Author’s note: “Weekend Short” is a weekly profile of a short story. Analysis from the readership is encouraged in the comments section.
Welcome to the weekend!
The sun is shining, and a neighbor has been running a bugling leaf blower over an immaculate lawn since 7 A.M.; it’s a good day for planting tomatoes. Thank you for those expressing concern for Emily — she is trending upward. Spatial reasoning and complex math are the only things that still elude her (and for many of us, have eluded us all our lives).
Today’s short story is Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat: A Tale Intended to Be After the Fact. Being the Experience of Four Men Sunk from the Steamer Commodore.” Published in 1897, the story details the travails of four men as they break themselves between the “barbarously abrupt waves” of the open ocean and the “thunder of the surf” promising capsize — between the false warmth of despair and the pangs of unrequited hope.
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 of foaming white, and all of the men knew 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.
Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation. The cook squatted in the bottom and looked with both eyes at the six inches of gunwale which separated him from the ocean. His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and the two flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the boat. Often he said: “Gawd! That was a narrow clip.” As he remarked it he invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea. The oiler, steering with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself suddenly to keep clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap.
The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there.
For those who have spent time at sea in a small-ish vessel, it is easy to recognize the loneliness and seeming impossibility of the “dingey” crew’s situation. I’ve written before that I feel closest to God on the water, and I mean that both in a worshipful and practical sense. The great waters care not for a man; his death is nothing to them. One realizes that fact at the crest of a capsize or when the frolicsome blue waters transform to pugilistic grey as ironclad clouds close upon you.
The section that stuck out this Memorial Day weekend was the correspondent’s meditation on the war dead — the simultaneously selfish and selfless thought coming to him only as the others slept. Alone he rowed deep into the night while the shark’s fin describes a circle around the coracle:
Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier’s plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil’s point.
Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality — stern, mournful, and fine.
Given that the French conquest of Algeria was an effort of a century and ultimately a failure, is helpful in understanding that the correspondent has no expectation of personal victory. He thinks himself doomed, and only then can he feel the Legionnaire’s death; there is no chance of Christ rising from his place of rest in the bow and commanding the waves — Crane was an anti-theist and humanist, after all.
The above block quote has emotional currency because it well-describes the easy detachment from war’s cost. In reading Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel exhuming the blind, living stumps of men in hospitals, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a clear-eyed ode to naval aviation’s necessity and violence — and certainly Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage — there can be a false dichotomy constructed that war can only be good or bad.
War is an ugly thing, but it is not inherently wrong — as it is not good if only in service of national and personal ego (e.g., World War I). What anti-war novels warn us against is not war-making per se; rather they make it necessary to defend the worthiness of the sacrifice — ultimately to God.
As Chesterton put it in The Glass Walking Stick, war should be religious in its commencement:
The refined people seem to think that there is something unpleasant and profane about making war religious. I should say that there ought to be no war except religious war. If war is irreligious, it is immoral. No man ought ever to fight at all unless he is prepared to put his quarrel before that invisible court of Arbitration with which all religion is concerned. Unless he thinks he is vitally, eternally, cosmically in the right, he is wrong to fire off a pocket-pistol.
These United States comprise a warrior nation, and yet I would defend its martial acts before that “invisible court of Arbitration” almost without exception . . . all the more exceptional for a country as powerful as it is relative to the world’s powers to have so often been right to engage enemies by sea, air, and land across the globe. But more will be printed about the matter tomorrow morning.
To wrap the “Open Boat,” it will always be the men belowdecks who die while top-siders get off scot-free. From Crane to Star Trek, death is the snipe’s lot.
Here’s the United States Navy Band singing the Navy’s hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”:
Eternal Father, Strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty Ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.
Thanks to Randy for suggesting “Open Boat.”
Author’s note: If there’s a short story you’d like to see discussed in the coming weeks, please send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.