‘An Experiment in Misery’ by Stephen Crane: Short Story Analysis
‘An Experiment in Misery’ is an excellent and highly evocative short story about how a young man enters the world of the weaker sections of society in New York City. It chronicles how he gets a cot to sleep in a seedy joint for the poor. It narrates how he befriends a highly intoxicated tramp and tries to gain some nourishment for the day after they have spent a miserable night. The short story is penned by American writer Stephen Crane, famous for his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage. He worked as a news correspondent and died at the young age of twenty-eight. ‘An Experiment in Misery’ is Crane’s story of how despite New York being one of the most advanced nations in the nineteenth century, it was a place with a large population of poor people, some who did not even have room to spend the night.
The young man who is the unnamed protagonist in this story titled ‘An Experiment in Misery’ is ready to embark on a life of poverty. Even though so young, he seems aware of how one must go about living like a tramp or a wanderer in New York. His clothes are tattered; his derby hat is dusty and old. He is young but a man of his word who knows what he wants from life. He enters into the world of the poor. Trains, trams, and cable cars go moving about him even at this late hour. He sees a sign in front of a saloon stating that free hot soup was served there. He goes within and is ushered to an amicable man with an oily mustache ladling out hot chicken broth to the poor. The young man drinks his helping of free soup. He then follows a seedy man out of the restaurant to ask him where he could find a cheap place to spend the rainy night. The young man has no pretensions. He is ready to rough it out and sleep in the most pitiable conditions possible, so long as the place is passable.
The young man seems to be a person accustomed to the life of the poorest sections in New York. Yet, as we move through the short story, we notice that he is unused to their dwelling places, smells, behavior, etc. This is indicative that he was poor at some point in his life but was sheltered from these harsh realities to a certain extent. One would think that he is out on the streets as a dare to vex someone, or he had probably left his home angrily with a few coppers in his pocket. Maybe he wanted to make a point to someone that he could survive on his own; that is why the title of this short story is ‘An Experiment in Misery’ because this is what the protagonist was only ‘trying out’ he was not going to spend the rest of his life like this.
The seedy man from whom the protagonist inquires for accommodation to spend the night asks the young man for too high a price. The young man is astute enough to know that the price is too high and tries to bargain. In the middle of this, the second important character in this short story makes his appearance. He is called ‘the assassin’, someone who does small awkward crimes in his life and is now totally intoxicated. But it is ‘the assassin’ who befriends the protagonist and, with their shared money, takes him to a seedy lodging house to spend the night.
The protagonist has his life experience while at the lodging house, which makes him mature overnight. He sleeps on a filthy cot covered with leather and a dirty rag cloak. He sleeps in the company of a variety of homeless men all down on their luck. Most of them are naked and smell like decaying corpses, the smell of filth and human waste. The young man knowing that this is going to be his lot in life for a while, holds out and falls asleep by the time it is dawn. Till dawn arrives, he observes the wretched bodies of the men sleeping in the same stinking room as him. Their shadows, cast on the walls because of the gaslight, are spooky, and the young man is young enough to be still spooked by these shadows of the night. The naked bodies of these men scare him and, at the same time, fill him with profound wonderment. In the short story, he mentions that he spends half the night trying to create biographies of these down-and-out men of the streets. His companion, the assassin, is fast asleep, sleeping the sleep of the intoxicated.
By the time it is morning, the protagonist realizes that all the men are harmless people, just trying to exist in a city that does not belong to them anymore. The story is an indictment of the city of New York and how it caters to a section of society and not the masses of the poor. This was so even in Stephen Crane’s time; it is still so today. After he has breakfast of warm roll and a bowl of coffee, the protagonist goes out and stares at the towering buildings around him and realizes how small he is in comparison with the financial world of New York, its businessmen, and commercial activities. He is convinced he is an outcast in the world that, like the tall buildings, is reaching the skies but has forgotten that they have to climb over the bodies of the poor to get to that height. This short story is an indictment of capitalism. However, it also shows that New York has a heart that we observe in the saloon that offered free hot soup to the poor, lodgings that for a small price offered a cot to the homeless, and basement restaurants for a minuscule amount served a wholesome meal for breakfast.
Now, coming to the assassin’s character, he is a confused person who, even after a night’s rest, is unaware of who the protagonist is. He calls him ‘Willie’ when the protagonist has not told him his name yet. There is a possibility that alcohol was not the only intoxicant that the assassin was consuming; he may have been a drug addict. But he had taken a shine to the young man saying that he would never forget him for the rest of his life because of his kindness. However, he starts becoming a sort of a parasite on the young man, using the young man’s sympathy to get him breakfast. The young man is aware of this and tries to shoo the assassin away but to no avail. The assassin sticks to him like a bloodsucker. However, one feels sad for the assassin because of his history:
- Thrown out of jobs
- Underpaid in the south
- Thrown out of his own home and abandoned by his father, who called him a worthless skunk saying that he wanted him to die.
The young man feels a kind of affinity towards the assassin, but even we, as readers, feel sorry for him and hope the best for him. The harsh reality of the poorer classes of New York is the central theme of this short story ‘An Experiment in Misery’. The life of a poor man is a miserable one, where one sees the most disgusting nature of man as well as the most pitiable. The story is an indictment of capitalism and poverty in the nineteenth century that has remained unsolved throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.
The spirit of New York is, however, celebrated in this short story penned by Stephen Crane. New York shall always be the most romanticized American city for people like me who have only heard about it and have not seen it. Many cities in third-world countries, like Mumbai, my hometown, are trying to model themselves on New York. In the midst of it all, however, is that searing question: the question about the poor, and what should be done to make sure they too are uplifted. That is the question we are left with at the end of this very thought-provoking short story.
I loved analyzing Stephen Crane’s short story ‘An Experiment in Misery’. He is one of my favorite classic writers. I read The Red Badge of Courage when I was a little girl at school, and the book brought tears to my eyes. Crane has a beautiful way of evoking sentimental thoughts through his literature. I have a collection of his short stories in my office-cum-writing hut, which I shall read and review for you soon. He was an excellent short story writer. Too bad, he died at such a young age.
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