An Experiment in Misery

by Stephen Crane

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Why does Stephen Crane refer to the young man as "the youth" in "An Experiment in Misery"?

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In "An Experiment in Misery," Stephen Crane leaves his protagonist nameless, calling him only "the youth," because he is presenting him as an everyman figure that the audience can relate to and/or enter into. In the original version, the youth deliberately leaves behind his name by assuming the identity and anonymity of a homeless person.

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In "An Experiment in Misery," Stephen Crane's protagonist is merely called "the youth." We never learn his proper name, and Crane has an important reason for this: he wants to present the youth as a kind of everyman figure who symbolizes the journey of all people.

The youth is suffering from poverty, a condition that many people can relate to and that other people can enter into through the experiences of this young man. The young man strolls along in a good part of town, feeling miserably out of place, and he finally enters an area where he blends in. He stops for a free bowl of soup but refuses seconds, perhaps trying to save some for the next down-and-out fellow.

He links up with a strange little man who shows him to a cheap boarding house in exchange for three cents. The youth then lies awake all night reflecting on his companions and on life in general. Then he treats the other man to a cheap breakfast in the morning before they both sit on park benches to pass the day away, the young man finally accepting his status as "an outcast."

We don't need to know this youth's name. Knowing his misery is enough. We can guess at his background; he seems to have been well-off at one point, valuing social status and comfort and pleasure. But he has now fallen a long way. He is a pitiful character, yet he retains a range of virtues even in the midst of his poverty. He shares the little he has. He is polite and well-mannered. In this, he stands as an example of how to cope with suffering.

Finally, the original story actually contained a short introduction and conclusion that sets up the young man as actually performing an experiment. He wants to see what it is like to be a homeless person, so he disguises himself as such and proceeds to wander the streets. He sets aside his identity to become one of the anonymous poor that most people ignore. He enters into that world of invisibility and namelessness, leaving his own name behind.

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