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...
(The entire section is 936 words.)