Characters Discussed

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Maggie, a girl who has grown up in the slums of New York. Although surrounded by corruption of all sorts throughout her youth, she has remained uncontaminated by it. When she falls in love with Pete, a friend of her brother, her moral deterioration begins. After she has lived...

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Maggie, a girl who has grown up in the slums of New York. Although surrounded by corruption of all sorts throughout her youth, she has remained uncontaminated by it. When she falls in love with Pete, a friend of her brother, her moral deterioration begins. After she has lived with him, her family, who are anything but models of decorum, will have nothing to do with her. She turns to prostitution but finds it hard to support herself; eventually, she commits suicide.


Jimmy, Maggie’s brother. After his father’s death, he goes to work to support Maggie and their mother. He quickly falls into the normal patterns of life for men of his class, has a succession of affairs, and fathers several illegitimate children. When Maggie tries to return home after her affair with Pete, he is highly indignant and will do nothing to help her.


Pete, Jimmy’s friend and Maggie’s lover. After seducing Maggie, he quickly tires of her and turns her out. Thereafter, he denies any responsibility toward her.

The Mother

The Mother, a woman given to drink and constant haranguing with her husband and children. When Maggie and Jimmy were small, she left them to shift for themselves most of the time, but it is she who assumes an attitude of outraged virtue when Maggie tries to return home. After her daughter’s death, she is inconsolable.


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Although there are characters in Maggie, he uses only a few to give shape to his story. He has created characters that are both individualized and stereotypical. The major characters are the members of the Johnson family, Pete, and "the outer world" as represented by the preachers and social workers.

Mary Johnson is both the selfish, abusive, alcoholic mother, and the symbolic reproducer of all the ills of the slums. Her unnamed husband is both the selfish, weak willed father that abandons his children, and paternalistic society, the society that turns its back on its child. Jimmie, their surviving son, reproduces all their ills and thus represents the idea of environment reproducing itself. Maggie, their daughter, represents a good person who wants to improve herself and the lives of those she loves. Maggie represents Hope. Crane will have that hope directly rejected. Thus Jimmie and Maggie together make Crane's argument for the slums being caused and reproduced by environment and by circumstances.

Pete, Maggie's boyfriend, is a cowardly, selfish man who uses, other people, wealthier and more self-assured than members of the Johnson family, but unwilling to give without getting a return. He therefore also represents that portion of society that gives the people of the Bowery a peek at a better life without helping them to obtain that better life. Maggie has seen books showing totally different ways of living; she has learned about artists in school; and she has heard about jobs that were not in sweat shops. These small glimpses of a better life give her hope that she and her family can achieve them, but of course she cannot because society denies the poor opportunities to become educated enough to receive good jobs.

The two ministers that Crane identifies in the story are clearly representatives of social and religious organizations, and that portion of society that pays lip service to helping the people of the ghetto while despising and rejecting them. The minister who works in the food kitchen clearly is fulfilling his expected duties; he is not there out of a desire to help people, and he doles out food only after lecturing the hungry. He is Crane's symbol of the social institutions, including schools, churches, and social service agencies, that have little interest in changing the plight of the poor.


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Jimmie Johnson Jimmie, Maggie’s brother, appears at the opening of the novel. At a young age, he has become as savage as the little “true assassins” he battles in the streets. His survival on these mean streets depends on his ability to dodge fists and stones as well as to develop an exalted sense of himself, which he displays in the opening fight when he tells all comers that he can lick them “wid one han’” The world hardens him at an early age, and he gives it no respect “because he had begun with no idols that it had smashed.” As he grows older, he becomes a bully, menacing “mankind at the intersections of streets,” afraid of nothing. His sneering attitude toward everything and everyone deepens in his “downtrodden position which had a private but distinct element of grandeur in its isolation.” He has a few friends but is not loyal to them, as he illustrates after the bar fight with Pete. As he escapes, he thinks of returning to rescue his friend, but he immediately dismisses the idea with, “ah, what d’hell?” His lack of character also emerges in his behavior toward his sister. Initially he appears to be concerned about Maggie’s welfare when he determines to punish Pete for his treatment of her, but he proves to be driven more by a sense of shame than of responsibility. He turns his back on Maggie as cruelly as does his mother. When she dies, he reports the news dispassionately.

Maggie Johnson
The central character in the novel, Maggie Johnson has retained her innocence and virtue within her brutal environment and has “blossomed in a mud puddle.” She longs to escape her abusive family and dreary job at the collar and cuff factory but does not have the confidence or the opportunity to succeed on her own. She has an active imagination that she uses to escape the crushing despair of her world. When Pete appears, she becomes filled with hope that she will succeed. “Under the trees of her dream-gardens there had always walked a lover”; Pete becomes that “ideal man.” Her imaginative and illusory vision of Pete, however, causes her to feel pale by comparison. As he displays his confident assurance of his superiority to all who come into contact with him, Maggie begins to feel insecure in her relationship with him. She often finds herself at a loss for words, intimidated by the glamorous world in which, she believes, he operates. Her naiveté and clouded vision of reality causes her to be too dependent on Pete, which eventually leads to her destruction.

Mr. Johnson
Maggie’s sullen father has been beaten down by society and by his wife. He often retreats to the local saloon to drink away his troubles, or he takes out his resentment on his children. Evidence of both behaviors emerges in the opening pages when he kicks Jimmie for fighting and flees the apartment after a row with Jimmie’s mother. His lack of concern for anyone other than himself is further illustrated when he steals the neighbor woman’s beer from Jimmie, who has just paid for it. His weak character perhaps precipitates an early death.

Mrs. Johnson
Maggie’s mother is a monstrous woman who harbors a vindictive hatred for anyone who gets in her way. She walks with a “chieftain-like stride” as she beats her family and curses them, continually insisting they should all “go t’hell.” Sometimes when drunk, she falls into “a muddled mist of sentiment” but the shallowness of this emotion is revealed when during one episode, she reverts immediately into a murderous rage when Maggie breaks a plate. Her utter lack of love or concern for her children emerges in her treatment of Maggie when the neighbors begin to regard the young woman’s behavior as immoral. Mrs. Johnson responds not by defending her daughter, but by kicking her out on the streets. As a result, when Pete also abandons her, Maggie is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive.

Nellie Johnson
Nellie appears as a female version of Jimmie and Pete—someone who has developed an attitude of confident superiority as a means of survival. When she comes across Pete and Maggie at the club, her “brilliance and audacity” dazzle the couple. Her own shallowness emerges when she convinces Pete to abandon Maggie. Later she abandons Pete in much the same way when she grows tired of his drunkenness.

Tommie Johnson
The youngest Johnson, Tommie becomes more of a plot device than a fleshed out character. He first appears on the street as Maggie drags him home, adding to her already overwhelming burdens. She tries to look out for him, but a vulnerability to their harsh environment leads to his death. Maggie seems to be the only one who is affected by his death when she places a flower inside his “insignificant” coffin.

Pete is as immoral as Jimmie, but he has hidden it more effectively under a respectable appearance. Like Jimmie, he has developed a superior persona in order to survive the inhumanity of tenement life. As he struts in front of Maggie at her apartment when they first meet, the room seems “to grow even smaller and unfit to hold his dignity, the attribute of a supreme warrior.” At first he behaves like a gentleman as he becomes attentive to Maggie’s desires on their first date, but his true intentions emerge when she refuses to kiss him goodnight, and he thinks he has “been played for a duffer.” Pete quickly rejects Maggie as unsuitable when a more interesting and confident companion arrives. He heartlessly turns his back on her when her presence and most likely her pregnancy have become tiring.

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