Distant Dinners in Crane’s Maggie

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7487

Pete’s first words to Maggie are: “Say, Mag, I’m stuck on your shape. It’s outa sight.” Maggie’s response: “She wondered what Pete dined on.” These two quotations encode an enormous problem for Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets , and it reflects a crucial anxiety for American writers...

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Pete’s first words to Maggie are: “Say, Mag, I’m stuck on your shape. It’s outa sight.” Maggie’s response: “She wondered what Pete dined on.” These two quotations encode an enormous problem for Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and it reflects a crucial anxiety for American writers in the last decades of the nineteenth century who were attempting to transform new social phenomena into literary, journalistic, and photographic constructions. Pete’s words reflect the realist’s worry that aesthetic aims become “stuck on shape.” Realism’s attempt to achieve an objective point of view risks turning its subjects into objects, transforming groups of people into statistics, changing individuals into things. More drastically, realism’s technique turns reality into “tecnic,” and ontology becomes nothing beyond surface. The realist’s motivation, welcomed by many American writers as excitingly new, once again truly “novel,” was soon perceived as extremely limiting. A style that was hoped to be transcendentally “outa sight” became merely shapes and shadows, and what you saw was what you got.

On July 3, 1896, Crane inscribed a copy of Maggie: “It is indeed a brave new binding and I wish the inside were braver.” While realists triumphed at giving their works a sense of “photographic realism,” their text’s “inside” remained problematic, The closer artists came to achieving their technical goal of surface representation, the more their works bordered on voyeurism. This essay examines how Crane, as well as other literary and reform writers, both developed a language of food in order to give an impression of being “inside” the social topic, of seeing deeper than the surface, and how a language of food created problems even as it answered the problem of voyeurism. In so doing, I invite a slightly different reading of Crane’s now famous letter to John Northern Hilliard, celebrated for its romantic heroism (as in “personal honesty is my supreme ambition [even though] “A man is sure to fail at it”). I explore instead how closely we should attend to Crane’s admission in that same letter that “Personally I am aware that my work does not amount to a string of dried beans” and further inquire what relationship this sentence has to his goal of seeing life with only his “own pair of eyes.”

Frank Norris, using his review of Maggie to vent his frustration at realism generally, complained that it seemed “written from the outside” (Wertheim 54–62; McElrath 87–90). Critics since Norris have considered this quality a virtue, whether as an early example of reification, or tragedy in a Realist mode, a representation of subjectivity within economic matrixes, or an achievement of objective vision. But Norris more faithfully reflects the anxiety of realists, torn between their ambition and achievement, and their frustration and fear. A later theorist like Raymond Williams would articulate the need for realistic art to include “the essential forces and movements underlying” objects and surfaces, not the “mere surface” or “appearances only.”

Though one of the writers who had once waved realism’s banner most proudly, Norris, anticipating Williams, had come to condemn realism for “entertaining with its meticulous presentation of teacups, rag carpets, wall-paper and haircloth sofas, stopping with these, going no deeper than it sees.” Realism, he observes, “notes only the surface of things. For it, Beauty is not even skindeep, but only a geometrical plane, without dimensions and depth, a mere outside. Realism is very excellent so far as it goes, but it goes no further than the Realist himself can actually see.” More specifically, Norris’s anxiety centers on a lack; as a realist, he longs for “an instrument, keen, finely tempered, flawless—an instrument with which we may go straight through the clothes and tissues and wrappings of flesh down deep into the red, living heart of things” (“A plea for romantic fiction, 1901; quoted in Pizer 75–78).

Writers like Kate Chopin in The Awakening (1899) had managed to pierce through surfaces and probe the “red, living heart” by having their characters transforms themselves into that emblem of pulsing subjectivity which Chopin represented as the “throbbings of desire” (32). Her Edna

. . . stretched her strong limbs that ached a little. She ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while. She looked at her round arms as she held them straight up and rubbed them one after the other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh.(39)

Edna’s auto-communion as both host and celebrant creates a new hunger for life. She had had no appetite when dining with her husband and had felt no satisfaction in writing a weekly menu (39), but after her new vision she drains her glass of wine and devours her food. In her auto-communion she rips into “a crusty brown loaf, tearing it with her strong white teeth” and avows, when told that her dinner of broiled fowl has dried out, that “If it turned to stone, still will I eat it” (40–41). Her appetite becomes gargantuan, much like the triumph that Bakhtin envies in Rabelais: “This victory over the world in the act of eating was concrete, tangible, bodily. . . . In this image there was no trace of mysticism, no abstract-idealistic sublimation. This image materializes truth and does not permit it to be torn from the earth” (285).

Though Edna is ensconced in circumstances that Chopin frequently calls “luxurious,” a setting that did not suit self-conscious realist writers attempting to address the vast social phenomena of the hungry, the homeless, the poor “huddled masses” as Emma Lazarus labeled them for the world, realists did, like Chopin, choose food as a way to delve below surfaces. Realistic writing is stocked with a language of food, from Norris’s “Epic of the Wheat,” where individuals drown in grain aimed at relieving world famine, to William Dean Howell’s dinner parties as tests of social standing and Theodore Dreiser’s postponement of Hurstwood’s suicide in Sister Carrie because he happens to be given enough money to eat; from Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s delicious grapes that speculators will convert to wine in The Conjure Woman (1899) to Jack London’s equation of mass behavior with fermenting yeast and of morality with a full stomach in The Sea-Wolf (1904). Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902) uses food to represent everything from racist theories about theft to “The Universe” setting “Berry” up “to taste all the bitterness” (587). Indeed, the entire careers of non fiction reform writers can be summarized by their book titles—as with Thomas DeWitt Talmage’s Around the Tea Table (1888), The Battle for Bread (1889), and Crumbs Swept Up (1897); Jewish life in New York tenements is captured in well-known late realist works like Anzia Yezierka’s The Bread-Givers (1925) and Samuel Ornitz’s Haunch, Paunch and Jowl (1923); and even later realists dream of Old World wheat fields as in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) and hope for New World success as in Rose Pesotta’s Bread Upon the Waters (1944). Indeed, food is so integral to realistic fiction that Chester Wolford, in response to Eric Solomon, argues that Maggie’s structure is an inverted vegetation myth with Mary as a twisted Proserpine who lays waste to the land because of Dis, personified by Pete (78–87). In this sense, Crane’s comparison of his works to “a string of dried beans” seems more than a fortuitous cliche.

