In recent years, critical response to Stephen Crane's The Open Boat has shifted dramatically, focusing less on the tale's philosophical agendas than on its epistemological implications. The story no longer stands as merely a naturalistic depiction of nature's monumental indifference or as simply an existential affirmation of fife's absurdity. Instead, we have slowly come to realize a new level of the text, one that, according to Donna Gerstenberger, explores "man's limited capacities for knowing reality" (557). Gerstenberger's conclusion that the tale "may be best viewed as a story with an epistemological emphasis, one which constantly reminds its reader of the impossibility of man's knowing anything, even that which he experiences" (560), is further developed by Thomas L. Kent:
If we insist that the text be interpreted naturalistically, if we insist, that the text must have some sort of overarching meaning --- even a meaning that shows the universe to be existentially absurd --- we place ourselves in the same boat as the deluded castaways [who "felt that, they could then be interpreters"]. On both the narrative and extra-textual levels, the subject of "The Open Boat" is epistemology, and the text suggests that meaning in the universe is secondary to man's ability to preceive [sic] it. (264)
Building upon the insights of Gerstenberger, Kent and others, l hope to show bow the structure of "The Open Boat" creates an epistemological dilemma, moving the reader from a position of epistemological indifference to a state of epistemological anxiety. Four key moments in the story create this shift from indifference to anxiety: first, in Section 1, the opening sentence...
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...st way allowing us to know what it is they are now interpreters of, Crane highlights more than our own inability to achieve interpretation, to gain access to knowledge. Rather, he has placed us in such a position that we must shed our casual indifference to our epistemological failures and embrace, unwillingly perhaps, the anxiety that will attend all of our efforts to "read" life's impenetrable meanings.
Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat." The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane: Volume V, Tales of Adventure. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1970.
Gerstenberger, Donna. "'The Open Boat': An Additional Perspective." Modern Fiction Studies 17 (1971-72):557-561.
Kent, Thomas L "The Problem of Knowledge in'The Open Boat'and 'The Blu Hotel." American Literary Realism 14 (1981): 262-268.
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