the ocean seems out of place in the Naturalist genre. But the narrator is noticeably changed as the story progresses as he or she (or is an unnamed and omniscient narrator an it?) says, “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples” (Crane 140.) The narrator starts this quote by personifying nature as a woman which again does not match with the Naturalism genre but does come closer by showing that nature does not take sides. In fact, the narrator seems to be coming to the realization that nature should not be romanticized because by the end of the quote the narrator admits that man realizes that there are no temples to nature and no bricks to throw at them.


By the end of the story, the narrator says, “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 the shore and they felt that they could then be interpreters” (Crane 146.) While the men had been taken into the town to be nursed back to health or buried in the oiler’s case, the narrator was stuck on the sand, and while the description of the waves pacing under the moonlight romanticizes nature to a degree, the narrator ends the story giving the survivors the right to read their own interpretations into the events that took place. And the men will report the story as they experienced it because as the narrator states of the men in the first paragraph, “Their eyes glanced level, and were focused on the waves that swept toward them” (Crane 126.) Therefore, it is the narrator and his, her, or its romantic view of nature that is so broken by the events that take place in the story as to never to return to his, her, or its native land.


Work Cited

Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” American Short Story Masterpieces, Dover Publications, 2013, pp. 126–146.

Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw. “The Dialogic Narrative of `The Open Boat’.” College Literature, vol. 18, no. 2, June 1991, p. 94. EBSCOhost,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s