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The novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets probably never achieved popularity among general readers because it treats poverty in all its ugliness without providing any kind of moral relief for the reader. Crane unwaveringly focuses on the determinism of social and economic forces on the lives of individuals. As a literary naturalist, Crane was interested in depicting the social ills of his time, showing that despite an individual’s best efforts, the forces of the society will overcome her and determine her fate. In The Red Badge of Courage, Crane wrote of the ugliness of the Civil War, the boredom, the ignominy, the impossibility of finding honor and glory in the practice of sending human beings into a situation where they were forced to kill and be killed. He published that novella after the war, when people were ready to accept the condemnation of war. In Maggie, Crane writes of the ugliness of poverty, the brutality of intergenerational abuse, the inevitability for some girls of prostitution. These were not problems readers could comfortably look back on as past. Readers were accustomed to hearing about poverty from a moral point of view in uplift literature. Here, Crane makes the reader dwell on the impossibility or extreme unlikelihood of individual solutions for the general and severe social problems caused by poverty.
Crane’s technique of presenting characters as types rather than as individuals creates the sense in the reader that the problems the characters face are common and general problems faced by people of their class and status. The first scene of the novella, the street fight involving Maggie’s older brother Jimmie, typifies this strategy. Jimmie isn’t named during the scene. He is an anonymous boy who is treated with extreme brutality by boys his age for no other reason than turf wars among poor children. Adults stand around watching the brutal fight. No adult tries to stop it; no adult even seems to be concerned about the boys. In fact, they seem bored. When an adult does come onto the scene, he makes matters worse by kicking the boys viciously. It is then that Crane reveals their identity as father and son. From there matters only get worse.