Of course, one reason realistic depictions of slum life are filled with a language of food is the sheer, raw reality of starvation. Reform writings catalogue starving children, diets of moldy bread, offal in the streets, goat carcasses that decompose over the course of weeks, and the bad food of “twocent restaurants” (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 56–58). One Victor Hugoesque Riis chapter titled “The Man with the Knife” describes how a father is driven to madness and murder by the sight of rich people feasting as he pictures “those little ones crying for bread around the cold and cheerless hearth” (263–64).

Moreover, many of the reform writers of the 1890s were reverends or related to ministers and thus already had a long tradition of mingling religion, food, and reform. Crane’s parents are an obvious example of the blending of religion with reform, a characteristic of the reform movement that Ann Douglas and other biographers have noted. As William James observed, food had been a natural language in both reform and religious discourse in America ever since the earliest Puritans wrote of the Old and New Testaments as the twin breasts from which we suck nourishment. In addition, as Steven Mailloux has argued, the relationship between food and language changed in children’s literature and conduct books from a figurative to a literal level by the late nineteenth century. In popular literary genres, food shifted from being a metaphor for words to an equation with language. Mailloux impressively demonstrates that by the 1890s it had become commonplace for authors to advise their readers, as Annie H. Ryder did in Go Right on Girls! (1891), “to digest your books, turn them into nourishment, make them a part of your life that lives always” (13357).

Crane was writing within an established tradition, then, when he used food to create an impression of depth—what he called a “braver inside”—contrasted with realism’s surfaces and “outside look.” When Maggie wonders how Pete dined, her imagination points upward, signalling transcendence of home, the slum, individual powerlessness, and a dog-eat-dog universe. Maggie, the novel itself, points downward, feeding readers’ interests in how the poor literally starved and figuratively hungered for the refined and safer existence which Maggie envisions and the average reader already enjoys. Whether one adopts the vantage point of reformer or novelist, photographer or reader, the point of view is privileged; reality is observed from on high. How then does a reader avoid replicating the hypocrisy and self-deception which are blatantly attacked in the novel? As an example of 1890s social realism, Crane’s challenge in Maggie was to make readers consume a text, not merely gaze at or patronize social issues raised by the text. The aesthetic challenge was to cause readers to make a text part of their selves as though they had eaten it, not to allow readers to dine elegantly on literary fare. However, the solution was not without problems, and Crane soon leapt from the frying pan into the fire. In breaking the planes of realism by imagining his words as food, Crane created new difficulties in the way his texts were consumed. As will be shown, problems with voyeurism yielded to problems about consumption.

Chapter XV graphically demonstrates how the text Maggie might be read voyeuristically, that is, read much the way Mary in this chapter turns her daughter into spectacle. “Lookut her! Lookut her!” Mary shouts nine times in succession. Expounding “like a glib showman at a [sideshow] museum,” she draws a “doorful of eyes” that gaze upon Maggie, their gaze objectifying her, proving her powerlessness. Even a “baby, overcome with curiosity concerning this object,” crawls near to gaze, personifying Crane’s fear that his novel may be read in an infantile way, or that the text might remain nothing but spectacle. Rather than empathizing with and absorbing the vision, a reader might remain mere spectator, mere voyeur, like Pete stuck merely on shapes, attracted only to form and surface. It is no surprise that the text avenges itself upon Pete by reversing the motif; surface yields to savagery as Pete’s supposed friends pick him apart cannibalistically in a kind of devourment that is as far removed from voyeurism as can be. The depth of the anxiety represented in these scenes could be missed by modern readers less steeped in humanistic background and reform impulse than were the realists. But the major source of the anxiety under study here is how realists, seeking a cure for realism’s weaknesses, find that the cure is intricately connected with the problem; devourment is intimate with voyeurism. Dunbar certainly constructs that problem in The Sport of the Gods when Skaggsy and The Universe set Berry up, as Dunbar says, to “taste all the bitterness.” As a realist, Dunbar replicates the crushing racist powers of life; it is no wonder that his preacherly voice so often intrudes to wish that life and the text could be other than realistic. When the choreographer, an arranger of music and dance if not words on a page, is shown to dislike the taste of his own words, one wonders how much Dunbar intends him self-reflexively to be an emblem of the realist author (547).

My contention is that, for Crane, the problem was more about ontology and aesthetics than humanism, closer to photography and the problem of the Other. Why is the first reform book to include documentary photographs titled How the Other Half Lives? What is the connection between the ability of photographic realism to bring the Other right before readers’ eyes and the insistence of this technique on the Other remaining alien? In 1904, for example, Henry James, no friend of the poor by any stretch, watched in repugnance as “the inconceivable alien” was admitted to his native country. “It is a drama that goes on, without a pause, day by day and year by year, this visible act of ingurgitation on the part of our body politic and social, and constituting really an appeal to amazement beyond that of any sword-swallowing or fire-swallowing in the circus.” What precisely is the difference between James’s contemptuous “inconceivable alien” and Jacob Riis’s “Other Half”? Dunbar’s Sport, if one recalls, muddies this matter by alleging that reformers, at least in the variety of yellow journalism, feed upon the poor and keep them on the lowest rungs of society as effectively as do the rich, the powerful, and the power-hungry.

Recent research on representations of the homeless further blurs the distinction between sympathy and disdain. Even the most humane motives cannot avoid realism’s alienation of the Other as its technique asks people to “Lookut her, Lookut her.” The most empathetic gaze still alienates the Other, confirms the distance separating seer from the seen, and flattens the foregrounded with its scene. Voyeurism is always ideological. Documentary photographs insist upon the difference between those who look and those looked at; they privilege positions of who can show and who cannot speak for themselves, thus through technique reinforcing the charity model— “the imbalance of power and the division between self and other,” as Allen Carey-Webb puts it (701). One recalls the sermon in Maggie where the minister distances the hungry in sermons full of “yous” to which, in one draft, Crane had added: “Once a philosopher asked this man why he did not say ‘we’ instead of ‘you.’ The man replied, what?” The question is also the answer, just as Maggie becomes a “what” when she is objectified by the text and passes “before open doors framing more eyes strangely microscopic” and just as the text, through its technic of microscopic inspection, becomes an instrument of alienation. In modern times, reformers sometimes deconstruct their own speeches, as when Jim Hubbard’s motivation in his documentary American Refugees to “urge you to see the similarities between you and the people shown here” is called into question by the text’s use of “you” and “me” separated from “they” or “these people” (xiii). To say “They are like you and me” contradicts the sentiment as soon as it is uttered.

