Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
Maggie’s home. Apartment in Manhattan’s Rum Alley in which Maggie lives with her parents and brother. Her father and mother are both alcoholics, and her mother, despite her piety, is particularly given to violence. Stephen Crane often describes the shambles of the troubled home: bloody fights, broken items,...
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Maggie’s home. Apartment in Manhattan’s Rum Alley in which Maggie lives with her parents and brother. Her father and mother are both alcoholics, and her mother, despite her piety, is particularly given to violence. Stephen Crane often describes the shambles of the troubled home: bloody fights, broken items, loud, vulgar language, and drunken stupors. Maggie’s father, though mostly absent in Maggie’s life, describes their home as “reg’lar livin’ hell! Damndes’ place!” The abuse that Maggie and her brother Jimmy experience causes Maggie to fantasize about places beyond the interior of her home. She is thus easily attracted to a flamboyant barkeep, Pete, who can take her to places outside the misery of her home’s four walls.
Maggie’s relationship with Pete eventually results in her expulsion from her home. In her subsequent aimless wandering she finally confronts Pete with the haunting question, “where kin I go?” This question epitomizes the tragic and futile relationship of Maggie to the places of this novel. Pete’s answer, “go teh hell,” pushes her to the point of desperation. She is eventually found in the gloomy districts near the river. In other words her descent has reached its social and moral nadir.
After it is clear that Maggie is dead, the final scene of the novel returns to the interior of her home where her mother, in pitiful self-indulgence and brazen denial of reality, forgives her. Thus, readers are brought full circle to see how the family environment into which Maggie was born is part of a larger social system that destroys innocent and unsuspecting flowers like Maggie.
Rum Alley. Street in Manhattan’s impoverished Bowery district on which Maggie’s family lives, along with many other Irish immigrant families. The neighborhood is used symbolically to portray not only the dismal nature of Maggie’s world, but also to emphasize the extent of environmental forces that Maggie and others in her neighborhood must overcome just to survive.
The novel opens with a description of a fight between gangs of young boys from Devil’s Row and Rum Alley (including Maggie’s brother Jimmy). The names of these fictitious Manhattan streets suggest the fatalism that Crane attaches to this novel, in which even very young children are caught in the ironic struggles of defending places that are not worth defending. In fact, these slums are responsible for the dysfunctional behavior of the citizens of these places, places where “deh moon looks like hell” and where Maggie “blossomed in a mud puddle.”
Shirt factory. Sweatshop in which Maggie works long hours as a seamstress before she meets Pete. This place in the novel reinforces the poverty that immigrants faced, where women and children experienced horrible working conditions. Such sweatshops were usually insufficiently heated in winter, beastly hot in summer, and poorly lighted year round. Crane uses the shop to underscore the futility of Maggie’s life.
Manhattan nightclubs. After Maggie meets Pete, an arrogant bartender and friend of her brother Jimmy, Pete takes her to a variety of nightclubs. At first Maggie regards Pete as the “beau ideal of a man,” and the places of his world provide a pleasant contrast with her limited and oppressive home. In reality, however, the clubs that Maggie visits are merely cheap imitations of the night-life spots that wealthy New Yorkers frequent. They seem brilliant to Maggie, but their presence in the novel only underscores the deprivation of Maggie’s existence.
The clubs appear in the narrative in an approximately descending order of taste. Pete first takes Maggie to cheap theaters and music halls. Next comes a visit to the Bowery, a carnival-like atmosphere where immigrants of various ethnic origins mingle in “phantasies of the aristocratic theatre-going public, at reduced rates.” This is followed by an evening at the hall of irregular shape where two painted women are in the crowd. Finally, Maggie is taken to a hall in which prostitutes are stationed at every table. There, Pete abandons Maggie for Nell, a “woman of brilliance and audacity.”
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Naturalism is the name of a literary movement that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, England, and the United States. Writers included in this group, like Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser, described in their works a biological and/or environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlling their fates. Crane often focused on the social and economic factors that overpowered his characters. Zola’s and Dreiser’s works include this type of environmental determinism coupled with an exploration of the influences of heredity in their portraits of the animalistic nature of men and women engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival.
