Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524
The point of the story is that the misery of poverty is so immobilizing that victims do not have the will to overcome their wretchedness. Stephen Crane is elusive on the issue of cause and effect: whether the poor are responsible for their fate or are merely tragic pawns in an immutable world. The experimenter rapidly sinks into a state of “profound dejection,” concluding finally that “there no longer could be pleasure in life.” Misery loves company, as the saying goes, and the youth feels like an outcast among the well-dressed and purposeful, preferring the company of those who trudge aimlessly, stare dolefully, loiter patiently, get swallowed up by the saloon, and heave on flophouse cots like “stabbed fish.”
Misery also breeds passivity, but there are exceptions such as the little pudgy fellow who curses like a fishwife and the enigmatic “assassin” whose gestures are awkward but extravagant. Claiming to be a gentleman “down on his luck,” he begs for coppers in a coaxing voice that resembles that of an affectionate puppy. The youth’s handout makes his countenance “radiant with joy.” On his cot he snores with “incredible vigor,” his wet hair and beard glistening and his nose shining “with subdued luster.” Liquor clouds his memory and makes him, at times, incoherent, but a warm breakfast puts a red grin on his face and leads him to declare that “we’ve been livin’ like kings.” In his limping step is a “suggestion of lamblike gambols.” Unmindful of the youth’s warning that they have to hustle to survive the next night, the assassin refuses “to turn his gaze toward the future.”
During the 1890’s, proper society considered the poor to be a criminal element. Ironically, the youth accepts this indictment as he surveys the bustling crowd from his bench and pulls down the rim of his derby. The refuse of a success-oriented society, the poor lacked motivation or ambition. Their crime was resignation. In Crane’s concluding line, the young man’s eyes take on a “criminal expression that comes from certain convictions.”
“An Experiment in Misery” underscores how wide a gulf existed between the rich and the poor. Behind the park are awesome, shadowy skyscrapers. Streetcars rumble along softly “as if going upon carpet stretched in the aisle made by the pillars of the elevated road.”
Crane examines the culture of poverty by describing four haunts visited by the youth: the saloon, the flophouse, the hash house, and the park bench. Most alluring is the saloon, with its delectable advertisement, ravenous swinging doors, frothy schooners of beer, and bewhiskered host dispensing soup “like a priest behind the altar.” In contrast, the lodging house is a nightmarish morgue, with unholy odors and demoniac wails, causing the sleepless protagonist to “lay carving biographies for these men from his meager experience.” The careworn restaurant has coffee bowls “webbed with brown seams” and tin spoons “bent and scarred from the attack of long forgotten teeth.” The final resting place is “sanctified by traditions” and leads the youth to see himself inexorably as one with a class of people cut off from the blessings of the world.