Stephen Crane was a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word and one of the first American writers in the literary area of "Naturalism". His story The Open Boat, written while he was covering the Cuban war, contains many instances of this form of literary construction and also features realism and a great deal of symbolism. .
Considered by some to be one of the finest stories ever written by an American, The Open Boat is a classic example of Stephen Crane's employment of realism, naturalism and symbolism in his works. The theme of "cosmic irony" that occurs in the story adds to its appeal. Cosmic irony is the belief that the finite nature of man when compared to the apparently infinite nature of the universe leaves man in a pitiable situation out of which he can expect no pity, because of his size and significance in the universal picture. The cosmic irony in The Open Boat is symbolized by indifference, isolation and insignificance. Specifically, the three examples used by Crane in his story are: the power of the ocean against the little boat, the sea against the universe, and the little boat in a vast sea from the people on the shore. The element of indifference in the story maintains that things serve no purpose and that there is no true caring for anyone or anything when this indifference occurs. The plight of the boat against the power of the ocean is clear testament to this. The ocean represents the universe, in all its vastness and the boat is the symbol of man, infinitesimal and unable to demand attention or respect from the overwhelming greatness which surrounds him. Such a position of nonentity would naturally give rise to feelings of isolation and resentment. The insignificance that comes with these symbols of cosmic irony hardly abates the dilemma. Man is confronted with a reality to which he must react in a suitably positive manner to avoid complete desolation and lose his sense of purpose.