Thousands of Irish men and women immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century to escape the hardships of their native land. America became a dream for these people who fled poverty and disease as well as English oppression as they packed themselves tightly into ships, referred to as coffin ships due to the harsh living conditions on board, heading for their new home. Being in the United States, however, would hardly live up to their vision of the good life. Most settled in their arrival ports and were soon herded into the city’s tenement sections, where they had little chance of escape. Each major city, including New York, had its Irish section or shantytown where, due to the prejudice against them, immigrants were confined to cellars and shacks. Ridiculed for their dress and their accents and blamed for increases in the crime rate, they were often greeted with “No Irish Need Apply” signs when they looked for employment.
A Woman’s Place
At the close of the nineteenth century, feminist thinkers began to engage in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman’s life. Any woman who questioned traditional female roles was tagged a “New Woman,” a term attributed to novelist Sarah Grand, whose 1894 article in the North American Review identified an emergent group of women, influenced by J. S. Mill and other champions of individualism, who supported and campaigned for women’s rights.
Many women insisted that marriage and motherhood should not be the only choices available to women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a woman from assuming an inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. This group felt that a woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit. Women, however, especially in lower socio-economic classes, found it almost impossible to break away from traditional female roles until the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s.
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Colvert writes that in the novel, Crane “eschewed the conventional plot, shifting the focus from the drama of external event or situation to the drama of thought and feeling in the mental life of his subjects.” There are important events in the story, usually marked by their violence, but they serve mainly as a catalyst for the characters’ internal responses, which adroitly focus the narrative on the effect the environment has on them. For example, few details are given of Jimmie’s fight with the neighboring gang, while more time is spent detailing the animalistic rage he feels coupled with a sense of heroism. A few sentences provide a description of what Maggie sees on stage, but her response to it mingled with her feelings toward Pete, reveal Crane’s ironic depiction of the tension between illusion and reality.
Crane’s use of imagery reinforces the novel’s themes. His focus on the illusory and fragile world his characters inhabit is symbolized in Pete’s saloon by “a shining bar of counterfeit massiveness” and the mirrored walls that multiply the “pyramids of shimmering glasses” lined up on the shelves. During Jimmie and Pete’s fight in the saloon, the mirrors “splintered to nothing” along with Maggie’s dreams of escape. The tenement becomes filled with images that reflect its danger and brutality. “A dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and gutter” while “withered persons . . . sat smoking pipes in obscure corners.” Colvert notes that these images prompted Frank Norris in his review of the novel to write that the picture Crane makes is not “a single carefully composed painting, serious, finished, scrupulously studied, but rather scores and scores of tiny flashlight photographs, instantaneous, caught, as it were, on the run.”
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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is considered a classic example of American naturalism. Naturalist philosophy held that people are trapped by their environment and are powerless to change it. Naturalist writers attempt to imitate the language, actions, and thoughts of real people. As much as possible Crane wants us to believe that we are listening to the residents of the Bowery, not reading an author's work. Drawing from his own experiences in the Bowery, Crane writes about family life, interpersonal relationships, method of settling disputes, and entertainment choices.
He has his characters totally controlled by circumstances. They speak, act, think, and live based on the mores of the slums. Maggie's suicide is the closest Crane allows any of his characters to come to controlling their own destiny. Even Maggie is forced toward her end by the circumstances of her life. Crane presents the story with little explanation or discussion thereby forcing the reader to accept the circumstances and make judgments based on his view of slum reality. Some critics have seen Maggie as paralleling a Greek tragedy in its inevitability.
To strengthen this inevitability Crane uses a very matter-of-fact tone to tell the story of the lives of Maggie Johnson and her family. This approach and the forced simplicity of the story have the effect of letting his real concerns be visible. Crane was using Maggie as sharp criticism of the social and religious organizations of his day. A more complex look at the events in Maggie would obscure his intended criticism in that no group of people are homogeneous or totally predictable, and not all social service agencies operate with the disregard of humans as Crane's institutions.
Some 1896 critics attacked Crane because they believed his views of society distanced readers too far from the characters. It is true that readers feel very little concern for and never a closeness to any character. Instead, readers are asked to recognize their indifference toward the characters' and their problems, and to confront the fact that indifference is part of the reason for the condition of the downtrodden. Crane underscores these feelings by having a minister work in the center of the slum in a soup kitchen but be completely unable to understand the thinking or problems of the people who come for food. The minister blames their poverty and social degradation on them. He threatens them with hell and damnation if they do not change their ways without ever offering a path for change.