One event early into The Other Half illustrates the point clearly. Riis wanted to photograph “a particularly ragged and disreputable tramp” smoking a two-cent clay pipe. The man agreed to pose for a dime but cunningly put away his pipe, the one item that Riis thought looked particularly picturesque in an urban slum sort of way. The man had sized Riis up nicely and insisted that his pipe made his picture worth a quarter. Though incensed, Riis says, “I had to give in. The man scarce ten seconds employed at honest labor, even at sitting down, at which he was an undoubted expert, had gone on strike. He knew his rights and the value of ‘work,’ and was not to be cheated out of either” (78). Though phrased in praise this is a complaint; the newly-hired working man was treating Riis as any businessman or shopkeeper might, negotiating the value of commodities. What is more, the working man was abridging the unilateral power relationships; he was metaphorically stepping out of the photograph, refusing to be framed, at least not at the framer’s price.

This revelation of a “tramp’s” remarkable intelligence, understanding of market realities, and insight into the psychology of the Other slips out of Riis’s picture and into the text where we can read the meaning between the lines in spite of Riis’s interventions and rhetorical directions, but the photograph tames and domesticates the incident. Its caption tells us what we see, a “tramp, who sat smoking his pipe on the rung of a ladder with such evident philosophic contentment in the busy labor of a score of rag-pickers all about him” (79). From the photograph and its caption one would never know that there was a fascinating “brave inside” to this posed manikin. In 1891, the year after The Other Half was published and while Maggie was still in early drafts, Crane discussed photography in a New York Tribune article: “The photograph is false in perspective, in light and shade, in focus. When a photograph can depict atmosphere and sound, the comparison [of literary communication with photography] will have some meaning, and then it will not be used as a reproach.” Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy would agree, for their film Takeover, a documentary of the homeless occupying vacant homes repossessed by HUD on 1 May 1990, shows active, vigorous subjects who are far from exhibiting “philosophic contentment on the bottom rung” of society. Far from being objectified, they work together, develop strategies, act collectively, and insist upon their own voice. As Carey-Webb says, “They threaten to tear down the fence that separates them from the podium, and voices shout, ‘We can speak for ourselves! The homeless can speak for themselves!’” (707).

In 1891, Crane’s images of absorption made his brand of literary realism seem more like the subjective presentation claimed by Yates and Kinoy and Carey-Webb than the objectification and alienation of Riis’s photographs. Like most of the reform writers of the 1890s, Crane used metaphors of food and eating to smudge the lines that separated viewer from object, reader from text, the self from the Other. The various functions of food in Maggie begin with Jimmie’s mouth filled with curses and smashed by stones and conclude with a twin communion: Pete’s cannibalistic anticommunion and Mary’s mock communion. Along the way the author “forgets” that food is a metaphor and begins to think that his words literally are an equation, that literacy is a form of eating. But to analyze that transformation one should survey the discourse of reform on this score to understand that Crane’s “confusion” was actually an aesthetic ideal among reformers and self-conscious realists.

Marcus Cunliffe, Eric Solomon, Thomas Gullason, David Halliburton and other scholars have persuasively argued that Maggie is one strand of a vast literary fin-de-siecle web spun by urban novelists like Hall Caine, Brander Matthews, Edward Townsend, and Edgar Fawcett as well as reform writers like Jacob Riis, Charles Loring Brace, Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, and Crane’s own parents. The bulk of scholarship concentrates on similarities of scene, imagery, name, theme, and event. However there also exists the curious and all but inevitable combination of poverty, literacy, and food, of reading and diet, with the urban setting and social problems in a way that transcends any sheer transaction of realistic phenomena. Food imagery may begin as stereotype and convention, but it soon becomes more interesting and complex.

With Riis, for example, one finds literary quotation (Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt”), Biblical allusion (Chapter XIX: “The Harvest of Tares” from Matthew 13:25), and Reform Movement slogans and songs (“Bread so dear, And flesh and blood so cheap!”) used as stock literary techniques, but Riis’s writing often goes beyond this treatment to link poverty, crime, and literacy. In his discussion of “The gang [as] the ripe fruit of tenement-house growth” (82), Riis prefers the gang member over the meek pauper because the gang member’s appetites are “those of the wolf rather than the tiger,” giving him the energy to become something better “with different training.” Riis not only presumes that gangsters are avid readers, but he also insists that their reading not only “affects” but causes their behavior. (Riis would probably be attracted more to the Swede than to the others in Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” not only because he has more vitality but because we know that he reads, and because we knew that he reads exciting, sensationalist fiction.)

For a reformer like Charles Loring Brace, “the literature she reads” is only one of several factors that “degrade and defile” a prostitute, but to Riis a city tough’s “inordinate vanity” is a direct “result of his swallowing all the flash literature and pennydreadfuls he can beg, borrow, or steal (220). Reading is not mearly an influence upon his character; it is as integral to his biological system as breastfeeding or medicine: readers are “nursed by such a diet into rank and morbid growth” (83).

Reverend Talmage’s The Night Sides of City Life also clearly blends food with reading and the city. Whenever Night Sides addresses political or social approaches to urban problems, the imagery tends to medicine, cleanliness, clothes, and engineering; but, when Talmage begins to talk about his readers’ feelings or personal attitudes toward the poor, his associations shift to eating and reading. Thus when he comes to praise those who recognize poverty as owing as much to circumstances as to abulia, his discussion immediately widens to include spiritual truth and the reception of The Word. And so, he sides with the poor and hungry but good woman who tells the preacher that “The great want of our city is the Gospel and something to eat! . . . you have to go forth in this work with the bread of eternal life in your right hand and the bread of this life in your left hand . . .” (173).

What Talmage calls “the bread of this life” includes not only actual food but literacy; the secular word is as significant as the holy word. Authors and publishers possess a power marvelous in its capacity to nourish but dangerous in its potential to corrupt:

Every time the cylinders of Harper or Appleton [Maggie’s 1896 publisher] or Ticknor or Peterson or Lippincott turn, they make the earth quake. From them goes forth a thought like an angel of light to feed and bless the world, or like an angel of darkness to smite it with corruption and sin and shame and death.

