In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” all three authors locate their characters in a deterministic universe where they are left to struggle with the unpredictable and seemingly indifferent whims of their social and physical environments. The authors and the narrators remain curiously neutral, taking a naturalistic view of the characters and their conditions and apparently avoiding any effort to elicit the reader’s empathy or judgment. Rather, Crane, Anderson, and O’Neill are simply observing and reporting, albeit fictively, what they believe to be true: namely, that humans are governed by instincts and drives to seek belonging, but the task of achieving psychic and social integration is often inhibited by the uncontrollable forces of nature, both human and environmental.
“The Open Boat,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” and “The Hairy Ape” are not happy stories that involve confronting challenges and resolving them successfully. Rather, these are desperate tales in which people struggle with various forms of isolation. In Crane’s short story, the crew members band together in a “subtle brotherhood” that warms each man (Crane 1725). Despite this, they are unable to battle the singular force of the sea. The physical environment is ruthless, isolating them from any assistance and from a happy resolution. The waves “were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall…each…a problem in small boat navigation” (Crane 1722). Even when the men crest one strong wave, they “discover that there is another behind it just as important….” and just as impersonally uncaring (Crane 1722). At the end of the story, when the men have jumped ship, the correspondent learns an important lesson about nature’s determinism: she does not favor any one man; a wave “whirled [the correspondent] out of this small deadly current” (Crane 1737), but the sea claimed other victims. The correspondent, as he is being swept along, contemplates this lesson, reflecting that “an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature” (Crane 1737).
In Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” a set of related short stories allows the author to present a series of characters from the fictional town of Winesburg; they are linked only to the extent that they are all, ironically, isolated from one another and a greater sense of community. All of them are coping, in some way and to varying degrees of success, with processes of aging and reflecting upon their unfulfilled dreams. The old man in “The Book of the Grotesques” reflects that all the people he has ever known have become “a long procession of figures,” (para. 7) who have become “grotesques” (para. 7) by the truths to which they have been exposed in life. The narrator in “The Book of Grotesques” conveys the hopeless but inarguable message that many people are worn down by the experiences that they confront in life. He observes that “the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (para. 14). While this observation may seem fatalistic, many people who have lived long enough might be willing to concede that there is at least a small grain of truth in this philosophy.
It is in O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” however, that the sense of isolation and naturalistic fatalism is most evident. Compared to Crane’s and Anderson’s works, “The Hairy Ape” is certainly the bleakest of the three. Yank, who has been obsessed with experiencing a sense of belonging throughout the play, loses his grip on reality and sanity as he realizes that he never really fits in with other people or surroundings. O’Neill’s naturalism is blatant, and his attitude about humanity is rather dismal. O’Neill does not merely put Yank in touch with his base and primitive self; he all but converts Yank into a beast by guiding him to the primates’ cage at the zoo. Yank can only experience the empathy and identification that he has yearned for so deeply by offering that empathy to the ape. As Yank begins to talk to the ape, the stage directions indicate that “YANK begins to talk in a friendly confidential tone, half-mockingly, but with a deep undercurrent of sympathy” (Scene 8, ll. 5-6). The sympathy soon turns into “genuine admiration” (Scene 8, l. 10), but then Yank becomes so lost in his own misery that the ape senses his rage and restlessness, and responds in kind. The gorilla crushes Yank cruelly, throwing him to the ground, where Yank dies. It is not only the finality of the death that makes this tale the bleakest; rather, it is that Yank was not able to experience any profound understanding of his condition or, more importantly, how to change his situation. He allowed himself to be completely subjected to his environment, rather than making his environment his subject.
“The Open Boat,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” and “The Hairy Ape” are all bleak stories that convey an attitude of naturalistic determinism that is so rigid it borders on the utterly fatalistic. Crane, Anderson, and O’Neill all seem to contend that humans are almost entirely subject to their conditions, circumstances, and environments. The correspondent in Crane’s “The Open Boat” and the old man in Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” however, are able to wring some small lesson, even if it’s almost too late, from their ordeals and observations. By contrast, in “The Hairy Ape” there is no such psychological transformation. Man is completely subject to his circumstances, seemingly born into bad luck and fated to die with bad luck and poor insight into himself and others. The sense of isolation among the characters, and that which is provoked in the reader, is profound. The authors do not, however, rescue the reader from that solitary sense of despair by offering a neat ending. It is up to the reader to discern the lessons buried in the grim stories and to apply them in his or her own life.
Anderson, Sherwood. “Winesburg, Ohio.” Retrieved April 1, 2007 from http://www.bartleby.com/156/
Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Sixth Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. 1721-1738. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
O’Neill, Eugene. “The Hairy Ape.” Retrieved April 1, 2007 from http://www.eoneill.com/texts/ha/contents.htm