By setting the entire story within the confines of the Bowery, having the Johnson parental behavior passed on to Jimmie, having Pete able to brag about his conquests, and offering numerous other instances of repeated or forced behavior, Crane argues that all the people of the slums are victims; they are trapped by their circumstances and therefore unable to change. Their behaviors are to be treated as symptomatic of living in the slums. This controlling environment argument was popular with the ministers and social reformers of Crane's day.
Crane, however, also uses almost all of his characters to counter this argument. He shows them to be motivated by selfish desires and demanding of others to meet their needs. Mary Johnson chooses to drink excessively, be physically and verbally abusive toward her family, and destroy the work of others. She is angry and makes everyone around her pay for this anger. Jimmie takes on the negative behaviors of his parents and uses them constantly to get his way. He seduces at least one girl, pushes Maggie into a job in a sweat shop, and he demands all other people yield to his whims. Pete dates Maggie and is upset that she will not kiss him after he spent money on her. Pete makes up his mind to have sex with Maggie almost as punishment for her refusal to kiss him, and carefully lays a plan for seduction. He finds out what Maggie desires out of life and gives her glimpses of her dreams. She naively begins to believe that Pete wants the same things she does and will stand by her. With the seduction accomplished, he tires of Maggie and abandons her. Symbolically, Maggie represents the hopes of people in the Bowery while Pete represents the repression inflicted on the Bowery by more affluent elements in New York City.
To set a contrast Maggie is shown as caring about her younger brothers by trying to help them when Mary beats them. She also attempts to decorate the flat so that it might look better than the average slum tenement. Crane has Maggie thwarted by her family multiple times so that her decision to live with Pete is understandable. She is victimized by her family since they offer her no hope and will not allow her to improve even minimally. Maggie is naive, probably more naive than is believable, so that we can see both a generous spirit and true victimization. She wants to improve her life, and she wants someone to love her and be loved by her. These qualities are hardly unique to the slums, but Crane is building a victim argument to show how she is rejected by all levels of society and forced into prostitution.
The impetus for the misery the characters endure in the novel is the abject state of poverty in which they live. Their tenement is inhabited by “true assassins” who prey on anyone in their path. Nearby “a worm of yellow convicts . . . [crawl] slowly along the river’s bank.” The Johnsons’ building “quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.” In this atmosphere , children like Maggie’s younger brother Tommie die. Family life is destroyed as Mr. And Mrs. Johnson drink themselves into oblivion to escape the reality of their lives and then take their drunken wrath out on their children. The streets become schoolyards where Jimmie and his friends learn how to foster within themselves the brutality they must endure. Maggie’s dreams of escaping her impoverished...
(The entire section is 896 words.)