Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936

Stephen Crane’s Maggie reveals a governing social determinism that exonerates the denizens of the Bowery from the hypocritical moral judgments they pronounce on Maggie, and that serves as the basis for an attack on false values. Viewed in this context, Maggie conforms to many of the tenets of literary naturalism....

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Stephen Crane’s Maggie reveals a governing social determinism that exonerates the denizens of the Bowery from the hypocritical moral judgments they pronounce on Maggie, and that serves as the basis for an attack on false values. Viewed in this context, Maggie conforms to many of the tenets of literary naturalism. When the term “naturalism” is applied to literature, it signifies a philosophical orientation; more specifically, it reflects the presence of a determinism that is either biological or environmental. In other words, the careers of naturalistic protagonists are determined by their inherited traits and by their environments. Caught up in the web of these forces, the protagonists cannot be held responsible for their actions, since they have little, if any, freedom of will. Consequently, the naturalistic work manifests an ethical orientation that is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. Naturalism is distinguished from realism by several other features as well: a focus on the lower classes, an attack on false values, a reformist agenda, imagery that is either animalistic or mechanistic, and a plot of decline that often leads to catastrophe through a deterministic sequence of causes and effects.

The setting, imagery, and plot of Maggie manifest the operation of a governing social determinism that serves as a springboard for Crane’s attack on both romantic idealism in works about the slum and on the moral posturing of the church and the Bowery inhabitants. Rum Alley is a sordid, Darwinian landscape of violent people engaged in a brutal struggle for survival. Children are disgorged onto the slum streets from dark doorways where they must fend for themselves. Working conditions in the local factories are bleak. Lacking an education and any positive role models in her life, Maggie turns to the stage melodrama and the popular romance for her values. They give rise to her dream of a perfect lover who will rescue her from the Bowery. They also instill in her the false beliefs that virtue triumphs over vice, and that poverty is ennobling. In the last analysis, Maggie’s dream proves as fatal as it is illusory, for in the savage environment of the Bowery, the romantic ideals she inherits from the slum novel and theatrical melodrama have negative survival value.

The bestial, martial, and romantic imagery associated with the principal characters also reflects the social determinism of Maggie. Maggie’s deluded romanticism is reinforced by the imagery Crane employs to describe her impression of Pete, who appears to her as a glowing sun, a knight in shining armor who has come to her rescue, when, in reality, he is nothing more than a dandified street thug. Similarly, Maggie’s fatal incompatibility with her environment is revealed by the images Crane uses to describe her. For example, she is compared to a flower that sprouts from the mud, her soul unstained by the dirt and grime of Rum Alley. By contrast, the images used to describe Pete and Jimmy reflect the extent of their adaptation to their environment. They and their friends fight with the savagery of a pack of dogs. The animalistic imagery is significant, for it reinforces the work’s naturalistic orientation; humans are viewed as extensions of the animal kingdom engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival.

A plot of decline leading to catastrophic closure is further evidence of a governing social determinism in Maggie. The initial chapters establish the violent environment of the Bowery. Succeeding chapters contrast Pete’s and Jimmy’s adaptation to this sordid milieu with Maggie’s ardent desire to escape from it. Chapters 6 and 7 chronicle her attempts to realize her dream of escape. Ensuing chapters document the moral backlash and rejection of Maggie by the denizens of the Bowery, and the consequent narrowing of her options, leading to closure and death. First she is rejected by Pete, who claims she is not good enough for him. Forced to pursue a life of prostitution, she is subsequently disowned by her mother, who condemns her thankless disobedience, and shunned by Jimmy for bringing shame upon the family. Turning finally to the church, Maggie is rejected by the priest, who is not willing to risk his respectability to save her soul. The novel assails the hypocrisy of the priest who offers condemnation instead of compassion, who claims to help people, yet disregards their pleas for help, and whose moral posturing encourages others to adopt a similar stance. These characters are not to be blamed for their moral hypocrisy, however, because their harsh environment forces them to act immorally while keeping up moral appearances to survive.

By parodying the sentimental romance, theatrical melodrama, and slum novel to which his audience was addicted, Crane forced his readers to take a closer look at the unsavory conditions of slum life. Maggie also exerted an influence on future generations of writers, from Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, as a result of its many new elements: a focus on the social dregs, the prostitutes, sweat shops, factories, and slums; a terse, laconic style and vernacular dialogue; its subversion of old Victorian sexual taboos and its frank depiction of the sexual needs that drive humans; its portrayal of characters as biological and social pawns with little intellect but great physical attributes; a narrative technique that combined an objective, documentary style with a riot of irony, and that featured an impressionistic approach in which mood and tone were privileged over theme and character. In the final analysis, the novel’s impact may be assessed by its publication in 1893, which helped give birth to a new mode of storytelling: American literary naturalism.

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