Skip over navigation

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

Stephen Crane

Chapters 4-9

Chapters 1-3

Chapters 10-13

Summary

There is the passage of a considerable, unspecified number of years, perhaps ten or twelve. The father and baby Tommie die unremarkably and largely unremarked, and they vanish from the narrative. Meanwhile, Jimmie grows up--or devolves--into a hardened, scornful young man. Chapter 4 is a character sketch of his development, his formative years when he "menaced mankind" and dreamed "blood-red dreams...at the intersection of streets." He grows even more belligerent, despising all forms of religion and refinement as weakness. As a teamster driving his horses through the violence and chaos of lower Manhattan, he becomes tougher still--"he became so sharp that he believed in nothing"--finding power in aggression, developing a courtroom record due to his brawling, and seducing and impregnating two different women. He is now the man of the house, drunken and profane as his father was, and Mary upholds her end of the bargain by continuing her line of deeper descent into alcoholism.

Maggie, however, develops and preserves a ragged beauty amid the filth of Rum Alley. She goes to work in a sweatshop for a factory making collars and cuffs. She is quickly entranced by Pete, a friend who calls for Jimmie one night, telling tales of his prowess and glowing with bravado. Pete is "a man who had a correct sense of his personal superiority. There was valor and contempt for circumstances in the glance of his eye." Maggie, naïve and sentimental, sees in Pete the possibility of a romantic life and an escape from Rum Alley. The two begin to date, and Pete introduces Maggie into the workingman's world of leisure--cheap popular music, burlesque dances, and stock melodramas--which seems princely and extravagant to the downtrodden girl. Her developing affair with Pete, and the morals of the rags-to-riches melodramas he takes her to see, give Maggie vain hope that she might one day rise out of abject poverty.

There comes a night when the badly drunk Mary is refused service at a local bar. Taunted by street children, she staggers back to her tenement, where she makes a loud and belligerent scene in the hallway. Jimmie forces her back into the tenement, where they have a violent encounter. Into the wreckage following this combat walks Pete, who has come to take Maggie on a date. Inflamed by beer and excitement, Mary launches into a diatribe against Maggie: "Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn you," Mary glowers, "Go teh hell an' good riddance." Maggie indeed does leave with Pete, and the stage is set for her final seduction.

Commentary

This section chronicles the maturation of the two Johnson children, Maggie and Jimmie, along widely divergent lines. They have both been shaped by the Bowery and the environment of violence and degradation that surrounds them--Maggie, after all, is "a girl of the streets," a pun that indicates both her eventual profession as a streetwalking prostitute and that she is a product of the harsh streets of the Bowery. But if Jimmie has been hardened by his upbringing into cynicism, Maggie seems to have survived emotionally uncalloused, and even to have grown softer, more naïve and dreamy, through the ordeal of her childhood. The two Johnson children, with their radically different personalities, seem to be representative of the two types of people necessarily produced by the Bowery: the violent realists and the sentimental escapists. One of the troubling aspects of this novel is that, even if we judge Maggie's personality type to be morally superior, preserving at least a degree of hope and innocence, it is not at all clear that this novel believes innocence is preferable on a practical plane. After all, Maggie dies, and Jimmie survives. If Maggie, with its tone throughout of detachment and moral distance, does not condone toughness and violence, it does not condemn them, either. Physical and psychological toughness are necessary for survival in the Bowery. At points in the novel, such as the graphic physical combat that fills most of the novel's passionate and detailed scenes, one can even detect a certain valorization of the kind of toughness that Stephen Crane witnessed firsthand during his years in Manhattan, and which earned from him the respect accorded the practical and the necessary.

Jimmie grows up to become the young man that Pete is when we first encounter him in the novel's opening chapter. There, Pete is described as the "boy with the chronic sneer," with "an air of challenge over his eye." Similarly, practically the first thing we learn about Jimmie during his formative years is that "during that time his sneer became chronic." Still later, his sneer grew so that it turned its glare upon all things. He became so sharp that he believed in nothing. The effect of linking Jimmie's psychological profile to that of Pete is to humanize Pete, of whom we know little. One can assume that their identical sneers are products of identical circumstances. If we feel sympathy for the dehumanized Jimmie, brought up in a shattered home and on dirty street corners, we should feel by extension sympathy for Pete, who might otherwise be seen as the novel's villain. This novel details deceitful behavior and even villainy, but it does not deny sympathy to those who need it. This is not to say that Maggie ignores the moral force of people's choices, but the novel does argue that human autonomy is limited by social forces and base instincts that can impel anyone towards degradation. In a chapter devoted to chronicling Jimmie's descent into brutishness, the final lines are reserved for a glimpse of his underlying humanity and hunger for the sublime: "Nevertheless he had, on a certain star-lit evening, said wonderingly and quite reverently: 'Deh moon looks like hell, don't it?'" What is ironic here, of course, is that Jimmie expresses his wonder at the moon through the vocabulary of damnation that fills the rest of this novel, which is all he knows and all he could possibly know; in the Bowery, there is no other language.

Starting from a place where even the moon is hell, Maggie has nowhere to run. In the final lines of this section--the end of Chapter 9--Mary curses her daughter: "Go teh hell an' good riddance." In an obvious double entendre, the chapter ends "She went"--both out the door with Pete, and to hell, to seduction and death.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us