Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

by Stephen Crane

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956

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.

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