A formalist reading of The Open Boat by Stephen Crane demands that the reader takes into consideration the elements of style employed by Crane in the story as well as the thematic symbolism which occurs within the work as well. These are just two of the elements that should be observed when using this approach. According to Michael Ryan in Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction, "a work of literature is about-its content- and is related to how it is put together "its form- (1). .
Ryan also notes that, "one must first read the work and become aware of the unfolding meaning through literary techniques- such as "narrative perspective, location, character construction and symbolism- (1). New Critics in this school would pay close attention to the "imagery and language in a given work rather than seek out extra-textual biographical or historical references- (1). Thus The Open Boat on its own provides the material for this study of the text and Crane's piece certainly lends itself very nicely to this kind of criticism because of the rich and vibrant imagery within the story.
The Open Boat is a story about what happens when man is pitted against the forces of nature; in this case it would be the ocean and its fury against the men's boat and their fight for survival. This theme of nature and its indifference toward the men's plight can be seen in the correspondent's despairing refrain throughout the story. This refrain runs thematically throughout the story in three different places as he laments, "if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who made the sea, was I allowed to come thus far?- (732). This contemplation might be compared to the myth of Sisyphus in the sense that if this were at all true, then all the men's hard work to stay afloat would be in vain and ultimately futile much like Sisyphus' incessant rolling of the rock. .
Additionally to avoid their fate would be impossible if death was truly the final destiny of all the men in the boat.