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MonkeyNotes-Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
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THEME

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.


Crane was well aware that his readers would have been inculcated in the nineteenth-century ideology of true womanhood. This ideology produced a set of images and ideals which glorified the woman’s place in the home as a beacon of moral light aiding her husband, who was forced to go out into the grubby world to make a living, to achieve moral rectitude, teaching her children the values of chastity, temperance, and thrifty fortitude. Crane’s depiction of the Johnson home would have been a nightmare for the nineteenth-century readers unaccustomed to having their illusions challenged. Mrs. Johnson is a portrait of the opposite of this ideology. In the vehemence with which Crane paints the ugliness that is Mary Johnson, he reveals his own implication in that ideology. Mr. Johnson is brutish and violent, but he is nothing compared to Mrs. Johnson. From her, the children, with whose points of view the narrator identifies, have no escape. They are stuck in the apartment with her and brutalized in the most intimate relations of life.

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