The novel opens with a street battle between young boys from rival parts of the Bowery. The champion fighting for the "honor of Rum Alley" against the "Devil's Row" battalion is Jimmie. He fights with blind ferocity and innate savagery, even after his allies have run away. Finally, he is rescued from underneath a pile of assailants by Pete, a scornful and self-confident teenager. Almost immediately, Jimmie begins to fight with another boy. This fight is broken up by his father, who happens upon the scuffle and kicks the children into submission, dragging Jimmie home with him.
Back in the foul shadows of the "gruesome" tenement doorways, father and son meet other relatives, Maggie and Tommie, respectively the family's elder daughter and infant son. The combative Jimmie gets into a fight with Maggie, but his aggression seems only a pale imitation compared to what is to come. The family troops into the tenement for an encounter with Mary, the family matriarch, an alcoholic who immediately flies into a rage. After a fight, she chases her husband out of the house; he goes to drink himself into a stupor, to escape the "living hell" that is his home. The children, terrified of their mother, shrink into the corners. When Maggie breaks a plate, Mary again becomes apoplectic with fury, and Jimmie flees the apartment, seeking shelter with an old woman who lives in the same tenement house. The old woman sends him to go buy her beer, in return for which she will let him sleep in her apartment. He goes, but at the bar meets his father, who steals the beer.
When Jimmie finally returns to the apartment, he finds his parents collapsed in alcoholic oblivion after another catastrophic fight. He sneaks in, terrified of his mother, and finds Maggie still awake; clutching each other, they hide in the corner until dawn.
In these short opening chapters--a few brief, fragmentary scenes--we learn all we need to know about the world into which Maggie and Jimmie were dragged at birth. In his detached, quiet prose, Crane depicts his story with a vision so clear that it implies and imputes moral force to a world of degradation and violence, which almost succeeds in dehumanizing its denizens.
From the first sentence, Crane's prose maintains a kind of ironic distance: "A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley." The tone seems gently to mock the braggadocio of young boys, humorously pointing out the absurdity of a "very little boy" fighting for "honor." (Of course, it will quickly become clear that the tragically ironic element here is the very idea of honor in the Bowery.) Crane has a sharp wit, and he does not refrain from using it throughout Maggie to skewer attitudes he finds ridiculous.
But if this seems to be gently mocking an innocent boyhood self- aggrandizement, and if this perhaps appears initially to be a typical schoolyard squabble, it quickly becomes clear that these little savages are out for blood. Both Jimmie and his antagonists are transfigured. Like Jimmie's mother Mary throughout the novel, they become images of the devil: witness Jimmie's "crimson" oaths, and his features that "wore the look of a tiny, insane demon."
These boys may be young hellions, but it is also clear that their viciousness is learned, not invented. Jimmie's father enters the scene with profanity and violence: "Here, you Jim, git up, now, while I belt yer life out, you damned disorderly brat." The father's brutishness, however, is nothing compared to the mother's outright brutality. If Jimmie was momentarily transformed into an image of the devil, the ironically named Mary--no virgin mother, and surely not blameless--wears that likeness throughout the novel. When she is washing her son, she renders the sink itself "unholy"; her face is constantly described as "lurid" or "crimson"; her refrain, throughout the novel, is "damn 'is soul" or "go teh hell"; when Jimmie creeps back into the house at the end of this section, he overhears the neighbors telling each other "Ol' Johnson's raisin' hell agin."
What follows Jimmie's return to the house at the end of Chapter 3 is perhaps the novel's most powerful denunciation of the mother and the shattering psychological effect her reign of terror has on her children. Here Mary is unequivocally a "sated villain." Jimmie finds the whole room suffused in the hellish "red hues" from the fire; his mother's face, as always, is "inflamed," and her arms are "red." If Mary should wake, Jimmie believes, "all fiends would come from below." With a mother like Mary--and a father like theirs, nameless and thus by inference largely absent and casually cruel when present--it can hardly be surprising, the novel implies, that Jimmie and Maggie grow up as they do. They may indeed "go teh hell," but largely because their mother damned them from birth.
And yet even Mary's villainy is not without justification or explanation. There is no questioning that Mary incarnates villainy in this novel. But that can only be because villainy exists to be incarnated, as a set of forces larger and more powerful than any one person. As much as Jimmie and Maggie are a product of Mary, Mary herself is the product of the Bowery, a petri dish for violence and savagery. Indeed, the novel implies that Mary herself may well have started out as innocent and naïve as Maggie before an inevitable corruption. Later in the novel (Chapter 17), a discarded and pathetic Maggie walks the streets as a prostitute, and a man who bumps into her mistakes her for someone else: "Hi there, Mary, I beg your pardon!" It may only be Maggie's death that prevents her from completing the transformation--from becoming like her mother.
So it is the Bowery to which all come back--a place with a spirit, which embodies a set of virtually irresistible forces. It is the Bowery that breeds Mary and Maggie and Jimmie. Recall that this novel--Maggie: A Girl of the Streets--has a secondary and explanatory, or perhaps alternate, title: "A Story of New York." If this story is about Maggie, it is also about New York City, the place which created her and which survives her, her ancestor and heir. The reader will notice that the Bowery gets a far fuller description than any human character in this novel; indeed, it is in his descriptions of the Bowery itself, with its teeming life and festering poverty, that Crane is at his most clear, most poetic, and most effusive.