Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

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...

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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.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

Poverty
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 existence lead her to the mind-numbing work at the collar and cuff factory and eventually to Pete. When Pete and her family reject her, she is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive.

Hypocrisy
The atmosphere of the novel breeds a moral hypocrisy as the characters struggle to justify their own immoral actions. Mr. Johnson yells at his wife to stop always “poundin’ a kid” after he has just savagely kicked Jimmie in an attempt to break up the street fight. Mrs. Johnson, who is more brutal to her children than her husband, declares Maggie to be a disgrace to the family and questions “who would t’ink such a bad girl could grow up in our fambly.” Jimmie, who has abandoned many young women in the same manner as Pete has done with Maggie, declares that he will kill Pete for his treatment of her. Yet, he wonders only “vaguely” whether “some of the women of his acquaintance had brothers. Nevertheless, his mind did not for an instant confuse himself with those brothers nor his sister with theirs.”

A subtle social hypocrisy is revealed in Maggie’s relationship with Pete. Survival for men in this atmosphere depends on them gaining an exaggerated sense of their own superiority coupled with an attitude of complete independence. That avenue is not open for women like Maggie, whose only escape is through utter dependence on a man. Ironically, when she adopts the illusory vision that Pete promotes, she loses her own sense of herself and as a result reduces her standing in Pete’s eyes. When her family turns her out because of the neighborhood’s condemnation of her relationship with Pete, she is forced to become what they insist she already is and always has been. Her inability to endure this life prompts her to commit suicide.

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