Indeed, Talmage, as a preacher and reform writer, openly envies the power of the novelist and the journalist. When he sees that “Almost every man you meet has a book in his hand or a newspaper in his pocket,” he worries that they are more welcome to readers than the word of God. “This hungry, all-devouring American mind must have something to read” (73), and he realizes that the more novels like Maggie are lashed for their brutality and lurid melodrama the more readers will be eager to taste them.

Crane hoped his works would be read, but a greater worry was that his first novel might fail to fulfill the kind of profound literacy depicted in Riis, Brace, and Talmage. His focus was the communicative problem of how to make literacy as profound an activity as eating and nourishment. How was an author to make readers feel that they were doing something beyond merely gazing upon a fictional representation of reality, that they were engaged in a fundamental literary process, that they were feeding upon words and not just looking at them? The problem was not so much how to get readers “inside” the story, but how to get the text inside them—or, at least, to create that illusion, at least to encode textual signs to signal that this was the anxiety troubling the author enough to create fiction.

The two most obvious signals in Maggie are the stove and the saloon. The stove’s first and literal function, of course, is for feeding the family as well as for warmth. Symbolically it functions as the urban surrogate for the domestic hearth, the psychological site where the family is supposed to center, as it does for the “hurrying men” in Chapter XV who do not notice the “forlorn woman” because they have “their thoughts fixed on distant dinners.” But for the Johnsons, that basic function fails; the stove is treated disgracefully, as when the supposed head of the family plops “his great muddled boots on the back part.” Although massive, or at least the heaviest object in the home, it takes a beating, sometimes bounced around as though it were made of cardboard instead of iron. It is also the site of the characters’ only effort at art when Maggie, attempting to give her family class and to attract Pete’s courtship (and thus start another family centered at its own stove), makes “with infinite care” a lambrequin of alternate wheat and roses for the shelf above the stove. Her choice of pattern indicates her humble desire to combine simple food with plain beauty, and her future efforts to restore the lambrequin to its place create sympathy. Her longing for art is also lonely in this harsh environments. Pete does not notice the lambrequin, and the mother of the family destroys it in one of her drunken rampages.

Most of all, the stove stands no more chance against the saloon than the past has against the future. As in George’s Mother where the saloon’s fraternity attempts to be a surrogate mother, the barroom offers a substitute family in the midst of an urban chaos that is as fragmented as the collars and cuffs in Maggie’s workplace. As Riis wrote, “in many a tenement-house block the saloon is the one bright and cheery and humanly decent spot to be found” (79). In Maggie’s Chapter XI, alienation is commented on in a fittingly oblique way with a stranger whose presence seems as irrelevant to the text as it is in the tavern. The first time he is mentioned, Pete is “bending expectantly toward” him, but each of the next six times the stranger appears he is farther from the center of the bar. Finally, he is “sprawled very pyrotechnically out on the sidewalk,” and the usual crowd of spectators is there to gawk.

If the crowd were a community as represented by the chorus in Greek tragedy (or by the women “like a choir at a funeral” on the last page), their remarks would be apt commentary on the action, but here in the chaotic city there is no empathy; they come merely to feast greedily on spectacle. “The crowd bended and surged in absorbing anxiety to see,” and they read everything wrong. Instead of seeing a fight between Jimmie and Pete (allies in the first chapter’s fight), and instead of noticing that Jimmie now abandons his new-found ally, they jump to the conclusion that “Dey’ve t’rowed a bloke inteh deh street.” The atmosphere of alienation is thickened also by the fact that aliases are wise in the saloon’s supposed fraternity, where Billie (if that is indeed his name) pretends that Jimmie’s name is Mike (just as in Nellie’s bar Freddie uses a false name to protect himself from the friends he is trying to make). Even Maggie’s first publication was under the false name Johnston Smith. The problem extends beyond false names, however; the saloon’s very appearance is deceptive and false.

At first, Crane’s introduction of the saloon sounds as if he will merely echo the reform writers’ stereotyped depictions or Zola’s L’Assommoir with its dram-shop entrance framed by lush but poisonous oleander plants. (In Maggie, “The open mouth called seductively to passengers to enter and annihilate sorrow or create rage.”) But Crane goes further: the saloon’s insides are false as well. Its walls are papered and its leather imitation, and even the massiveness of its shining bar somehow seems “counterfeit.” Mirrors are everywhere, multiplying and misleading, feeding vanity with less than skindeep images. Unnatural, it is geometrically manipulative and deceptive. Liquor bottles stand at “regular intervals” and the cash register (the chief icon of this altar) sits in “the exact center of the general effect. The elementary senses of it all seemed to be opulence and geometrical accuracy.”

Most telling of all, the saloon subdues and subjugates food to an auxiliary role. Even exotic lemons and oranges are deprived of nutritive value and reduced to decoration, “arranged with mathematical precision” along with the paper napkins. Across from the bar, the food counter is much smaller and much less attended, full of vitality but without any control through diet or etiquette. Upon it “swarmed frayed fragments of crackers, slices of boiled ham, dishevelled bits of cheese, and pickles swimming in vinegar. An odor of grasping, begrimed hands and munching mouths pervaded.” Although frantic, this food scene has vitality, unlike the situation at home where “The fire in the stove had gone out. The displaced lids and open doors showed heaps of sullen grey ashes. The remnants of a meal, ghastly, like dead flesh, lay in a corner.” A page earlier, Maggie, realizing the inability of the home to nourish growth and coming to understand how a life of toil in the factory will soon begin to devour her and drain her vitality, hears the ticking of the clock more clearly than ever before. With time running out, she creates a fiction: “She wondered what Pete dined on.”

Maggie hopes for a life that is nourishing, not merely one in which one feeds with grasping hands and munching mouths as in the saloon, but one that shows a more positive relationship between individuals and their environment wherein individuals desire a harmonious and balanced, a controlled yet energetic interaction, with the world as symbolized by eating and dining, the most basic connection one has to life. Thus, it is fortunate that when Pete realizes Jimmie wants to fight and growls “what’s eatin’ yehs?” Jimmie merely replies, “Gin,” because there are so many other powerful forces threatening to devour Rum Alley residents that they would be overwhelmed with rage or depression if they realized it.

