An Experiment in Misery

by Stephen Crane

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

Late one rainy night, a shabbily dressed young man trudges along a New York street taunted by voices calling him a bum. As he reaches City Hall Park, he seeks companionship but spots only well-dressed people on their way home. Moving on to Chatham Square, where the pedestrians’ clothes match his “tatters,” he sees a saloon sign that advertises “Free hot soup tonight.” Moving through its swinging doors, which snap “to and fro like ravenous lips,” the youth is served a schooner of frothy beer and a bowl of watery chicken broth. Turning down a second helping, he returns to the street to search for cheap lodging.

The youth is making inquiries with a seedy-looking man when along comes a bushy-haired drunk who appears “like an assassin steeped in crimes performed awkwardly.” His eyes have a guilty slant and his lips look as though they have just consumed “some tender and piteous morsel.” When he begins begging for some money, the seedy man tells him to “go t’ hell,” but the youth agrees to give him a few pennies in exchange for finding them inexpensive accommodations.

The “assassin” leads them to a seven-cent dive, a foul-odored den that reminds the youth of a graveyard “where bodies were merely flung.” Inside the gloomy room, the faint flame of a gas jet casts ominous shadows. Putting his derby and shoes in a tall locker resembling a mummy case, the youth lies down on a cold cot next to a man who is so still that he might be taken for a corpse. Across the room, his companion is sprawled on his back, snoring through a bulbous nose that shines “like a red light in a fog.” Throughout the night, the youth is kept awake by shrieks and moans, the melancholy dirge of a forgotten underclass. The morning rays of the sun produce a cacophony of curses, snorts, and gruff banter. Naked men parade about casually, looking like “chiefs” until they put on their ragged clothes, which exaggerate their deformities.

Out on the street, the youth offers to buy the assassin something to eat at a run-down basement restaurant whose sign reads “No mystery about our hash!” Six cents purchases two coffees and rolls. While they are eating, the assassin launches into an “intricate, incoherent” personal tale of suffering at the hands of his father and various bosses. Meanwhile, the proprietor prevents an old man from leaving because he is carrying a tiny package of food. “B’Gawd, we’ve been livin’ like kings,” the assassin chortles after breakfast. “Look out, or we’ll have t’ pay for it t’-night,” the youth replies.

The two companions make their way to a bench at City Hall Park. Watching people hurrying to their morning destinations reminds the youth of the huge gulf between his present plight and “all that he valued.” Guiltily, he pulls down his hat, feeling like a criminal. A babble of tongues roars heedlessly, and behind him multistoried buildings cast their pitiless hues. They seem “emblematic of a nation forcing its regal head into the clouds, throwing no downward glances . . . [at] the wretches who may flounder at its feet.”

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