Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3549
As one of the impressionist writers—Conrad called him “The Impressionist”—Stephen Crane was among the first to express in writing a new way of looking at the world. A pivotal movement in the history of ideas, impressionism grew out of scientific discoveries that showed how human physiology, particularly that of the eye, determines the way everything in the universe and everything outside the individual body and mind is perceived. People do not see the world as it is; the mind and the eye collaborate to interpret a chaotic universe as fundamentally unified, coherent, and explainable. The delusion is compounded when human beings agglomerate, for then they tend to create grander fabrications such as religion and history. Although Crane is also seen as one of the first American naturalistic writers, a Symbolist, an imagist, and even a nihilist, the achievements designated by these labels all derive from his impressionistic worldview.
Stephen Crane’s first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was written before Crane had any intimate knowledge of the Bowery slums where the novel is set. It is the first American novel to portray realistically the chaos of the slums without either providing the protagonist with a “way out” or moralizing on the subject of social injustice. It obeys Aristotle’s dictum that art imitates life and the more modern notion that art is simply a mirror held up to life. Maggie is the story of a young Irish American girl who grows up in the slums of New York. The novel seems to belong to the tradition of the bildungsroman, but its greatness lies in the irony that in this harsh environment, no one’s quest is fulfilled, no one learns anything: The novel swings from chaos on the one side to complete illusion on the other.
By the time Maggie reaches physical maturity, her father and young brother have died, leaving only her mother, Mary, a marauding drunken woman, and another brother, Jimmie, a young truck driver who scratches out a place for himself in the tenements. Living with an alcoholic and a bully, Maggie is faced with a series of choices that tragically lead her to self-destruction. First, she must choose between working long hours for little pay in the sweatshops or becoming a prostitute. She chooses the former, but the chaotic reality of home and work are so harsh that she succumbs to her own illusions about Pete, the bullying neighborhood bartender, and allows herself to be seduced by him. When this happens, Mary drives Maggie out of their home. For a short time, Maggie enjoys her life, but Pete soon abandons her to chase another woman. Driven from home and now a “fallen woman,” Maggie must choose between prostitution and suicide. Deciding on the life of a prostitute, Maggie survives for a time but ultimately is unable to make a living. She commits suicide by jumping into the East River.
The form of the novel is that of a classical tragedy overlaid by nihilism that prevents the final optimism of tragedy from surfacing. The tragic “mistake,” what the Greeks called hamartia, derives from a naturalistic credo: Maggie was unlucky enough to have been born a pretty girl in an environment she was unable to escape. Although she tries to make the best of her limited choices, she is inexorably driven to make choices that lead her to ruin and death. The novel’s other characters are similarly trapped by their environment. Mary drinks herself into insensibility, drives her daughter into the street, and then, when Maggie kills herself, exclaims, “I fergive her!” The irony of this line, the novel’s last, is nihilistic. Classical tragedy ends on an optimistic note. Purged of sin by the sacrifice of the protagonist, humankind is given a reprieve by the gods, and life looks a little better for everyone. In Maggie there is no optimism. Mary has nothing on which to base any forgiveness. It is Maggie who should forgive Mary. Jimmie is so egocentric that he cannot see that he owed his sister some help. At one point he wonders about the girls he has “ruined,” but he quickly renounces any responsibility for them. Pete is a blind fool who is destroyed by his own illusions and the chaos of his environment.
For the first time in American fiction, a novel had appeared in which there clearly was no better world, no “nice” existence, no heaven on earth. There was only the world of the stinking tenements, only the chaos of sweat and alcohol and seduction, only hell. Also for the first time, everything was accomplished impressionistically. Maggie’s sordid career as a prostitute would have required an earlier writer several chapters to describe. In Maggie, the description requires only a paragraph or two.
George’s Mother, which Crane originally called “A Woman Without Weapons,” is Crane’s only other Bowery novel, a companion piece to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Mrs. Keasy and her son George live in the same tenement as Mary Johnson, Maggie’s mother. The story is more sentimental than that of Maggie, and therefore less effective. George gradually succumbs to the destructive elements of the Bowery—drink and a subsequent inability to work—in spite of the valiant efforts of his mother to forestall and warn him. As Maggie has her “dream gardens” in the air above sordid reality, so young George has dreams of great feats while he actually lives in the midst of drunkenness and squalor. As drink provides a way out of reality for George, so the Church provides his mother with her escape. In both Maggie and George’s Mother, illusions simultaneously provide the only way out of reality and a way to hasten the worsening of reality.