That is, liquor is but one of their problems, or is simply symptomatic of other diseases. In fact, even if there were no alcohol at all in the saloon, one could tell just by glancing at the vandalized food table that there was an intense and distorted hunger, a hunger that causes the saloon’s inhabitants to put unhealthful things in the mouth— liquor, pipes, cigars, curses—not only to cope, but also because it seems a fitting representation of how poorly life is feeding them. Jimmie vaguely suspects that edenic happiness and secular well-being are at “a hopeless altitude where grew fruit.” He might as well, like his companion, ask for “a million dollars and a bottle of beer.” Nellie might think Maggie is a “pale little thing with no spirit” expressive of “pumpkin pie and virtue,” but pumpkin pie is as hard to come by as virtue in this text, and the last “meal” offered Maggie is a glass of beer and a charlotte-russe, fancier but less nourishing. Filled with toxic chemicals and poisonous relationships, the saloon-goers naturally spew maledictions in return: as the “breaths of fighters came wheezingly from their lips,” they gave “vent to low, labored hisses, that sounded like a desire to kill.”

These “hisses” of destructive violence are not confined to the saloon; they are heard as readily in the home, where Mary brandishes “a frying-pan full of potatoes that hissed.” For this non-communion, the father is absent, the mother drunk. The baby “gorged his small stomach. Jimmie forced, with feverish rapidity, the grease-enveloped pieces between his wounded lips. Maggie, with side glances of fear of interruption, ate like a small pursued tigress.” As the mother consumes potatoes and liquor, she reciprocates by “deliver[ing] reproaches” in return for what she puts into her body.

This kind of scene caused The Nation in 1896 to complain of Maggie’s animalism and the New York Tribune to say that it was like having “one’s face slapped twice a minute for half an hour.” Donald Pizer said of this scene that it “combines both the warfare and cave images into one central metaphor of primitive competition for food,” exposing “an instinctive amorality, a need to feed and to protect themselves.” This observation is certainly true enough, and I like Pizer’s suggestion that the scene both draws and repels by making the characters seem so vulnerable yet alien. But another way to look at the scene is as a cluster of metafictional signals to readers wherein what Crane says as the author behind the text is something like the following: in this scene I am trying to give you the impression that we are really delving into the essentials of reality. This scene is not meant to be received as an “Experiment” in misery, but rather as an expose of awful ordinariness among the poor. As my characters eat, you should feel that unguarded moments at home like this dinner scene seem more real than most representations that call themselves Realism. That is, I hope this kind of eating scene makes readers sense that they are engaged in a deeper literary experience than simply gazing at artifacts; that they are actually absorbing the linguistic reality of words in these moments when characters are taking in reality in the form of food. Readers should feel that they are internalizing these literary experiences even as “The shutters of the tall buildings [close] like grim lips” against them (53).

What Crane explicitly says is much more and less direct. When he mentions the father’s pipe for the second time and calls it “the apple-wood emblem of serenity between his teeth,” the repetition and observation disrupts the narrative flow, thereby drawing attention to a major distinction. The phrase tells us that this is a piece of realistic writing that differs dramatically from sociology, sermons, reform writing, journalism. A pipe is more than a pipe. In Maggie’s realism, aurorae of meaning are meant to emanate from and surround key objects in the reality being transcribed from life. Moreover, these symbolic values may be distorted, skewed, or ironic. The pipe-smoker, for example, is not serene; his mouth is also full of threats.

Another turn of the screw makes us consider that the presence of this one sign stating that a symbol exists makes as wonder about the other ingredients in the text. Without being attached to directional signs, when are they to be taken as standing flatly for their referent and when are they to be read for symbolic import? Tommie chewing on a “bit of orange peeling” seems to be a fairly literal re-presentation of a bit of folklore: babies pacified with orange rinds. But how much should we link it with other food imagery where fruit stands for Jimmie’s dream of happiness at an “impossible altitude”? To what degree are we being invited to tie the pipe that is not just a pipe but is made of “apple-wood” into the web of meaning we have created around the stove? The argument would then run: just as the stove has supplanted the family hearth, an apple tree instead of being valued for its healthful fruit has been cut down and reshaped so that Mr. Johnson can put something unhealthful into his mouth. How much do any of these interpretations relate to the later apple reference which emphasizes how Pete turns everything into spectacle when he sees Maggie as “the apple of his eye?” Readers are instructed that there is much in this text beyond the literal, that there is meaning deeper than the surface. Maggie’s ontology includes both the sensible and the symbolic. Readers are assured that they have the author’s blessing, that his motivations are the opposite of the curses of Maggie’s mother. “May Gawd curse her forever,” Mary shrieked. “May she eat nothin’ but stones and deh dirt in deh street.”

Crane had hoped to achieve a fiction which would not only be read and looked at but consumed. He had hoped to strike an equation between words and food, but that equation kept returning to metaphor. “Is” kept becoming “like.” Reading tended to remain, after all, a spectator sport. As the novel progresses, the abstractness intensifies. Crane increasingly uses words like “apparently” to increase the distance between the reader and the event (Halliburton 45). By the last chapter, Crane takes the strongest emotions and turns them into simile and simulation. Crane first describes the keening of the women at the wake in realistic transcription but then intrudes and turns their keening into simile; instead of crying at a funeral, they are crying “like a choir at a funeral.” An “expose” of the “bare facts” of the “naked truth” stays sensationalistic— a peep at urban instead of Polynesian life. Maggie undercuts the humanistic aspiration it articulates about the nature of literary communication. Reading is, after all, different from eating. This humanistic aspiration, however, is very noticeable. In Children of the Poor in 1892, Riis had hoped readers could identify with the poor even if the police called them criminals and the pietistic said they were sinners. He hoped that the power of his words would make readers realize that “After all, [the poorman] is not so very different from the rest of us. Perhaps that, with a remorseful review of the chances he has had, may help to make a fellow- feeling for him in us” (Alland 86). However, it would appear that familiarity bred contempt in Riis. His desire for “fellow-feeling” does not stand much chance against his language that calls the poor “scum,” labels workhouse inmates “human wrecks,” complains that beggars “prey upon our charities,” and wars against “a standing army of ten thousand tramps.” In his autobiography, The Making of an American, Riis explained that he left the city to seek refuge in the country, putting “the backbone of Long Island between New York and us. The very lights of the city were shut out. So was the slum, and I could sleep” (Alland 212).

