Stephen Crane Essay - Critical Essays

Stephen Crane American Literature Analysis

Crane might best be regarded as an inexplicable literary phenomenon: a brief, bright comet, brilliantly distinct from every other writer of his time. Such an approach, however—metaphorically throwing up one’s hands and standing back in wonder—is not very satisfying to literary critics, who have expended vast amounts of energy attempting to fit Crane into various pigeonholes. Thus the student of Crane will soon wander into a bewildering maze of theory: The author is referred to as naturalist, realist, impressionist, and ironist. It may be useful to discuss these concepts, then, before examining Crane’s principal theme and the lasting value of his fiction.

Literary naturalism was imported to the United States from Europe, mainly by way of the French novelistÉmile Zola, and found its chief American expression, around the beginning of the twentieth century, in the novels of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. It is a literary concept based on the idea that the physical world is all that exists; it denies the supernatural. The novelist’s approach is that of the scientist: to examine phenomena, rigorously and objectively, with a view to proving a thesis about the human condition. Typically, this thesis is that people are indistinguishable from animals—that their lives are strictly governed by heredity and environment, making them essentially victims of biological and social forces which they are helpless to oppose.

Probably the most readable works of American naturalism are Norris’s McTeague (1899) and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900). Crane’s fiction has some naturalistic elements, in that it is skeptical, probably agnostic, and generally pessimistic. Yet even in Maggie, the work to which the term most readily applies, it is not clear that the characters are purely victims of their environment. At key turning points they are offered opportunities to act kindly—to change the course of Maggie s life—but fail to take them. Nor is the deep moral outrage that pervades the story typically naturalistic. Crane knows what good is and takes his stand for it, even if the realist in him sees that, in the Bowery, the good generally fails.

Realism in its most basic form refers simply to getting things right—careful observation and rendering of detail. For example, the realist Mark Twain felt that a famous American romantic novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, had made egregious errors of detail that robbed his work of conviction. In this sense Crane is certainly a realist; he was an expert reporter, and the details of his work ring true. Much of his writing, though by no means all, centers on probable and everyday occurrences. In this aspect he stands firmly in the camp of such leading realists as Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells.

Crane was more concerned than either of those writers, however—and herein lies a clue to his greater significance for most modern readers—with inner reality: not merely with what happened, but with how it felt and why it mattered. Thus, his realism is more subjective. He describes Civil War battles not as they might appear to a disembodied observer floating above them, but as they looked and sounded to a terrified soldier in the middle of them. His method is, in turn, affected. In The Red Badge of Courage, in particular, the narrative is far more disconnected and the imagery more dreamlike than in the social realism of Garland and Howells. It is these qualities that have caused some critics to refer to Crane as an impressionist. Impressionism, an extremely vague term as applied to literature, suggests an attempt to render the subjective aspects of a scene, as opposed to the verifiable events—what could be filmed by a documentary filmmaker, for example—that make it up.

The greatest fiction writers are able to view events from multiple perspectives, a quality readily apparent in Crane’s best work. He is at once the frightened correspondent in “The Open Boat,” concerned only with survival from moment to moment, and the survivor observing the foibles, pretensions, and ultimate helplessness of humankind. He is both the runaway soldier wallowing in self-justification and the dispassionate witness. It is out of this multiplicity of vision that Crane’s pervasive irony arises.

His is not to be confused with a simple irony of tone, a kind of sarcasm whose purpose is to proclaim the author’s distance from and superiority to the people and events he or she is describing. Instead, it expresses a complex, deeply imagined and unsentimental vision. If humans need their illusions to survive in an indifferent universe, in a state of war with one another and with the natural world, let them have them; nevertheless, let them back off from time to time and see those illusions for what they are. It is only in such moments of clarification that human beings, understanding their true place in the scheme of things, come together as brothers and sisters.

In Crane’s universe, everyone is indeed at war: The statement is a critical commonplace and is self-evident to any reader once alerted to it. Usually (“The Open Boat” is a notable exception) the enemy is human, and the cause of the conflict is human blindness—failure of observation and imagination, leading to an inability to see others as sentient beings capable of suffering. It is difficult to shoot down another person, face to face, but in The Red Badge of Courage the Confederate soldiers are cogs in a war machine that has been aimed at another war machine. To the Swede, in “The Blue Hotel” (1899), the other characters are murderers out of pulp adventure fiction.

Rarely do Crane’s characters connect in any significant way; all too often they lash out blindly to save whatever is precious to them, whether self-image, social status, or life itself. Crane’s vision, then, is essentially tragic. His stories do not necessarily make comforting reading. They are passionately honest, however, revealing an integrity found only in the finest fiction. They have much to say to a world that remains at war.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

First published: 1896 (privately printed, 1893)

Type of work: Novella

Cast out by her family and abandoned by her lover, a young woman comes to a sad end.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets presents more difficulties to modern readers than other major work by Crane. The heavy dialect and outmoded slang can be distracting, but a more central problem lies in the characterization, or lack of it, of the protagonist. The harrowing pictures of life in a New York slum, however, still ring true.

The fundamental law of life in the Bowery is revealed in the opening scene and depicted as absolute throughout the story. Maggie’s brother Jimmie Johnson appears as a small boy fighting a group of boys from Devil’s Row “for the honor of Rum Alley.” As he is about to be overwhelmed, an older boy, Pete, happens along and pitches in on his side. With the enemy routed, Jimmie goes home to a family also at war; here the mother is victorious, the father driven out to drown his sorrows in a neighboring saloon. So it goes throughout: The powerful prey on the powerless and are preyed upon themselves in turn. Power may stem from physical prowess, from socioeconomic position, or from sexual desirability. Whatever its source, however, power is universally exploited for pleasure or vindication.