We also feel his physical avoidance, as when he refuses to allow Maggie to touch his cloak. This avoidance is precisely the attitude Crane appears to have desired. We are compelled to be voyeurs of the characters' problems and downfall without feeling great pity or desiring to step in. We are allowed the safety of our emotional distance to talk about the problems of the slums without doing anything. Most critics of Crane's day missed or chose to ignore this societal rebuke. They preferred to deal with the overuse of the naturalistic technique.
Crane's use of biblical allusion is quite intentional. Crane was raised in a family with several ministers, including his father; his mother was an active member of the women's auxiliary. So biblical parable, quotations, and allusions were a natural part of Crane's education. In his early writings Crane frequently drew parallels between the Bible and modern life. For example, the minister refuses to allow Maggie to touch his cloak, in direct contrast to the people who touched Jesus's cloak—knowing that they could draw virtue from Christ. Jesus, being aware of the people's need to touch him, healed all those who sought His power, even though He was criticized for associating with prostitutes and other sinners. The minister refuses even to show Maggie a virtuous path because he thinks he will lose his own "virtue" by associating with her.
Crane focuses a large portion of Maggie in the Johnson's home. This is an excellent method for illustrating the closed society that excludes people. The people being excluded vary depending on their relative weakness to the controlling society. The parents begin the story in total physical and emotional control of the children, but have a constant battle between themselves to see which one will dominate the other. After the father leaves and the surviving children grow up, the power balance becomes more problematical.
Crane uses slum life to illustrate the struggle for power in all levels of society. The story opens with Jimmie, as a little boy, involved in a fight between neighborhood gangs. The fight is broken up by a larger ,boy (Pete), who uses his power not for the good of the children, but to see Jimmie fight one on one. This second fight is broken up by Jimmie's father who declares his intention of beating Jimmie for fighting. The mother does beat Jimmie for fighting, but only because he has torn his shirt. All of the actions of all the characters appear to be motivated by self-interest, expediency, ignorance, and the desire to assert the power and control over others. The least obvious, but none-the-less self-serving, is the father. For his own comfort he abandons the family; he is no longer available to pull Jimmie out of fights, to protect the children from Mary, to provide the sustenance of the family. If we cast greater New York in the role of the father, we can clearly hear Crane saying that the city should be protecting the Bowery from the problems of poverty.
Crane has put us in the middle of a bleak situation and demands that we simply look at it. After setting up a very dull canvas, he liberally splashes colorful words. Crane may have used this technique because one of his sisters, an artist, taught him a great deal about the power of color. Critics have compared his writing to the Impressionist painters. Just as the Impressionists used light and dark colors to give the "impression" rather than a representation of an image, Crane sets a dark background then splashes it with colorful, exciting words to illustrate the minds of the people in the Bowery. In Maggie, the mother is normally a rough yellow and becomes red or blotched when drinking, the dead Tommie has waxy white hands, the characters issue crimson oaths, Maggie "blossomed in a mud-puddle." This technique is effective in that the reader's attention is drawn to a recognition of the ugliness, the powerlessness, the areas where the characters place value, and the occasional points of hope.
One of the subtler techniques Crane uses is ironic and bitter satiric humor. Maggie herself is the subject of the bulk of this humor. She has grown up hearing and fearing crimson curses, therefore a portion of her seduction lies in her belief that Pete's cursing is powerful and wonderful. His curses, unlike her mother's, are never directed at her. Rather they are directed at people that annoy Pete. Maggie, not being threatened by the curses, is able to hear and enjoy their color and power. However, she is unable to understand the purpose of cursing and that cursing is not the only way to express feelings.
Maggie wants culture and style but has no idea what either of these qualities are. She accepts beer gardens, zoos, and a single trip to the museum as culture. She is unable to see any difference between the three places. Maggie also fails to recognize that after Pete has seduced her he takes her to beer gardens of poorer and poorer reputation with increasingly sleazy acts and clientele. It is at a very low quality beer garden that Pete finally abandons her. This decline in the quality of the beer gardens mirrors the decline in Maggie's reputation and circumstances.
