How is imagery used in Stephen Crane's "An Experiment in Misery"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Imagery is used frequently and vividly in Stephen Crane’s “An Experiment in Misery.” Several examples of its use include the following:

  • Early in the story, the narrator uses imagery to describe in detail how

cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy . . .

Here the imagery not only emphasizes the urban setting that is central to the story but also contrasts the color, power, and force of the cable cars, occupied by those with money, with the drabness, poverty, and weakness of most of the persons the story will subsequently describe.

  • Later the narrator describes the doors of a place serving free soup by saying,

The swing doors, snapping to and fro like ravenous lips, made gratified smacks as the saloon gorged itself with plump men . . .

The imagery here is part of a very extended metaphor that likens the doors to a mouth and thus also emphasizes the theme of both metaphorical and literal hunger (especially in the latter) in Crane’s text.

  • Later still, the narrator describes a poor man whose

voice was tuned to the coaxing key of an affectionate puppy. He looked at the men with wheedling eyes, and began to sing a little melody for charity.

Here the narrator switches rapidly from one image to another (in contrast to his use of the extended metaphor to describe the swinging doors), but each separate image reinforces the basic idea of the man’s desperate neediness. Far from being threatening or intimidating, this poor man is weak and eager to please. He is, in some ways, all the more pathetic for that reason.  It is all the more ironic, then, that he is called "the Assassin," since he seems utterly powerless.

  • When the youth reaches the flophouse, the narrator describes the stink he encounters there as smelling like

the exhalations from a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a thousand bygone debauches; the expression of a thousand present miseries.

Here, as in the previous example, the narrator switches rapidly from one image to another. The effect of these kinds of lists is overpowering. If one image doesn’t convey the awful sensations the narrator wants to emphasize, he uses another, and then another.  The use of imagery in this story is almost relentless, particularly the use of similes. It is as if the narrator is straining to make the reader understand unfamiliar sensations by piling one idea upon another.  Yet notice, in the example just quoted, how the imagery becomes progressively more abstract and less concrete as the sentence develops.

  • Sometimes the imagery the narrator uses is sudden and shocking (especially to the middle-class readers who would likely read this work).  Thus, at one point the narrator simply writes,

A man, naked save for a little snuff-colored undershirt, was parading sleepily along the corridor.

“An Experiment” is designed, like Dante’s Inferno, to take its readers to a places they have never been before, and the sentence just quoted is a merely a fairly mild example of the shocks this narrator wants to provide and succeeds in providing.

In short, Crane uses imagery in this work not simply to tell about life in the Bowery but to show it as vividly as possible and thus burn it into the reader’s memory, consciousness, and conscience.

Read the study guide:
An Experiment in Misery

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