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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

Stephen Crane

Study Questions

Analytical Overview

Quiz

What role does religion play in this novella? How do the various characters use religious language and approach religious themes? How does the narrator seem to feel about organized religion? Be sensitive to analogies, similes, or metaphors using religious vehicles (for example, "shrieking like a monk in an earthquake"), and to everyday language that employs clichés with religious origins.

One approach you could take in answering this question might be to think about the characters' names. When, in Chapter 17, the prostitute whom the reader may take to be Maggie accidentally bumps into a man on the street, he says, "Hi, there, Mary. I beg your pardon! Brace up, old girl." It is possible that we are intended to imagine that Maggie, in her degraded condition, has come to resemble her mother, physically and perhaps morally. But another option should be presented. If Mary can be seen in this novel as a devilish antithesis to the "blameless" Virgin Mary--although, of course, if you embrace the theory that this novel blames all sins on social circumstance, Mary might be as innocent as the Virgin Mary herself, her misdeeds the result of inevitable circumstance-- then Maggie can perhaps be seen as an incarnation of Mary Magdalene, the Christian Bible prostitute who repents and becomes a devout disciple of Jesus. In this approach, Crane is not tying her to her mother but rather distinguishing her: she is another, more worthy, Mary. Of course, Crane does not resolve the ambiguity surrounding the many possible meanings of this chapter--this is part of the novel's supple intelligence.

Obviously, the characters in this novel speak in the dialect of lower Manhattan, and Crane makes an attempt to preserve this dialect. Think about the use of dialect in the novel: How does it make the reader feel about the characters? How is it intended to make the reader feel? Think especially about the relationship between how the characters sound and what they are saying.

This novel seeks to portray the streets honestly, and this means adopting the rhythms of street talk and its slang. But there is more here. Readers may notice, as they progress through the novel, that when characters speak there is usually a great deal of sound, but very little actual meaning. The characters tend to speak in what the writer Jayne Anne Phillips characterizes as "code phrases," and in bluster that is largely nonsense and slang. Their inability to break out of the slang conventions of speech is striking; when Jimmie means to express wonder at the moon, he ends up using the same expression he uses to damn his sister and others: "Deh moon looks like hell, don't it?" What they have to say is as much governed by language as expressed through language. They do not have complete control even over what they say, which comes back to haunt them in unexpected ways, as when Mary's "Go teh hell" is met by the narrator's smug double entendre: "She went."

Maggie may be the title character of this novel, but it is certainly arguable that the real subject of the novel is the city of New York, and more specifically the Bowery neighborhood. How does the narrator treat New York and the Bowery? What do you think the attitude of the narrator is towards the Bowery? You should make reference to the novel's several extended descriptions of the neighborhood, bearing in mind, in most cases, that these are far longer than the novel's descriptions of actual people.

Like many of the realist writers for whom he laid the groundwork, and like the great French realists and naturalists whom he followed (Balzac, Flaubert, Zola), Crane was fascinated by the urban landscape. He was simultaneously repulsed and attracted. Lower New York was the scene of so much degradation and filth, but it was also vibrantly alive, shaking constantly with violent motion. This is the Bowery given to us in Maggie, a neighborhood with a viselike grip on its denizens, inescapable and all-encompassing, terrifying and grotesquely beautiful. Our first description of a Bowery tenement row, Rum Alley, is typical: it is "a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. . . A thousand odors of cooking food came forth into the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping around in its bowels." For all that it is "dark" and "gruesome," it has the magnetism of life, strata upon strata of humanity. Lurching to life of its own energy and momentum, the Bowery is like the experiment of a mad scientist, irresistibly appealing to the curious. As much as Maggie quietly decries the dehumanizing life of the streets, its author cannot tear himself away from it.

There are many grim moments in this novel. Overall, it must be acknowledged that the novel tells the story of a tragedy, but the tone of the novel is not always as dark as the subject matter. Indeed, some might argue that much of this novel works well as farce--it is often funny. What types of humor are used here? How does the humor alter the narrator's relationship to the story? How does it impact the narrator's judgment of the characters?

On occasion, Pete takes Maggie to see sentimental plays which feature: "wanderers swooning in snow storms beneath happy-hued church windows. And a choir within singing 'Joy to the World.'" Maggie loves these plays--"to Maggie and the rest of the audience this was transcendental realism. Joy always within, and they, like the actor, inevitably without. Viewing it, they hugged themselves in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition" (Chapter 8). What does this passage reveal about Maggie's conception of herself? What does it reveal about the narrator's attitude toward contemporary drama?

Crane's novella Maggie: A Girl of the Street raises important questions about the capacity of people to be responsible for their own deeds. Is Maggie to blame for her descent into prostitution? Is Jimmie to blame for his violence, brutishness, and casual cruelty? Or must we point the finger at the social forces and diseases that brought them to the brink of degradation (poverty, coercive capitalism, lack of education, alcoholism)? How does this book steer a path between the two extremes of absolute personal responsibility and entirely contingent morality? Or does it avoid choosing a compromise position, and instead throw itself behind the position that social circumstance, not personal choice, is to blame for Maggie's tragedy?

Color plays a crucial role in setting the symbolic and emotional overtones in Maggie. Most obviously, there are the repeated references to varying shades of red when describing Mary; it seems that her face is always "crimson" or "fervent red. . . turned almost to purple." What are the symbolic functions of the color red in this novel? Are there any other colors that Crane uses to symbolic or emotional effect? How? Where?

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