Stephen Crane's first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is in some respects barely a novel at all. It is very short--in most editions, barely 60 pages long. This brevity is no mere superficial detail. The novel (or, if you prefer, novella) is short because the narrative it conveys is, in important ways, a slight narrative. It is a story that has become a cliché, a story about a virtuous and naïve girl who becomes ruined by forces larger than she. The setting is unremarkable. The characters are barely distinguishable from any number of sordid types who serve as stock and secondary characters inhabiting the alleyways of numerous longer novels. If it were not so deeply troubling, Maggie would be so banal as to be forgettable.
Indeed, Maggie is so troubling that it almost was forgotten. Crane had to publish his novel himself to almost no critical acclaim and even less public notice, because no editor was willing to take a risk on a novel that seemed both crass and disturbingly pessimistic about American society and human nature. Crane was a prodigy, bringing the literary movement of realism to America before Americans were really prepared for his unflinching honesty. In an era that has been labeled the Gilded Age Crane was prepared to expose the misery, hypocrisy, and sentimentalism that he believed lay beneath the gilt. In this sense, his novel is "realistic": it refuses to accept platitudes about the goodness of human nature, and about the prosperity of American society.
Largely ignored, Maggie paid a price in its time for being revolutionary. And it is precisely because Maggie was so revolutionary that it continues to pay a certain price. After a century of novels that have responded to Maggie by broadening their perspectives and telling stories in greater depth and at greater length than the story told in this novella, it is easy to question Maggie's contemporary importance; after all, for all its historical importance, it now seems merely a slim example of a literary genre. But Maggie was not simply first--it was, and remains, one of the best American realist novels.
The literary school of realism seeks to portray life without pretenses or tinted lenses. But realism is not without its own set of beliefs. Realist novels tend to expose society's gaping wounds in the service of an ideology that downplays human agency, substituting a belief in the power of social forces that approaches fatalism. Realist novels tend to portray their protagonists as subject to massive social forces. These social forces are virtually inescapable; they are as inevitable as fate. When we first see a broad-brush picture of the Bowery in the second chapter of the novel, we are told that the people are "withered. . . in curious postures of submission to something." Think about the set of events at the center of Maggie. Social circumstances--poverty, a lifetime of brutality, and a lack of realistic prospects--force Maggie towards Pete. She is steered towards a single escape route, and then finds that the only door out is in fact the path towards tragedy. The ruination of naïve women in Maggie is inevitable, as common as the incidence of desperate girls and reckless bachelors.
But one of the remarkable things about Maggie is that the novel's refusal to blame Maggie does not mean that her mistakes are forgiven. Maggie's own failings are exposed here as surely as the social forces that lead to her downfall and death. As the writer Jayne Anne Phillips has observed, Maggie's romantic nature obscures her ability to see the world clearly, and is as much to blame for her downfall as the forces of reality. This is a novel that shows sympathy to the humanity of every one of its characters, with the arguable exception of Mary. The novel recognizes that, to a great and perhaps overwhelming extent, these are people brutalized and hardened and victimized by social forces beyond their control. But it is also a novel that refuses to condescend through showings of cheap pity. Even as it extends sympathy to all its characters, it critiques the injustices they work, their hypocrisy, sentimentalism, ridiculous ideas and attitudes. Maggie is a novel that mocks but rarely condemns utterly, that forgives and seeks to understand even those things that it cruelly exposes. And thus it is a novel that troubles the reader with its moral complexity. Who is to blame for these tragedies that continue to repeat themselves, tragedies that breed and interbreed, perpetuating themselves endlessly? Crane, and Maggie, refuse to provide an answer.