An Experiment in Misery by Stephen Crane

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Crane has been hailed as America’s first modern writer, whose tough-minded realism and symbolic impressionism broadened the parameters of twentieth century fiction. His literary career resembled the passing of a comet, brief but brilliant. His first important work, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), had a motif similar to that of “An Experiment in Misery.” Despite its lack of commercial success, Crane began work on The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895), which would bring him international acclaim. The previous year, however, at the time he wrote “An Experiment in Misery,” he was a struggling journalist trying to persuade editors to publish his work. The country was in the midst of a depression, and Crane himself was frequently without funds. For the sake of research he even stayed in a flophouse and stood in breadlines; the latter experience inspired an article called “Men in the Storm.”

“An Experiment in Misery,” like others of Crane’s tales of Bowery life, uses an impressionistic style to depict a milieu that is hostile and incomprehensible. The story was first published in the New York Press with an explanatory introduction and conclusion that Crane later deleted when it was published in The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure (1898). In the original introduction, the youth tells an older friend that he wants to discover the point of view of the tramp by living like one: “Rags and tatters, you know, a couple of dimes, and hungry, too, if possible.” At the end, the youth reports that although he did not discover the tramp’s point of view, “mine own has undergone a considerable alteration.”

By deleting the introduction and coda, Crane heightened the story’s gloomy mood and its sense of mystery and dread. The youth becomes virtually an outcast, not merely an extension of the narrator. For Crane, realism went far beyond journalistic accuracy. He left to reporters such as Jacob August Riis the task of depicting the poor in How the Other Half Lives (1890). He used imagery, color, and symbolism to evoke the culture of poverty. Sherwood Anderson claimed that the impact of Crane’s style was like an explosion and that his Bowery sketches were the outpouring of an individualist who felt with every nerve within him.

The most puzzling aspect of “An Experiment in Misery” is the character of the young man. Is he in the Bowery as an experiment or as a victim of nature’s fate? In the story’s original form, the narrator deliberately dons the identity of a Bowery denizen. Without the prologue and epilogue, Crane leaves the issue unresolved, and the tone of doom is more palpable, although not totally unrelieved.

The shortened form gives rise to a metaphysical interpretation: the young man as pilgrim passing through baptism (saloon scene), Original Sin (flophouse scene),...

(The entire section is 681 words.)