“The water was cold.”
There’s a wonderful scene in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory’ where Heyst and Lena are in the jungle on their island and are looking for their former servant, Wang. When they come to a barrier of fallen trees and branches they notice spear points protruding from the tangle. Slowly the face of Wang appears as the spears retract into the jungle, but Wang is holding a gun, Heyst’s gun. No understanding can be made between Heyst and Wang and Wang slips back into the dark jungle and the spear points slowly emerge once more from the jungle.
What does that scene have to do with this story by Crane? Nature’s indifference to man, even in the face of crisis.
Crane writes “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him”, but what does this mean? Who is “she”? How is a cold star also a word? This is a very unusual sentence but it almost perfectly explains how indifferent nature is, how impossible it is to find meaning in the universe, how far away the light is (metaphorically and literally), how lonely and insignificant we are in the totality of the universe, how nature isn’t actually telling us anything but rather we are just observing something totally indifferent to us and trying our best to interpret it. This is the sort of sentence Joseph Conrad would have written, and it’s why it reminded me of the scene in ‘Victory’ which makes a very similar point.
And nature is brutal, too. As Werner Herzog says in the film “Grizzly Man”, “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Crane also explores this brutality with the shark that swims below the boat, always circling, and always ever seen by just one of the men at a time – though they are all aware of its presence. But Crane also recognizes that even this brutality is beautiful, just as Treadwell in ‘Grizzly Man’ saw beauty in the bears. Crane describes what we can see of the shark as “a gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like a blue flame”, and earlier he paints the color of the ocean as “changed from slate to emerald-green, streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow”.
Finally there is a similarity with Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” in that we get in both stories characters that question the point of all this suffering. Tolstoy writes, “‘Why these sufferings?’ And the voice answered, ‘For no reason — they just are so.'” and here Crane writes “Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”
But unlike Herzog and Conrad, Crane and Tolstoy seem to be somewhat more optimistic. Ivan Ilyich comes to find peace in the end and Billie, the corespondent, believes that after his terrible ordeal that he has a better understanding of life and death, he feels he can interpret the voice of an indifferent nature (a high cold star) to those of us still living and looking for meaning but who cannot yet comprehend universal indifference. And what we can find is some comfort among each other that way.
This is a remarkable story, beautifully written, frightening in its theme, and dramatic start to finish.