An Analysis of Stephen Crane’s “The Men in the Storm”
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Stephen Crane’s “The Men in the Storm” is a depiction of a group of men outside a soup kitchen during a New York City snowstorm, waiting for the shelter to open so they can go inside. Crane begins by describing, not these homeless people themselves, but a very different group of people: the uptown “black figures of men busily shoveling the white drifts from the walks.” Bathed in the warm yellow light from the shop windows, the men “were infinitely cheerful” for “there was an absolute expression of hot dinners in [their] pace.” They knew, that as soon as they came in from shoveling their walks, that someone would have a hot meal waiting for them in a place “which the imagination made warm with the familiar colors of home.”
However, Crane shifts from this relatively happy scene to “a certain part of a dark West-side street” where things are not so rosy. On this street, there is a “charitable house where for five cents the homeless of the city could get a bed at night and, in the morning, coffee and bread.” The house, however, does not open until evening; and in the ferocity of the blizzard, people are already desperate to get inside.
In his description of these cold and hungry people, Crane shows his allegiance to the literary school of naturalism, which sees all human action as simply an attempt to survive the heartless forces of nature. For example, Crane writes that “As the time approached when [the men] expected to be allowed to enter, [they] crowded to the doors in an unspeakable crush, jamming and wedging in a way that it seemed would crack bones. They surged heavily against the building in a powerful wave of pushing shoulders.” This description seems a great deal more like some natural force—the action of ocean waves, for example, or an avalanche—than it does the behavior of rational human beings. All individuality is lost to the mass-mind of the group.
Despite the fact that at the end of the story, the doors are opened and the people surge inside to a warm fire and a hot meal, the street people never acquire any vestige of individuality. Now they have simply become animals, responding to a primitive need for food and warmth. In this story, like many in which Crane reflects the plight of the desperately poor, the author illustrates his conviction that we are essentially at the mercy of forces—whether natural or man-made—that do not care about us, and against which we can only battle to survive.
This story can be found in the collection “The Best Short Stories of Stephen Crane.”
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