How is Stephen Crane's "An Experiment in Misery" an example of literary naturalism?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The American Heritage Cultural Dictionary notes that

Literary and artistic naturalism aims at accuracy and objectivity and cultivates realistic and even sordid portrayals of people and their environment.

By these measures and by almost any others, Stephen Crane’s “An Experiment in Misery” is definitely an experiment in literary “naturalism.” Consider, for instance, the following points:

  • The narrator of the story packs the story with accurate details.  Thus the third sentence of the text notes about the young man who is the central character that

He was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby was a marvel of dust-covered crown and torn rim.

“An Experiment” is full of sentences like this, and they are part of what makes this work, along with Crane’s work in general, so important in the history of American literary naturalism. He wanted to record the actual details of life as it was really lived, particularly by people whose lives were not usually considered worthy of depiction in literature.

  • The tone of the story is extremely objective. The narrator doesn’t try to make us feel sympathetic for the people he describes, nor does he condemn the wealthier people he depicts, nor does he condemn the very poor people he presents. His tone is almost completely neutral. He does not try to explore in any depth the feelings or thoughts of the people he describes. Instead, he tends to let them speak for themselves, without much comment or evaluation of his own.
  • One way in which the story seems particularly “naturalistic” (as opposed to merely “realistic”) is in the way it presents the stink of the flophouse and the crude, crowded conditions of the sleeping arrangements there:

Within reach of the youth's hand was one who lay with yellow breast and shoulders bare to the cold drafts. One arm hung over the side of the cot, and the fingers lay full length upon the wet cement floor of the room. Beneath the inky brows could be seen the eyes of the man exposed by the partly opened lids. To the youth it seemed that he and this corpse-like being were exchanging a prolonged stare, and that the other threatened with his eyes.

In this section of the story, the narrator pulls no punches in making us see (and smell) the grim, grimy conditions of the kinds of place where poor people must live. Yet even here the narrator makes no effort to teach lessons, preach sermons, or propagandize on behalf of the underprivileged. Instead, he describes the lives these people live and lets us draw our own conclusions.

  • Finally, this work is also naturalistic because it seems to emphasize a kind of determinism. The youth voluntarily chooses to go into the most poverty-stricken part of the city. In fact, in one early version of the tale, he is a kind of investigative reporter who is merely trying to get some sense of how it feels to be destitute. He can leave at any time he wishes. In contrast, the people who live in the Bowery full-time seem to have little chance to escape, and even little impetus to do so. They seem trapped in a kind of prison that may be partly of their own making but that seems a prison nonetheless.




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