First her family's fighting drives her into the arms of the man that "appears like a knight" but who seduces her. When the neighbors laugh about her immorality, Jimmie decides to fight Pete over her honor. Jimmie lose the fight, probably because he has ruined and abandoned a girl himself. (Here is another example of Crane showing the characters to be controlled by their societal morality. Jimmie and Pete do the same things and are only annoyed when it affects them. Jimmie then agrees with his mother that they must kick Maggie out of the apartment because their reputation is besmirched by her immorality. Pete refuses to take her in and the hypocrisy of the Johnson family and Pete creates pity for Maggie. However, she has to be totally abandoned, then destroyed in order to raise pity. Since Maggie represents hope for the people who live in the slums, the irony is palpable. It is totally ironic that if Maggie represents hope, potential help from the outside is delayed until all hope is dead.
A further twist of irony is the fact that having raised pity for Maggie, Crane then does nothing with her. She is briefly heard from again as she tries to find a date for the night, tries to elicit help from and is rejected by the clergy (also by the more affluent members of society), and finally commits suicide. At no point does anyone move from pity to action. Crane has set up the parallel between Maggie and the Bowery; Maggie (symbolic of the slums) is not saved, simply pitied.
Crane earned his living as a journalist, and he tended to write in a journalistic style, which helps explain why he tells Maggie's story in a series of vignettes. Each scene could well have been a news story. The journalistic style is both a weakness and a strength: the characters rarely speak, feel, or express emotions, which makes them seem less than real or sympathetic. However, this distancing causes the story to focus on the conditions of the poor rather than their personalities, and gives the appearance of objective observation rather than emotional involvement.
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Discussion of Maggie could easily begin with an examination of the relationship between a person's environment and the circumstances of his/her life. Looking at this relationship in novels like Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936; see separate entry), we can see different groups of people separated by wealth and power. These groups all define freedom as non-slavery, yet Scarlett O'Hara is in some ways trapped by her circumstances (gender, the amount and form of education she was allowed, and societal expectations of her behavior). Shakespeare deals with this argument extensively in Hamlet (1602), as does Victor Hugo (a contemporary of Crane) in Les Miserables (1862). Mitchell, Shakespeare, and Hugo offer a variety of views on the power of environment and circumstances.
1. At what points are Jimmie and Maggie exposed to circumstances and environments other than the Bowery? How do these exposures affect them?
2. To what extent are Jimmie and Maggie trapped? Could they have helped themselves?
3. How could the larger society have helped the Bowery?
4. Research and discuss the literary movement naturalism.
5. Compare Maggie and Henry Fleming to Scarlett O'Hara. In what ways do they understand and attempt to control their environment? In what ways are they controlled by their environment?
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Late Nineteenth Century: In 1888, the International Council of Women is founded to mobilize support for the woman’s suffrage movement.
Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality, although the Equal Rights Amendment Bill that was intended to codify the equality of men and women has yet to be passed. It was introduced to every Congress between 1923 and 1972. In 1972 it was passed and then sent to the states to be ratified, but it failed to gain the approval of the required number of states. It has been introduced to every Congress since 1972.
Late Nineteenth Century: Feminist Victoria Woodhull embarks on a lecture tour in 1871 espousing a free love philosophy, which reflects the women’s movement’s growing willingness to discuss sexual issues.
Today: Women have the freedom to engage in premarital sex and to have children out of wedlock. The issue of single parenting caused a furor in the early 1990s when then vice president Daniel Quayle criticized the television character Murphy Brown for deciding not to marry her baby’s father. In the early 2000s, however, single parenting is more widely accepted.
Late Nineteenth Century: Samuel Langhorne Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) dubs the 1870s “The Gilded Age,” due in large part to the industrialization of the West. During this period, a handful of large industries gains control of the economy in the United States. Those industrialists who make profits see their fortunes grow at a rapid rate, while the working class suffers from low wages and dangerous working conditions.
Today: Public awareness of major companies who exploit foreign workers has grown. Many fear that the current push for economic globalization reinforces the imbalances between the rich and the poor.
