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."