Because the characters lack any vestige of self-knowledge or empathy, inevitably their behavior is revealed as at best futile, at worst destructive. Jimmie fights for the “honor” of Rum Alley, but Rum Alley has no honor. The mother ultimately banishes Maggie in the name of conventional respectability, but she herself is a ranting and raving alcoholic. The streets and tenements that make up the urban jungle are strewn with victims. Maggie, from the first scene in which she appears, is only one of many.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets consists of nineteen brief sections; in the first four, Maggie and Jimmie are children. In these sections, Crane is highly successful in evoking the milieu. It is in the fifth—with Maggie grown and engaged in near-slave labor as a seamstress—that he begins to run into trouble. She has become “a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.” As additional characterization, Crane reveals that “when a child, playing and fighting with gamins in the street, dirt disgusted her.” That statement essentially marks the limit of his conception of Maggie. For the story to rise above pathos, its heroine would have to reveal some divine spark, or, in practical terms, considerable spunk in her attempts to make a new life for herself. The potential for triumph or tragedy is present in the situation; unfortunately, however, the protagonist, in her timid passivity, remains nothing more than a victim of circumstances.

Her good looks and vulnerability make her a natural target for Pete, Jimmie’s rescuer in the opening scene, who has become a bartender and a swaggering man about town. He begins squiring her about—more because she is a decorative prop to his ego than out of any real feeling—and Maggie, naturally enough, falls in love with him. Thus, ominously, the power is all on Pete’s side. Interspersed with scenes of the courtship are scenes with Jimmie, now a truck driver and minor-league swaggerer himself, and Maggie’s mother, widowed but unchanged in her alcoholic, sanctimonious violence.

At the end of section 9, the midpoint of the story, the mother throws Maggie out. With nowhere to go except with Pete, Maggie now (it is indicated discreetly) loses her virginity—she is “ruined.” The sexual double standard comes into darkly ironic focus: Jimmie, who has been “ruining” girls for years, proclaims that “Maggie’s gone teh d’ devil.” The mother responds with a curse biblical in intensity but with imagery straight from the Bowery: “May she eat nothin but stones and deh dirt in deh street. May she sleep in deh gutter an’ never see deh sun shine again.”

After a dramatic scene in a saloon, in which a fight between Jimmie and Pete over Maggie’s honor escalates into a riot, the beginning of the end for Maggie comes quickly. By now, with no one else to turn to, her “air of spaniel-like dependence had been magnified and showed its direct effect in the peculiar off-handedness and ease of Pete’s ways toward her.” In a dance hall they meet Nell, “a woman of brilliance and audacity” whom Pete had known previously, and whom he wants more than she wants him. As a result of this shift in the balance of power, Maggie is very soon abandoned. Her mother refuses to take her back in, effectively condemning her to a life of prostitution.

To this point Crane’s techniques have been realistic. Now, in section 17, Maggie’s remaining life is foreshortened into a few pages, as she is shown first well-dressed in a brilliantly lit theater district, then walking down darker, grimier streets, being rejected finally by boys and drunks, coming at last to the river, into which she will deliver up her life. How much time has passed cannot be determined exactly, but it is presumably several years. The power of this section depends on the extent to which the reader has come to identify with Maggie in the earlier, more fully developed ones; many will find it more puzzling than anything else.

After a scene depicting the downfall of Pete, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets ends with the announcement to her family of her death. In the last line of the story, her mother, utterly unconscious of what she has done to her daughter in her vindictive failure of love, screams “Oh, yes, I’ll fergive her! I’ll fergive her!” It is one of the most harrowingly ironic endings in all of fiction and anticipates the greatness of the work to come.

The Red Badge of Courage

First published: 1895

Type of work: Novel

In the course of a series of Civil War skirmishes, a young Union soldier is initiated into manhood.

The Red Badge of Courage is hard to classify, as is Crane’s work in general. It is a war story in the sense that the major external action consists of clashes between opposing armies, but certainly it is unconventional in what it omits. No geographical place names are given, except for a single casual mention of the Rappahannock River, so that the action—all the more surreal for this reason—cannot be located on a map. Similarly, no dates are given; it is impossible to tell what strategic significance, if any, the series of inconclusive actions might have had.

In fiction that is intended to justify one side in a war, much is generally made of the justice of the cause; moreover, the soldiers on “our side” are portrayed as brave and noble, the enemy as evil. In The Red Badge of Courage, on the other hand, the cause is never described, and, though the enemy remains mostly faceless, it becomes clear at last that the only difference between Union and Confederate soldiers is the color of their uniforms. The novel is distinctly modern in this sense, much in the spirit of the fiction engendered by the Vietnam War. In its vivid depiction of the futile suffering brought about by war, it is an antiwar novel.

It is also, and perhaps primarily, a coming-of-age story. According to traditional readings, Henry Fleming, the young protagonist, moves in a series of stages from boyhood, marked by his cowardly flight from his first battle, to manhood, marked by his leading a charge and capturing a rebel flag. In the fiction of Crane, however, as ironic a writer as ever lived, nothing is ever quite that simple. The question of just what it is that Henry learns (and in turn, just what it is that war teaches any of those condemned to fight in it) remains open, to be answered by each reader by closely following the details of the story.

The Red Badge of Courage moves back and forth between traditional realism, partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Crane’s ironical one, and the surreal, disjointed imagery of nightmare. Thus, in the opening paragraph, from the camp of Henry’s untested regiment...

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