Stephen Crane

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Stephen Crane Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.

Maggie

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...

(The entire section is 3,549 words.)