"The Open Boat" may have been based on Crane's real-life experience but it also functions as symbolic "of man's battle against the malevolent, indifferent, and unpredictable forces of nature…This reading is confirmed by the final irony of the death of the oiler, physically the strongest man on the scene and the one most favored to withstand the ordeal" (Rath & Shaw 97). The futility of resisting the power nature with human strength is illustrated by his death. "To some critics such a battle offers a growth experience: it either allows us existentially to know our place in the universe as we realize 'the absurdity of [our] experience' and of 'the human condition,' or it forces us to acknowledge the 'impossibility of man's knowledge'" of his fate (Rath & Shaw 97).
Crane's journalistic bent primarily reveals itself in what has been called an 'intense pressure to see,' as he fights to observe as well as to stay alive both as a participant and as a narrator on "The Open Boat." His stories all "center on an 'event of seeing.' An 'intense pressure to see' is Crane's most typical narrative posture, more so than an obsession with realism (and why impressionism rather than naturalism may be an even better term for Crane's works (Stronks 328). "A character's process or act of 'apprehension' becomes Crane's metaphor for understanding, awareness, wisdom" (Stronks 328). Even in his less overtly symbolic stories such as The Blue Hotel, there is an emphasis on description as a revelation of character. The Blue Hotel has the same concentrated atmosphere as The Open Boat, as it is set in a claustrophobically small Western town in Nebraska, in which five men are trapped for the winter. "It is Crane's use of figurative language that raises the story to the level of art - his use of description to weave a tapestry of words whose pattern becomes a multi-colored, three-dimensional Rorschach ink blot in whose symbolic shapes the reader can discern the outlines of his own fears conjured up by his subconscious in nightmare dreams" (Peirce 160).
The focus on the card game as the center of the story, and the prospect of cheating highlight the importance of careful observation and seeing: "Crane's use of ocular references in The Blue Hotel strongly supports his story's structure and thematic significance. The story turns, for the most part, on what the characters do or do not perceive and on what they think they perceive. The world of The Blue Hotel is in the eye of the characters as beholders" (Cate 150). However, the characters five men do not have the blatantly symbolic eternal, nature of the correspondent and his fellow crewmen. The fact that their foolish actions result in the tragic end of the tale, rather than the actions of fate, suggest more of a complex lesson about life, than a clearly illustrated tale with a moral. One cannot get a lesson from "The Open Boat" that it is bad to be strong, like the oiler, or to try to stay alive, but the recklessness of the gamblers and the Swede's prejudices towards the Westerners he encounters upon his adventures does function as a life lesson of how not to behave.
Unlike the men of "The Open Boat," the characters of The Blue Hotel are not literally or figuratively capsized by fate, but by their own folly. "The Swede undergoes a change -- from fearful to domineering, from coward to bully. Because of the myths about the West that he has read in too many dime novels, he apparently believes that violence and death are the way of life anywhere west of New York. But his change is as poorly motivated as is his fear. The few drinks he has with Scully and the pictures that Scully shows him of his dead daughter and lawyer son hardly seem motivation enough. And surely the whisky's effect on him would have worn off long before the quarrel and the fight" (Pierce 162). He is determined to impose his will upon others, and this attempt to do so will prove his downfall.
The end of the story depicts an ironic end for the Swede, stressing his failure of sight and powers of observation in a game based upon a quick eye: "The Swede meets his end at the point of the gambler's knife. In death his eyes are fixed upon the cash register legend, "This registers the amount of your purchase" (Cate 152). Had the Swede observed with greater care and deliberation, Crane suggests, he would not have met with such a fate.
In "The Open Boat," the environment rather than the individual characters have power over the fates of the different actors; this is the moral of Crane's tale, a moral that he teaches both himself and the reader as he stands as 'the correspondent.' In The Blue Hotel, he functions more as a teacher, showing with his characters the lessons they must learn that go far deeper than the randomness of cards: namely the need to observe more closely, and to have one's morals fixated on something beyond winning and losing, and the almighty dollar. The rhetorical irony is 'ironically' more obvious in the longer and more complex narrative of The Blue Hotel, while the often deceptively simple fable "The Open Boat" keeps the reader guessing as to which 'Crane' is really speaking.