An Experiment in Misery

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

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Stephen Crane uses juxtapositions, or striking contrasts, effectively in his work titled “An Experiment in Misery.” Examples of his use of this technique include the following:

  • In the very first sentence of the story, the narrator contrasts images of light and darkness. In this story, light is often associated with relatively privileged persons or parts of the city, while darkness is often associated with the poor and destitute. As the young man moves deeper into the heart of the Bowery, darkness – both literal and metaphorical – becomes more and more pronounced.
  • Another contrast also appears in the very first paragraph of the story:

By the time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of "bum" and "hobo," and with various unholy epithets that small boys had applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most profound dejection.

Although “the youth” is probably a young adult, he now seems far less powerful than the taunting young boys.  He may be older than they, but they are wealthier than he. His poverty is bad enough; even worse is the contempt it arouses in the “small boys” who abuse him. Ironically, his time in the Bowery will actually seem safer than the present moment, before he has actually enters the poorest part of the city. The greatest risk of physical threat he faces seems to occur here, and it comes from abusive “small boys.”

  • Another significant contrast involves the shabby clothing of the youth and the attractive clothing of the middle-class people who brush by him:

There were only squads of well-dressed Brooklyn people who swarmed towards the bridge.

Great stress is laid in the story on the ways people are dressed. Appearances are everything when one is poor. One’s inner worth matters far less than one’s outer appearance, and so the narrator is careful to emphasize the contrast between the well-dressed Brooklyn residents and the poor, wretched men (and they are, interestingly, almost all men in this story) who populate the Bowery.

  • Later, cable cars are described as “great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power.” The cars are symbols of the power and privileges of those who have enough money to buy tickets; they are juxtaposed with the weakness and destitution of those who must walk wherever they go.
  • Another memorable juxtaposition used in this work involves the contrast between the stink of the flophouse and the delicate nostrils of the youth. At first he can barely abide the stink; later, ironically, he becomes so accustomed to it that he no longer even notices it, nor does he even notice the difference between that stink and the fresh air.
  • Perhaps the most important contrast in the story however – and one that is implicitly reiterated again and again – is the contrast between the “young man” and the much-older “assassin.” The “young man,” at least has some money, some strength, some hope for a different kind of life, and some ability to change. In contrast, the “assassin” seems wretchedly poor, physically weak, literally desperate, and confined to a life from which he has little real chance of escaping. His nickname suggests daring power, but in fact he ironically seems impotent to an unusual and pitiful degree. His nickname is thus in contrast to his actual position in life.
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