The Red Badge of Courage
In his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane takes his themes of illusion and reality and his impressionistic method from the Bowery to a battlefield of the Civil War, usually considered to be the Battle of Chancellorsville. A young farm boy named Henry Fleming hears tales of great battles, dreams of “Homeric” glory, and joins the Union Army. Published in 1895, the story of Henry Fleming’s various trials took the literary world by storm, first in England and then in the United States. Crane became an immediate sensation, perhaps one of America’s first media darlings. The Red Badge of Courage became a classic in its own time because it combined literary merit with a subject that captured the popular imagination. Never again did Crane reach the height of popularity that he achieved with The Red Badge of Courage.
Structurally, the novel is divided into two parts. In the first half, Henry’s illusions disappear when he is confronted by the reality of battle. During the first skirmish, he sees vague figures before him, but they are driven away. In the next skirmish, he becomes so frightened that he runs away, becoming one of the first heroes in literature actually to desert his fellow soldiers in the field. Although Achilles had done something similar in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), in the intervening millennia, few heroes had imitated him.
Separated from his regiment, Henry wanders through the forest behind the lines. There he experiences the kinds of illusions that predominate in all of Crane’s writing. First, he convinces himself that nature is benevolent, that she does not blame him for running. Next, he finds himself in a part of the woods that he interprets as a kind of religious place—the insects are praying, and the forest has the appearance of a chapel. Comforted by this, Henry becomes satisfied with himself until he discovers a dead soldier in the very heart of the “chapel.” In a beautiful passage—beautiful in the sense of conveying great emotion through minute detail—Henry sees an ant carrying a bundle across the face of the dead man. Shifting to a belief in nature as malevolent or indifferent, Henry moves back toward the front. He soon encounters a line of wounded soldiers, among whom is his friend Jim Conklin and another man called simply “the tattered man.” Conklin, badly wounded, is dying. Trying to expiate his crime of desertion, Henry attempts to help Conklin but is rebuffed. After Conklin dies, the tattered man probes deeply into Henry’s conscience by repeatedly asking the youth, “Where ya hit?” The tattered man himself appears to be wounded, but Henry cannot abide his questions. He deserts the tattered man as well.
When Henry tries to stop another Union soldier to ask the novel’s ubiquitous question “Why?” he is clubbed on the head for causing trouble. Ironically, this wound becomes his “red badge of courage.” Guided back to his regiment by a “Cheery Soldier,” who performs the same function as the ancient gods and goddesses who helped wandering heroes, Henry embarks on the novel’s second half. Between receiving the lump on his head and returning to his regiment, Henry’s internal wanderings are over. Not until the last chapter does Henry ask questions of the universe. Most of the repudiations are complete: Heroes do not always act like heroes; no one understands the purpose of life or death; nature may be malevolent, probably indifferent, but is certainly not the benevolent, pantheistic realm of the Transcendentalists; and God, at least the traditional Christian God, is simply nowhere to be found.
In the second half of the novel, Henry becomes a “war devil,” the very Homeric hero he originally wanted to be. Wilson, his young friend, who was formerly called “the loud soldier,” has become a group leader, quiet, helpful, and utterly devoted to the regiment. He becomes, in short, what Henry would have become had he not run from the battle. The idea of “brotherhood,” so prevalent in Crane’s works, is embodied by Wilson. Henry is another kind of hero, an individual owing allegiance to no group; he leads a successful charge against the enemy with the spirit of a primitive warrior.
When the battle is over, however, all that Henry has accomplished is negated. Many critics have found the last chapter confused and muddled, for Henry’s feelings range from remorse for the “sin” for which he is not responsible to pride in his valor as a great and glorious hero. Finally, he feels that “the world was a world for him,” and he looks forward to “a soft and eternal peace.” The beautiful lyricism of the novel’s last paragraphs is, like that of many of Crane’s conclusions, completely ironic. No one lives “eternally peacefully”; the world is not a world for Henry. As John Berryman says, Crane’s “sole illusion was the heroic one, and not even that escaped his irony.”
