The story The Open Boat by Stephen Crane begins with a narrative of four men who have survived a shipwreck and are struggling to reach the shore using a small boat. The sea is very turbulent and in order to avoid exhaustion, they struggle to row the boat in turns, while their captain is lying injured at the bottom of the boat. Every man stares at the big waves that threaten to swamp their boat and threaten their lives as they talk about their loss of the ship. They yearn for any rescuers that may come along or any chance of seeing the house of refuge on the shore to be assured of their safety, but to their dismay they are not yet there. The small boat is tossed up and down by the big waves and the captain cautions them that survival may be impossible. Despite the stormy sea, he also encourages them that they would get to the shore alive (Crane 60). Then the captain spots a lighthouse at the shore and creatively uses his overcoat to oar the boat in a way that enables two people to rest a little.
To Build a Fire
Jack London in this story narrates an account of a man who travels to the Yukon one freezing morning with a dog. Initially, he is not scared of the cold because he is a newcomer to the Yukon with a mission to meet his friends. While on the way, he realizes that the cold is increasing to the extent that his uncovered cheekbone freezes, but he decides to go on. He walks carefully along a creek trail to avoid hidden springs, or any likelihood of wetting his feet which would endanger his life. He decides to stop to have lunch and starts the fire to warm himself (London 60). He continues to walk, but he falls on the snow and becomes wet to his shins. He blames this to bad luck and decides to start a new fire to dry his footgear, a process that delays until his feet and fingers become numb by the time he succeeds in lighting the fire. Then he remembers an old-time warning: it is dangerous to travel alone in such a place when the temperature is below zero degrees. He decides to loosen his icy shoes but just before cutting the frozen strings, snow falls from the tree and snuffs the fire and finally extinguishes it. His worries increase and he tries to build another fire, when he realizes that he may lose his toes from frostbite. Then he gathers twigs and grasses, but all fingers are numb making him unsuccessful to light a match (London 60).
He is desperate to survive and decides to kill the dog so as to put his hands into its body for warmth to restore his blood circulation, but the dog senses danger and runs away. He tries to throttle the dog because he cannot pull out his knife. The man is no longer worried about frostbite since he senses that death may become real and is unable to struggle anymore and he falls down repeatedly, when he tries to run to restore his circulation, with the dog after him. He decides to face death and imagines that his friends will locate his body the following. He falls into sleep and his dog is bewildered. As the night is near, the dog detects death in the man’s body and it runs towards the camp to look for others who can provide food and fire (London 67).
The Theme of Conflict between Human and Nature
In the two stories man is seen trying his best to overcome nature using creativity and knowledge. The four men in The Open Boat experienced defeat by losing their ship to the stormy sea and are still struggling using the small boat to overcome the turbulent sea which is threatening their lives. They soon realize that nature is beyond their control and regret having failed to understand nature well, in order to avoid experiencing defeat. The man in the story To Build a Fire is also struggling to conquer nature using the fire and shoes that were meant to keep him warm and unaffected, to be able to achieve his goal of meeting his friends and had set time of achieving the goal to be at six o’clock. The men in The Open Boat had also set intended destination and a route to follow as a means to overcome the hostile sea. In this conflict the power of man against the power of nature and its elements is revealed in different conditions.
In this conflict, it is clear that men could not control nature which seems to have strong influence and power to the extent that it decides the fate of men regardless of their activities. The power of man is therefore seriously reduced as a result of failure to appreciate the limits of human effort in the face of nature. The men in The Open Boat regret their failure to understand and to do the right thing in order to avoid losing their battle against nature. They failed to do the right thing and they faced the consequences of the stormy sea that made them lose their boat. They find it hard to appreciate that nature does not act deliberately to oppose them, but that nature treats all who faces it equally. In the story To Build a Fire man has also lost his battle against nature and experiences an accident for failing to act responsibly in the face of nature (London 25).
The man is also at fault by lighting the fire at a wrong place, but nature uses its power, which is beyond the man to extinguish the fire. What man wishes cannot be achieved because of inability to control everything he is doing, as a result of the strong influence of nature. The men in the two stories failed to predict the outcome of their chosen actions, especially when nature releases its extreme powers. The men then were not aware that nature had set some limits that must be observed by a man in order to survive. Any violation of such limits makes nature to overwhelm a man. The men in the boat were overwhelmed until they could not locate the place they were going and had difficulty in locating the lighthouse. The man in the story To Build a Fire was also overwhelmed by nature, until he was unable to locate his direction.
The consequences faced by the individuals in the two stories are, as a result of their failure, to learn about nature not to resist it. The main lesson for all the men is that their problem with nature result from the natural weather elements, and that nature does not react to their actions or presence, instead it is them to cooperate with nature. In the story To Build a Fire, the man attributes his problem to bad luck. The men in the boat also think that nature is against them and their actions, and seem to discover that God will not intervene in their problem, hence accepting to bear the consequences of their mistakes (Crane 68).
Survival is a common need for the men in the two stories. When the ship sunk, the captain and his men were concerned so much about the loss of the ship, but as their problem with nature develops, the small boat in which they were struggling to reach the shore also seemed to face the same fate. When the waves became ominous tossing the boat up and down, their focus changed to the danger of losing their very lives (Crane 145). Equally, the man in the story To Build a Fire was initially concerned on how to avoid getting wet and when the problem increased, he realized that his life is in danger and shifted his attention on how to survive. They therefore put up a struggle to overcome. The men in the boat began to roar with all their might in desperation, while enduring and hopeful that they will reach the shore. Comparably, the man in To Build a Fire is also too desperate and in order to survive even tries to kill his dog. However, nature destroyed him, just like nature hurt the captain and made him feel so vulnerable before nature (London 56). The men should have used the information to predict nature and to avoid accidents and calamities they faced to achieve their goals.
Although the stories are written by different authors, they all focus on nature and how it affects a man. The men in both stories tried to use the modern world advancement of the man to conquer nature. They therefore, ignored the obvious signs that nature sends to man and met defeat in different forms. The men in the boat also experienced shipwrecks and their small boat almost swamped. They finally recognized that for a man to survive in the face of nature, they need to understand how nature is. Nature can only be understood through scientific and realistic knowledge, since the two stories had facts about how to handle nature. In the story To Build a Fire, the zero degree warning was available but he disregarded it, while in The Open Boat, the skies should have been noticed. They then realized that once in the wrong against nature, their cooperation unity, endurance and bravery could help to overcome the nature against them (Crane 76).
The two stories put emphasis on the fact that nature determines fate of a man and sets limits for him, when the man acts in disregard of nature, nature does not come to the rescue of the man, does not become hostile to hurt the man, but controls its own course. The environment seems unaware of the people’s struggle for survival (Crane 67). The same struggle of the man against nature changes depending on the degree of the casualty suffered by the man. The two authors are naturalists, with nature dominating the two stories. The power of nature is clearly depicted in the two stories, while the human plan is portrayed as strategies that should be adjusted to suit the prevailing conditions of nature.