Almost eighty years later, Joseph Katz echoed the same sentiments when he compared Maggie’s lot with Mary Magdalene. The problem in Maggie is greater, Katz claimed, because “there is no one save the reader to forgive the transgressor” (196). Even today, misreadings are normal in that readers have so taken up Maggie’s story that they believe that Maggie is the well-dressed prostitute who drowns herself in Chapter XVII, even though there is no evidence that it is so. It could be Hattie (with whom Maggie had already been confused in XV) or any “girl of the streets.” Halliburton suspects it might simply be a literary echo of Edgar Fawcett’s The Evil that Men Do (1889), where a fat man murders a well-dressed prostitute (68). At any rate, Crane’s aesthetic has hit another wall. His novel can build reader sympathy for one character (the first part of the title) but not more broadly for a class problem like prostitution or poverty (suggested in the second part of the title).

Or so Crane fears, if the characters he has invented stand for reading relationships. He has created Pete who is stuck on shapes and surfaces when he reads his environment, Mary who will not or cannot read just as she refuses to take Maggie in and who becomes like the city itself which has shut its lips against its victims. Jimmie is the only reader in the text who comes anywhere close to fulfilling Crane’s rhetorical ideal. While Riis refers to “fellow- feeling” and Katz calls it love or forgiveness, Jimmie labels the reading situation “confusion”: “Again he wondered vaguely if some of the women of his acquaintance had brothers. Nevertheless, his mind did not for an instant confuse himself with those brothers.” Jimmie alone comes close to seeing others as being like him, but he quickly rejects the thought, just as he alone wishes to take Maggie in but quickly concedes to objections. Such softness would lessen his chances for survival in this harsh, naturalistic environment of eat or be eaten.

Hence, no one but the reader exists to take Maggie in, to have communion with her or at least to confuse our identities with her and with the helpless and the homeless whom Crane used her to represent. However, when Maggie is indeed taken in, the prospect is repulsive. When a passer-by in the text ceases to shun her, or ceases to treat her as mere spectacle (as does the music box lady), Maggie seems doomed. That is, when Crane’s communication model is to be fulfilled, he loads the text with the most sensationalistic material of his entire tale. I refer of course to the only major exclusion of any substantial length in the 1896 edition, and I am not so sure that it was deleted only because of Appleton’s censorship. It is the paragraph in Chapter XVIII when Maggie (presumably) is approached by the last of a series of Johns, a “great figure” of a “huge fat man” with “great rolls of red fat” and “brown, disordered teeth gleaming under a grey, grizzled moustache from which beedrops dripped. His whole body gently quivered and shook like that of a dead jelly fish.” Certainly leaving this paragraph in made the “inside” a much “braver” book, as Crane had expressed in his note to a friend. The “great figure” is not only a disgusting John, but he is also, technically, a fulfillment of the equation between literacy and eating. He is a gross Whitmanian, waiting to take Maggie in, to absorb her, to swallow her up, but his actions are worlds away from the rhetorical ideal and communication model which Crane and other reform and realistic writers of his generation articulated. This “great figure” represents Crane’s contrary worry that Maggie might not draw crowds to look at her; it also represents Crane’s dread at being devoured by his readers, of his text playing Jonah to our whale.

The anxiety that one’s greatest authorial ideal might also be connected with great dread, that the “great figure” of a reader might also be the fat, devouring sea creature of one’s nightmares, begins the first of three bizarre communions. The last chapter features Mary’s false communion where she’s “at a table eating like a fat monk in a picture.” She continues to eat while others try to tell her of Maggie’s death; her forgiveness is patently insincere, her mouth filled with a vocabulary “derived from mission churches,” a vocabulary also similar to and as superficial and trite as the words of reform writers. There is something wrong about a fat monk for Crane, just as there is something wrong about having his communion between reader and text take place. There has been no progress since we first heard someone “shrieking like a monk in an earthquake,” nor has there been movement toward spiritual acceptance or humanistic fellow- feeling since Jimmie heard the sermon in the soup-kitchen and “confused the speaker with Christ.” The only moment that promises to escape this era’s materialistic definitions of the self and deterministic explanations of social realities comes in the previous chapter when Pete’s friends are metaphorically cannibalizing him. Striving to prove “the purity of his motives” and the “fervor of his friendship,” Pete tries to force money on a waiter Who “kept his hands on his tray. ‘I don’ want yer money,’ he said.” But this moment is no sharing of food and spirituality in common communion. Its transcendence, instead, is born of disgust. Crane had hoped that fiction might enable readers to consume a text and feel that they were nibbling “the sacred cheese” of life itself, as expressed in “The Open Boat,” the equation to achieve the same absorptive feelings of camaraderie, fellowship, and correspondence between individuals. However, his initial aesthetic goals predicated on an equation of eating and literacy resulted in disgust, devourment, or metaphor and spectacle.

Source: Henry Golemba, “Distant Dinners in Crane’s Maggie,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall 1994, pp. 235–50.

Comparisons Between Maggie and Jimmie

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918

In Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, he writes of circumstances both very familiar to contemporary audiences, but also very specific to his late nineteenth-century readers. Set in a slum in an urban area, the naturalistic novel describes in detail the effect of living there—with alcoholic parents, no real direction in life, and many other issues—on Maggie, Jimmie, and other young characters. Siblings Maggie and Jimmie seem to be about the same age, and both face many of the same issues. They include how Maggie and Jimmie deal with family life, relationships, sex, employment, and violence. While both face many obstacles in their lives, Jimmie survives and is relatively upright while Maggie’s life is more compromised and ends early. The reasons for the difference are complex and often gender specific, but are also revealing and give Crane’s story depth.

One of the biggest differences between Jimmie and Maggie is that from the beginning of the novel, when the reader meets Jimmie as a “very little boy,” he lives out a masculine role by standing up for himself, often with his fists. In contrast, Maggie is given the female role of caretaker who should be protected by her family, primarily her father and brother but also her mother, but is not. Throughout Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Maggie cares for others, but no one, save Pete, ever shows interest in her until she is forced to live on the streets. Pete, her brother’s friend and the man with whom she becomes involved, uses her for a sexual relationship and some standing among other men because of Maggie’s comely appearance. But even Pete leaves Maggie when Nell, a somewhat classy prostitute, questions his choice to be with Maggie and convinces him to leave with her (Nell). Maggie, as always, loses, which leads to her ultimate demise.

Jimmie and Maggie have a very difficult home life. Both of their parents are alcoholics who beat them and ignore them, focusing more often on drink than being a parent. Crane draws their mother, named Mary, worse than their father. He holds a job (probably at a factory), while the mother does not really care much for the children. She cooks for the family, at least in the early chapters, but also breaks objects in the kitchen and living area, including cookware, plates, and tables, when drunk. Crane depicts no real concern with their children’s welfare, unless it has to do with sexuality and reputation where Maggie is concerned.