Thus, the novel’s conclusion is not at all inconsistent. During the course of his experiences, Henry learns at first hand of the indifference of the universe, the chaos of the world, and the illusory nature of religion and patriotism and heroism, but he learns these lessons in the heat of the moment, when recognition is virtually forced on him. When the memory has an opportunity to apply itself to past experience, that experience is changed into what humanity wants it to be, not what it was. Henry, then, becomes representative of humankind. The individual memory becomes a metaphor for collective memory, history. Everything is a lie. Not even heroism can last.
The Third Violet
Crane was only twenty-two when he began working on The Third Violet, and before it was published he had already written Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage, and George’s Mother. Of the four, The Third Violet is by far the least successful. In Crane’s attempt to portray middle-class manners, his best portraits, as well as his most admirable characters, are the simple farmer and the heiress, whereas the others, who actually fall within the middle class, are more or less insipid.
The protagonist of The Third Violet, Billie Hawker, is a young New York artist who returns to his family’s farm for a summer vacation. While there, he falls in love with Grace Fanhall, a young heiress vacationing at a nearby resort hotel called the Hemlock Inn. The remainder of the novel recounts Hawker’s anxieties as he botches repeated attempts to declare his love and win the fair maiden at the hotel, during summer picnics, in New York studios, and in mansions. Aside from portraits of Hawker’s father and the heiress, the most rewarding portraits are of a little boy and his dog. A memorable scene occurs when Grace Fanhall and Billie’s father ride together in a farm wagon, their disparate social standings apparently freeing them from rigid middle-class stiffness. Equally worthwhile is the scene in the New York bohemian studio where Hawker’s friends “Great Grief,” “Wrinkles,” and Pennoyer manage to divert the landlord and concoct a meal in a manner reminiscent of the opening scenes of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème (pr. 1896). There is even a beautiful young model named “Splutter” O’Conner, whose easy and cheerful love for Hawker provides a contrast to his own doleful courtship of Fanhall.
The reality behind the mask of convention in The Third Violet is never sufficiently revealed. Reality in The Third Violet seems to be that love would predominate if only Hawker could free himself of his inferiority complex at having been born poor. While others might make great fiction from such a feeling, Crane could not.
The only great piece of fiction Crane produced from his experience of reporting the Greco-Turkish War of April and May, 1897, was “Death and the Child.” By contrast, his Greek novel, Active Service, is lamentably bad. Following a creakingly conventional plot, Active Service relates the story of a boy and a girl in love: The girl’s parents object; the boy pursues the girl and overcomes her parents’ objections by rescuing the family from danger and by manfully escaping the snares of another woman.
Crane’s protagonist, Rufus Coleman, Sunday editor of the New York Eclipse, is in love with Marjory Wainright, the demure and lovely daughter of a classics professor at Washurst University. Disapproving of the match on the rather solid evidence that Coleman is “a gambler and a drunkard,” Professor Wainright decides to include his daughter in a student tour of Greece, a tour the professor himself is to lead. While touring ruins near Arta in Epirus, the group is trapped between the Greek and Turkish lines. Meanwhile, back in the offices of the Eclipse, the not so mild-mannered reporter, Coleman, is discovering that he cannot exist without Marjory. Arranging to become the Eclipse’s correspondent in Greece, he heads for Europe. Temporarily distracted while traveling to Greece by a beautiful British actor and dancer, Nora Black, Coleman finally arrives in Athens and discovers that the Wainright party is in danger. He jauntily sets out to rescue them and equally as jauntily succeeds. So heroic and noble is Coleman that the professor is quite won over. The novel finishes like hundreds of turn-of-the-century love adventures, with the hero and heroine sitting with the Aegean Sea in the background while they declare their love for each other in the most adolescent manner.
Indeed, Crane intended to write a parody of love adventures. The hero is too offhandedly heroic; the rival is too mean and nasty. The “other woman” wears too much perfume; the parents are too inept. The novel is banal and trite, however, because the characters lack interest, and the parody cannot sustain the reader’s interest in the absence of a substantial form worthy of parody. The novel is probably bad for extraliterary reasons: Crane’s poor health and finances. Crane began the book late in 1897, when he was still fairly healthy and when his finances were not yet completely chaotic. The effects of the malaria and the tuberculosis, however, were becoming increasingly debilitating and began to take their toll long before The Third Violet was finished in May, 1899. By then, too, his finances were depleted. Crane had the intellectual and cultural resources to write a first-rate book on this subject, but not the health and good fortune. One must agree with Crane: “May heaven help it for being so bad.”