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Framing discussions of morality in slum settings was very popular in the late 1800s. Many authors sought to make morality plays out of poverty living. Other authors sought to stir the social conscience of the more affluent society to improve living conditions in the slums. The Frenchman, Emile Zola, is often credited as the first important Naturalist writer, publishing L'Assommoir in the 1870s. Although there is no evidence that Crane had read Zola, the story lines between L'Assommoir and Maggie are similar. A more likely source for Crane would have been the very popular sermons, published in all of the New York papers, by Thomas DeWitt Talmage. They covered the vices of drinking (the Johnson parents' problem passed down to Jimmie), the dissolute dance (the ever sleazier beer gardens), and the sweat shops (Maggie's sewing factory). In Talmage's sermons the vices are terrible but the lack of mercy toward the unfortunates, particularly prostitutes, was by far worse. Crane's Maggie repeats this argument.
Additional stimulus for Crane could very easily have come from three sources located even closer to home. First, the most probable source was Crane's father's sermons. Jonathan Crane, a Methodist minister with inner city parishes, died when Stephen was eight years old. However, Stephen revered his father and saved all of his writings. Stephen even took these works with him to England in 1900. Secondly, Stephen's mother was also a tireless Methodist writer whose subjects were temperance and mercy. She took Stephen to many Methodist revivals and organizational meetings. Finally, Crane formed a friendship with the social reformer Jacob Riis, the author of How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890). From Crane's correspondence it is clear that he attended some of the lectures and spent a great deal of time with Riis.
While neither the conventions nor the plot is particularly original to Crane, Maggie does represent one of the first American naturalistic novels. Published during the glorious decade in New York City, the 1890s, when the United States was about to emerge as the world's most prosperous and influential nation, Maggie reflected the dark interior of our industrial society and was the first American novel to anticipate the underclass that would haunt the nation a century later.
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A recorded version of the novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other New York Stories was produced in 1997 by the American Library Association.
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Colvert, James B., “Stephen Crane,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 12, American Realists and Naturalists, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 100–24.
Dreiser, Theodore, Letter to Max J. Herzberg on November 2, 1921, in the Michigan Daily Sunday Magazine, Vol. XXXII, No. 54, November 27, 1921, p. 1.
Garnett, Edward, “Stephen Crane and His Work,” in Friday Nights: Literary Criticism and Appreciations, Knopf, 1922, pp. 201–17.
Howard, Jane, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Howard discusses Maggie and other naturalist works in context.
Nagel, James, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980. Nagel examines aspects of this literary school in Crane’s work alongside the traditional focus on naturalistic elements.
Solomon, Eric, Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism, Harvard University Press, 1966. Solomon suggests that Crane parodied conventional literature of the nineteenth century as a means of developing his own fiction.
Stallman, R. W., Stephen Crane: A Biography, Brazillier, 1968. Stallman presents a comprehensive look at Crane’s life and work.
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Gandal, Keith. “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and the Modern Soul.” English Literary History 60, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 759-785. Argues that the novel is not about Maggie’s moral decline but her loss of self-confidence and self-defensiveness. Asserts that Maggie fails not in trying to redeem her sinful nature—the old story of the fallen woman—but in overcoming self-doubt and cowardice, making it a modern psychological tale.
Golemba, Henry. “‘Distant Dinners’ in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: Representing ‘The Other Half.’” Essays in Literature 21, no. 2 (Fall, 1994): 235-250. Crane uses food imagery to suggest the realist’s problem. By feeding the reader’s taste for detail, the writer plays into the gluttonous, base, modern social tendencies he exposes.
Gullason, Thomas A., ed. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, by Stephen Crane. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Contains the 1893 text as well as biographical and literary background period reviews, and important critical essays on the work’s structure, technique, and subject matter.
Irving, Katrina. “Gendered Space, Racialized Space: Nativism, the Immigrant Woman, and Stephan Crane’s Maggie.” College Literature 20, no. 3 (October, 1993): 30-43. Asserts that immigrants posed a threat to late nineteenth century American society, especially women prostitutes such as Maggie, who must die before diluting “native” stock.
Sweeney, Gerard M. “The Syphilitic World of Stephen Crane’s Maggie.” American Literary Realism 24, no. 1 (Fall, 1991): 79-85. Discusses how Crane reveals the diseased condition of Maggie’s world, its syphilis and alcoholism. His tough realism suggests Maggie is fortunate to escape through early death.