After Jimmie and Maggie’s father dies, Jimmie soon steps into his role as primary provider and head of the small family. He finds work as a truck driver where he can continue to act as an angry young man. Like his father before him, Jimmie does not protect Maggie. When Pete shows interest, then begins to see his sister, Jimmie becomes upset that the older man has taken advantage of their friendship. Crane writes at the beginning of chapter ten, “Jimmie had an idea it wasn’t common courtesy for a friend to come to one’s home and ruin one’s sister. But he was not sure how much Pete knew about the rules of politeness.” After Maggie leaves the family and lives with Pete, Jimmie follows his mother’s lead and condemns her. While Jimmie thinks about killing Pete or bringing harm to him, he does not try to find his sister or convince her to come home. Though Jimmie considers rescuing Maggie in chapter 13, his mother says she will not let her daughter come home. Still, he is conflicted between how it looks to have a sister who has a compromised reputation, and his feeling that his mother might be wrong and he should protect her. In the end, he lives up to the example set by his parents and does nothing for Maggie.

In contrast to her brother, Maggie stays out of the way at home. There is no mention of education for her or her brother, yet she did not play in the streets as her brother did as a child. Maggie tries to help her family, both as a child and as an adult. In chapter two, for example, she performs a simple household task of moving dishes, but when she breaks one, her mother beats her. She often makes an effort to avoid her mother’s wrath, as well as her father’s anger and, later, her brother’s anger, after he takes over as head of the family, but fails on all counts. Maggie is obedient to Jimmie. When her brother takes over as the head of the family, he tells Maggie to take a job. She finds work at a small sweatshop factory making collars and cuffs for clothing. Until she meets Pete, Maggie is most certainly not a girl of the streets.

Despite this kind of family life, Maggie possesses something that Jimmie does not. She is physically attractive. At the beginning of chapter five, Crane describes the young woman: “The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.” Pete notices how Maggie looks, which leads to their relationship. He shows an interest in Maggie when no one else has. Because of his interest, Maggie comes to realize that there is more to life than what happens in the family’s tenement apartment. Pete takes her to places where she is entertained and amused. Pete is also different than her father and brother in where he works and his outward appearance. Instead of driving a truck, Pete works as a bartender in a local saloon. It is cleaner than any job the men in her family hold, though Pete has to keep order and break up fights.

As soon as Pete enters Maggie’s life and Maggie decides that she is attracted to him, her mother belittles her daughter and immediately assumes the worst. In chapter six, before Maggie has even gone out with Pete, her drunk mother accuses her of not coming home from work right away. The mother yells at Maggie, “Why deh hell don’ yeh come home earlier? Been loafin’’round deh streets. Yer getting’ teh be a reg’lar devil.” When she leaves with Pete the first time, Crane writes that Maggie’s mother “blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name.” Yet Maggie would not even kiss Pete after the first time he took her out.

The turning point in Maggie’s family life comes in chapter nine. After her mother comes home drunk and gets into a scuffle with Jimmie, Pete picks up Maggie to take her out. Her mother curses her and tells her to get out and do the things that her mother assumes her daughter will do. Her mother repeats ideas like this over and over again: “Mag Johnson, yehs knows yehs have gone teh deh devil. Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn yeh.” After Maggie has left with Pete, her mother believes she is blameless. She says “When a girl is bringed up deh way I bringed up Maggie, how kin she go teh deh devil?” Her mother believes that Maggie has always been bad, and her brother, perhaps not wanting to argue, agrees at first. He comes to buy into his mother’s condemnations himself. Maggie is attacked for bringing shame on the family for her sexual relationship with Pete, though she never speaks one word against her mother or brother at any point in the story.

Thus, there are different standards for sexual relationships for Jimmie and Maggie. Before Maggie even met Pete, the adult Jimmie stayed away from home for days at a time with no real denunciation from his mother. On two occasions in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jimmie reflects on some of the women he has had sexual relationships with. At least two women have accused him of fathering their children. No one questions what Jimmie does with these women, except himself, and these relationships do not affect his social status in his family or at work. As the situation with Maggie and Pete evolves, Jimmie wonders if the women he has been with have brothers or fathers, and why they have not gone after him for his actions. Crane writes in chapter ten, “He was trying to formulate a theory that he had always unconsciously held, that all sisters, excepting his own, could advisedly be ruined.” After Maggie leaves home with Pete, Jimmie does get into a fight with Pete at his bar, though Maggie’s name is not mentioned. After the fight with Pete, he does not return home for many days. When he does, his mother is still angry that Maggie has not come home; Jimmie’s absence hardly mattered.

Maggie idealizes Pete and believes he can take her away from her empty life. She does not come home after she leaves with him at the end of chapter nine. It is implied that they have a sexual relationship, and Maggie becomes very dependent on him. After a few weeks, when Nell challenges Pete in a public place and he chooses her, Maggie tries to go back home. In chapter 15, Maggie’s return to the tenement is unsuccessful. Her mother calls her names, cursing her to hell and condemning her for bringing shame on the family. Jimmie agrees with his mother’s statements. The neighbors offer only backhanded support. A lady who lives there offers Maggie a place to stay for the moment. She tells Maggie, “So ’ere yehs are back again, are yehs? An’ dey’ve kicked yehs out? Well, come in an’ stay wid me tehnight. I ain’ got no moral standin’.” Maggie tries to go back to Pete in chapter 16, but he throws her out of his saloon.

Because of the family’s and society’s condemnations, Maggie finally turns to an unrespectable life on the street, while her brother continues to live his somewhat respectable one with a job and a little responsibility. She takes up a new kind of employment. Maggie becomes a somewhat successful prostitute for several months, and while her clothing is nicer, she ends up serving a customer whom Crane describes in negative terms. This encounter leads directly or indirectly—Crane is obtuse—to Maggie’s death. After Maggie has passed away, the other ladies in the tenement convince her mother to forgive her. Jimmie reluctantly claims her body.