The Monster was Crane’s last great work. A short book even when compared to his notably short novels, The Monster is often regarded as a novella rather than as a novel. Like The Red Badge of Courage, it is divided into twenty-four episodes, is divided in half structurally, and concerns a man caught in a straitjacket of fate. Like Maggie, Dr. Trescott, the hero, is led down a road that gradually leaves behind all side trails until his only choice is essentially made for him by his circumstances. Trescott is more intelligent and educated than Maggie, and he is certainly more conscious of his choices, but the most crucial difference lies in the intensity of the tragedy. Whereas Maggie is about the individual facing chaos without the mediating power of a civilized group, The Monster concerns the conflict between individual ethics and the values of the group. For Crane, small towns in America exist to mediate between the individual and chaos. Ordered society blocks out reality, providing security.
Henry Johnson, the Trescotts’ black hostler, is badly burned while rescuing Jimmy, the doctor’s young son, from the Trescotts’ burning house. This heroic act creates Trescott’s tragic dilemma: Personal ethics dictate that he care for the now horrific-looking and simpleminded Henry; public security requires that Henry be “put away” or allowed to die, for civilization does not like to see reminders of what humankind would be like without the thin veneer of order. While Trescott faces his responsibility toward Henry, he fails to reckon with the task of forcing the community to face it as well. When he does, he consciously sets himself on a collision course with that society. Unlike Henry Fleming, Trescott cannot win even a temporary victory. The community defeats him utterly.
Trescott at first tries to avoid conflict by paying Alex Williams, a local black man who lives on the outskirts of town, to care for Henry. When Henry escapes into town and, although harmless, frightens little children, the community demands that Trescott do something. Standing by his obligation to Henry, Trescott is quickly ostracized by the community. At the novel’s end, Trescott recognizes that he has lost. He cannot retain his moral and ethical stance toward Henry Johnson and remain within the community. He cannot concede defeat to the community without doing irrevocable damage to his own honor. The dilemma is a classical tragic one that must be faced by each individual. Ralph Ellison called The Monster a metaphor for America’s treatment of the black minority, but the greatness of the work lies in the fact that it is a larger metaphor for the human community’s treatment of the individual.
The O’Ruddy is a parodic picaresque romance about English and Irish manners. Its humor belies the fact that Crane was writing on his deathbed, in great anguish and pain. Crane’s only first-person novel, The O’Ruddy exposes the “dullness of the great mass of people, the frivolity of the gentry, the arrogance and wickedness of the court,” and celebrates the notion that “real talent was usually engaged in some form of rascality.” Similar to Active Service in that it recounts the story of an adventure-loving hero who overcomes the objections of a stuffy father and vehement mother for the hand of a somewhat demure but beautiful young lady, The O’Ruddy is similarly unable to sustain greatness. Although sketchy as to the date of the events, The O’Ruddy seems to be set in late eighteenth century England, where young Tom O’Ruddy, a poor but noble Irishman, has come to return to the earl of Westport some papers given to Tom by his father. The reader learns more than halfway through the novel that the papers give title to certain lands in Sussex. Smitten by Lady Mary, the earl’s daughter, Tom eventually trades the papers for her hand in marriage. Before the novel’s conclusion, in which Tom and Mary are married, there are many duels, robberies, journeys through secret passages, and portraits of literary meetings and turnings at Kensington Gardens, all of which are parodied. Crane disliked the manners of many of the English, saying at one point that western New York farmers had better manners.
The parody is occasionally amusing, but since parody must mock form as well as content to be great, the novel fails. Understandably, given Crane’s illness and the reluctance of Robert Barr to finish the novel after Crane’s death, there are numerous discrepancies, among which is a confusion as to whether Tom O’Ruddy can read and write. All in all, Crane’s intensity is lacking in this slight novel, his freshness, his impressionistic insights, his accustomed power gone. The last words he wrote in the novel before dying are lamentably apropos of the book itself: “This is no nice thing.”