An Experiment in Misery

by Stephen Crane
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Why is the character called “the youth” in the story “An Experiment in Misery” by Stephen Crane?

The character is called “the youth” in “An Experiment in Misery” due to the youth’s particularly demeaning situation and the general dehumanizing quality of the big city.

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In Stephen Crane’s short story “An Experiment in Misery,” the main character goes by three primary names. The omniscient narrator refers to the protagonist as “the young man” and “the youth.” The assassin, the youth’s friend, sometimes calls him Willie. Interestingly enough, the narrator never calls the...

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In Stephen Crane’s short story “An Experiment in Misery,” the main character goes by three primary names. The omniscient narrator refers to the protagonist as “the young man” and “the youth.” The assassin, the youth’s friend, sometimes calls him Willie. Interestingly enough, the narrator never calls the youth a proper name. For the narrator, the youth is either “the youth” or “the young man.”

The title of Crane’s short story might provide a clue as to why Crane’s narrator only refers to the main character as “the youth” or “the young man.” Perhaps Crane’s story can be read as a literary experiment. Crane wanted to see if he could center a narrative on a person whose actual name is never specifically acknowledged by the narrator.

The absence of a name might also relate to the misery of the youth. The youth’s conditions are too squalid and inhumane for him to be addressed as a person. It’s as if the beastly milieu of the youth necessitates a depersonalized treatment.

The youth’s less-than-human situation is brought to the forefront in the den scene when, trying to sleep, the youth sees “limbs wildly tossing in fantastic, nightmare gestures.” The youth then hears “guttural cries, grunts, oaths.” One could argue that this animalistic, monstrous environment prohibits the presence of something decent like a proper name.

It’s worth noting that the well-off people aren’t given proper names either. When the youth returns to City Hall Park, he observes people “in their good clothes” on their way to supposedly “important missions.” These privileged people are described as a “blend of black figures.” Maybe Crane called his character “the youth” not solely because of his demeaning poverty but because all people, regardless of their socioeconomic class, are dehumanized by the big, modern, capitalist city.

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