Critics generally agree that “The Open Boat” is an examination of man’s relationship to the universe as well as of man’s relationship to other men. But there are different opinions about the precise nature of these relationships. On one hand, Crane’s work seems to be anti-Romantic. Romanticism argues that human beings exist in harmony with nature. The sea in this story, with its constant snarls and hisses, is a hostile force to mankind and certainly not in harmony with the men who are fighting for their lives. American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believed that nature is a mystic wonderland that in every corner holds tiny clues to how man fits seamlessly into the universe. “The Open Boat” suggests the opposite: man is alienated from the universe and doomed to lead a cold, unnatural existence.
On the other hand, “The Open Boat” could be seen as a Darwinian story that shows how man is intimately connected to nature. Whereas the anti-Romantics tried to separate man completely from nature, the Darwinians understand Crane to be embracing nature so tightly that his plot simply expands on Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest.” In this interpretation, nature has no will or purpose. Just as the men come to realize that nature has not actually taken up arms against them, they begin to devote themselves to “the business of the boat”—to survival. Although the oiler’s death seems to undermine the Darwinian interpretation of the story, because he is clearly the strongest of the group and therefore should have survived, it actually reinforces the idea of “survival of the fittest.” While the cook, captain, and correspondent all depend on a manmade or naturally occurring device to help them to the shore, the oiler goes it alone, relying only on his human strength and not on his more evolved capacity for thought and strategy. The “fittest” are the men who have relied on man’s ability to intelligently adapt and create.