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This paper argues that within Stephen Crane’s naturalist short story “The Open Boat,” Crane positions the oiler as a symbol of the beleaguered proletariat of the American 1890s. The last decade of the nineteenth century in the United States was marked by economic depression and characterized by unparalleled business failures, unemployment, homelessness, and civic unrest, exhibited by labor strikes and populist marches. Crane, through his devout Methodist upbringing and his experiences as a journalist amidst the urban slums of New York, was intensely cognizant of the suffering underclasses in his contemporary society and sympathetic to their struggles. Reflecting this socio-economic turmoil, within “The Open Boat,” the fictionalized retelling of Crane’s own experiences surviving a shipwreck off the Florida coast, the author makes his class sympathies a clear, yet often overlooked, thematic element of his story about the struggle to survive and reach land. In “The Open Boat,” Crane utilizes elements which would characterize American literary naturalism, specific use of figurative language and industrial expression, and the other survivors’ reliance on the oiler for their own survival in order to position the ill-fated oiler as a symbol of the proletariat, embodying both the United States’ dependence on and abuse of the working class.


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  • Subject
    • English

  • Institution
    • Gainesville

  • Event location
    • Nesbitt 3213

  • Event date
    • 23 March 2018

  • Date submitted

    19 July 2022

  • Additional information
    • Acknowledgements:

      Dr. Leigh Dillard