Crane depicts the world that Jimmie and Maggie live in as a chaotic disorderly mess, where violence is accepted as a part of every day life. Both Jimmie and his mother have police records, and Jimmie learned from a young age to appreciate the power of violence. Yet, it is the most nonviolent person—rivaled only by Jimmie and Maggie’s little brother Tommie who dies as a toddler—who suffers the most. The streets that Jimmie embraced from an early age end up taking the life of his sister, after she spent much of her life avoiding them. Maggie and Jimmie never rise above the circumstances they were born into and the mistakes both made along the way. Crane uses Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to show how easily both sexes’ lives can be wasted in such an environment.

Source: Annette Petruso, Critical Essay on Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Naturalistic Themes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359

[The wind-tower] was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree . . . the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual— nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, not beneficent, not treacherous, not wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.”

This famous passage from Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat,” which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, the United States, and England. Naturalist writers like Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser argued in their works that human destiny is controlled by biological and/or environmental factors. Their characters enjoy no free will as they struggle to survive their often brutal lives. As in “The Open Boat,” in his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane examines naturalistic tendencies in the harsh lives of the novel’s main characters. Their fate, however, is not determined by natural forces. Through his story of a young Bowery woman’s experiences within a destructive and indifferent social environment, Crane raises important questions about endurance and survival.

Crane wrote on early copies of the novel that the story “tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless.” He succeeds admirably. Crane’s depiction of Maggie’s tragedy reveals an ironclad biological as well as environmental determinism, as is noted by Edward Garnett, in an essay on Crane. Garnet writes that the characters’ “human nature responds inexorably to their brutal environment” and concludes “the curious habits and code of the most primitive savage tribes could not be presented with a more impartial exactness, or with more sympathetic understanding.”

The biological forces that shape the characters’ destinies emerge in their adaptive response to their harsh environment. The novel opens with an apt illustration of this cause and effect relationship in the description of Maggie’s brother Jimmie, who is engaged in a fight with the neighborhood boys. Street fighting was commonplace in the Bowery at the end of the nineteenth century, as one gang of boys would battle another for a dominant position in the neighborhood. Boys like Jimmie joined gangs for a sense of belonging and protection. Ironically, though, in the opening scene, Jimmie’s friends have abandoned him, and as a result, he is being brutally beaten by a rival gang. His instincts for survival take over as he does anything he can to defend himself. The “fury of the battle” turns him into “a tiny, insane demon” as he uses every method available to fend off his attackers.

Jimmie’s fists, however, are not the only tools he employs to survive his savage environment. In order to endure the beatings doled out by his parents as well as the neighborhood children and the devastating, abject poverty of the tenements, Jimmie along with his sister Maggie must invent comforting illusions. Jimmie survives because he creates a vision of himself as a god within the neighborhood, vastly superior to all the other inhabitants. This vision begins to take shape from an early age, when Jimmie has dreams of becoming “some vague soldier, or a man of blood with a sort of sublime license.” His false sense of the heroic is reflected in the opening scene when Jimmie stands “upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley.”

Later, when he gains employment in the city as a truck driver, he determines that only he has “the unalienable right to stand in the proper path of the sun chariot.” As he drives through the streets, he wonders at the inhabitants’ “insane disregard for their legs and his convenience.” His sense of superiority causes him to encase his soul in armor as he sneers at the world and becomes “so sharp that he believed in nothing.”

Jimmie’s friend Pete has adopted a similar sense of grandeur, which has not only helped him survive the mean streets of the Bowery; it also has earned him a respectable position as a bartender. Pete’s “mannerisms stamped him as a man who had a correct sense of his personal superiority.” James B. Colvert, in his article on Crane for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, writes that “the swaggering Pete and Jimmie apprehend a world of menace which challenges their assumptions about their special virtues and their dreams of heroic destinies.” As a result they must cover themselves in an armor of scorn, as is indicated by Pete’s assumption that “he had certainly seen everything and with each curl of his lip, he declared that it amounted to nothing.”

Pete’s superior sense of himself and his nonchalant disregard of his surroundings causes Maggie to deem him “the ideal man.” Unfortunately for her, however, Pete does not live up to these expectations. In her relationship with Pete, Maggie adopts a similar defense mechanism, as does Pete and her brother—the creation of comforting illusions. Her fantasies, however, do not involve an exaggerated sense of self; they revolve around her distorted vision of Pete, who proves himself to be as morally bankrupt as others in Maggie’s world. Ironically, while Pete’s illusory vision of himself enables him to survive his harsh world, Maggie’s embracement of that same vision eventually destroys her.

Maggie’s desperate need to escape the brutality of her family life and the monotony of her position at the collar and cuff factory becomes apparent at the theater, which she frequents with Pete. There, she is transported by “plays in which the dazzling heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her treacherous guardian by the hero with the beautiful sentiments.” These melodramas, with their “pale-green snow-storms,” “nickel-plated revolvers,” and daring rescues, are “transcendental realism,” removing her from the sordid reality of her own life. Pete gains so much power over Maggie because he becomes her method of transport to this charming and safe world, where “the poor and virtuous eventually overcame the wealthy and wicked.”

After her mother throws her out in response to Maggie’s relationship with Pete, Maggie becomes completely dependent on him, a situation reinforced by her illusory vision of him as “a golden sun.” In his rarefied presence, she feels “small and mouse-colored” as she “beseeches tenderness of him.” Soon, her “air of spaniel-like dependence” becomes magnified and shows its “direct effect in the peculiar off-handedness and ease of Pete’s ways toward her.” Pete inevitably is drawn to Nellie, a woman of “brilliance and audacity,” more fitting, he assumes, to a man of his stature. When Nellie joins Pete and Maggie at the club, Pete’s “eyes sparkle” and Maggie is ignored by all.

Pete’s ultimate rejection of Maggie results in her ruination. Her vision of her necessary escape from her brutal life has been dependent on a rescue by this “ideal man,” and when that vision is shattered, “her soul could never smile again.” Her devotion to Pete, which prompted her to disregard her reputation, has stripped her of her physical as well as emotional shelter when her mother refuses to allow her back into her home.

Crane’s focus on the tension between illusion and reality in Maggie provides an adeptly ironic vision of the naturalistic world of the Bowery. Colvert quotes Crane’s declaration in 1896, “I do not think much can be done with the Bowery as long as the people there are in their present state of conceit.” Colvert concludes that Crane’s “stinging verbal irony constantly chastises” the novel’s characters “for their moral blindness, which clearly is caused by their absurd and self-indulgent illusions about their world and themselves.” Crane’s artistry also inspires our sympathy for Maggie, whose innocence is destroyed by the disease of poverty and the moral vacuity that surrounds her.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

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