The novel's title character, Maggie Johnson grows up amid abuse and poverty in the Bowery neighborhood of New York's Lower East Side. Her mother, Mary, is a vicious alcoholic; her brother, Jimmie, is mean-spirited and brutish. But Maggie grows up a beautiful young lady whose romantic hopes for a better life remain untarnished. Her seemingly inevitable path towards destruction begins when she becomes enamored of Pete, whose show of confidence and worldliness seems to promise wealth and culture. Seduced and abandoned by Pete, Maggie becomes a neighborhood scandal when she turns to prostitution. Crane leaves her demise vague--she either commits suicide or is murdered. She seems a natural and hereditary victim, succumbing finally to the forces of poverty and social injustice that built up against her even before her birth. Like all the people in this short novel, she seems chiefly a type rather than an individuated character, serving to illustrate principles about modern urban life.
Maggie's brother and Mary's son, Jimmie Johnson is the first character we meet in the novel, and from the start he is fighting a street battle. He grows up violent and combative, hardened against sympathy and introspection. Although he himself has seduced and abandoned women, he fails to see himself in Pete, whom he hates for seducing Maggie, and he cannot muster any sympathy for Maggie, whom he blames, hypocritically, for bringing disgrace on the household. Unlike his naïve sister, Jimmie has the toughness necessary to survive in the rough world of urban poverty, but this toughness seems inseparable from the casual cruelty that seems endemic to the novel's world. He survives his sister, but one senses that he will only engender the same kind of cruelty and misery that his parents engendered in him.
Maggie's and Jimmie's mother, the alcoholic and vicious Mary Johnson is a virtual incarnation of the devil. She spends the novel shattering furniture and flying into uncontrollable rages; even in the rough-and-tumble Bowery, where we sense that drunkenness is hardly foreign, Mary is a neighborhood joke. After terrifying Maggie into fleeing from home, Mary is hypocritical enough to condemn her daughter for immorality, and crassly sentimental enough to stage an elaborate scene of mourning for the daughter she never really loved.
A friend of Jimmie's, Pete seduces and then abandons Maggie. A bartender with bourgeois pretensions, Pete affects bravado and wealth; to the downtrodden Maggie, he seems to promise a better life. But Pete is easily drawn away from Maggie by the manipulative and relatively sophisticated Nellie. He certainly seems the villain in Maggie's story, but it is important to remember that he is only the proximate cause of her tragedy; in Maggie, tragedy is inevitable, and it waits only for human agents, of whom there are many readily available. And it is also true that Pete seems, as we first meet him, to be the product of the brutalizing atmosphere of the Bowery, shaped as much as Maggie by his surroundings. Indeed, he, too, can be considered a victim of his environment, and we see at the end, when he is abandoned by Nellie, that he, too, is an innocent despoiled by circumstance.
Nellie is the "woman of brilliance and audacity" who, nearly effortlessly, lures Pete away from Maggie. She promises the sophistication and worldliness that Pete craves, just as Pete represents the same things to Maggie. In the novel's penultimate scene, it becomes clear that Nellie has nothing but contempt for Pete, whom she is using for money. It seems from Maggie that only tough women like Nellie can survive male predation in the world of the Bowery.
Maggie's youngest brother and Mary's son. Brought up amid the curses and flying cutlery of his parents' battles, Tommie dies early in the novel.
The father of Maggie, Jimmie, and Tommie, and Mary's husband, Mr. Johnson is known only by his last name, and dies early in the novel. In what little we see of him, he seems casually brutal to his children, even to the extent of stealing beer from his son Jimmie. Like his wife, he is an alcoholic, going to bars to escape the "livin' hell" of his home.
A nameless old woman who lives in the same tenement house as Maggie's family. She befriends the children to a degree, offering Maggie shelter in her apartment after Maggie has been rejected by Mary.
Miss Smith appears abruptly in the novel during the closing scene. She helps to whip Mary up into a sentimental fit of mourning for her lost daughter, Maggie.
A Rum Alley urchin who fights with Jimmie in the novel's first scene and who, like Jimmie, grows up to be a violent brawler. He is Jimmie's ally in the fight against Pete late in the novel.