Amanda Komara Dr. Siegel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets Critical Research Paper
Naturalism, Darwinism and the Search for the American Dream in Maggie
“Maggie, A Girl of the Streets” is an immigrant novel by Stephen Crane . It depicts the life of an Irish family living in horrible conditions with other immigrant families in urban New York City hoping to make a living and experience the American Dream . The story focuses on a young, naïve girl named Maggie who grows up in these conditions, yet seems to live a life unlike the rest of the family members. While each member has a serious issue, Maggie does not seem to be phased by the dangerous activities going on around her. Her family life is terrible – both parents are alcoholics, but handle their addictions differently . Maggie’s mother is prone to drunken outbursts that end with her three children huddling and crying for their lives in the corner. The father leaves the house and drinks himself silly at bars, leaving his own children to suffer the wrath of their mother. Maggie is the middle child – she has an older brother Jimmie and a younger brother Tommie. Tommie dies as a toddler very early in the novel and the father dies soon after (Crane) .
As Maggie grows into a young woman, she becomes very beautiful . Unfortunately, she is also naïve and her beauty and naivety backfire. Pete, a childhood acquaintance fancies Maggie and Maggie follows along. Jimmie, now a truck driver, knows that Pete is not a good guy, yet Maggie stays with Pete. A woman named Nellie enters the picture and seduces Pete, making him leave Maggie. Heartbroken and confused, Maggie has nowhere to turn. Her family has rejected her and so has her unfaithful husband . Maggie falls into life on the streets as a prostitute and lives a dangerous and unhealthy life . Her fall from grace eventually kills her and her dead body is found (Crane). One topic that stands out from others in the novel is the idea that “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets” is naturalistic fiction. We see naturalistic images throughout the novel. The setting, slums in urban New York City, creates a grimy image that plays up until the end of the novel. Throughout the novel, we see how the characters are affected by their environment, therefore adding to the idea that Maggie is naturalistic fiction . Characteristic to a naturalistic novel, we see the immigrant Irish family with a predetermined fate: a life in the slums. Even though they have immigrated to a hopeful place trying to grasp the American Dream, their status in society is bound to stay at the bottom. A bit of hope is seen with Maggie, a girl seemingly least affected by her environment. Each character’s surroundings define his or her fate. Tragedy strikes tragic
situations when Tommie and his father die. The mother, a raging alcoholic abuses the children and leaves them to fend for themselves. Donald Pizer, writer of the article “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and American Naturalism” states, “The novel is not so much about the slums as a physical reality as about what people believe in the slums and how their beliefs are both false to their experience and yet function as operative forces in their lives .” (Pizer 188) Pizer is pointing out that the novel’s focus is not on the slums themselves, but on the people who live there about how they are affected by life in the slums . The occupants are completely governed by the forces of their environment and unknowingly have no control over their fate. This is proven by the end of the novel when we see no character living an improved life. At some points, Maggie’s future may have shown a glimmer of hope, yet by the end, she has failed like the rest of the characters. An argument that opposes the idea of Maggie as a naturalistic novel is the fact that there is a significant amount of symbolism in the book. This creates a potential boundary between fiction and naturalistic fiction because naturalistic fiction tends to not have symbolism. A naturalistic novel is generally blunt and to the point, rather than fluffed with creatively written aspects, similar to what is seen in Maggie . Also, Maggie herself can be seen as a symbol because of her ability to be unaffected by her environment, which, in reality, would be unlikely and, therefore, sets her up to appear as a symbol .
However, Crane may have been using Maggie’s story to point out a less obvious truth. He may have been stressing human moral codes. We see the theme of fighting throughout the novel. In fact, the opening line of the book is the beginning of a fight: A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. In some way, every character is battling someone, or something. We see the parents fighting alcohol, children fighting in the streets, and Maggie fighting the streets themselves . In this sense, the characters are almost animalistic, but it is the environment in which they live that produces animal-like qualities to erupt. We see these moral codes continue when Maggie is not allowed back in the house after her relationship with Pete . Pizer believes it is Maggie’s mother who drove her into prostitution which ultimately led her to her death . Pizer states, “Maggie is thus destroyed not so much by the physical reality of slum life as by a middle class morality imposed on the slums by the missions and the melodrama, a morality which allows its users both to judge and to divorce themselves from responsibility from those they judge.” (Pizer 191) Pizer is saying that the course of Maggie’s life was heavily influenced by her treatment from her mother, and not entirely and directly by the slums . The morality of the people influences the life in the slums which then influence the people in the slums . It’s a cyclic process and each member of the slum society gets pulled in eventually .
By going deeper into the naturalism concept, the topic of Darwinism arises . The idea of “survival of the fittest” is strong throughout Maggie. It is seen at a societal level in the slums and also in individual characters as they progress through the novel. As mentioned before, the slum environment brings out animalistic behaviors amongst its occupants. Even in young children, we see these behaviors emerging. The opening scene of the book opens in the midst of a fight between the young children of the neighborhood. Clearly at a young age violence and fighting is practiced. Being that this is the first scene of the book, it sets the stage at a book full of animalistic violence . Those who want to live must fight. If they do not fight to live, they die. It is also clear that there is no establishment of right and wrong in the slums . The children are running around with little to no parenting and this is where they establish their animal behaviors. This results in absolutely no control over the occupants of the slums and leads to chaos. With this lack of order, no good will come out of the environment. More negative behavior is seen with the parents – clearly no positive adult influence is available for the children, which solely perpetuates the problems of the society . There is also the idea that the only way to survive in these conditions is to understand the violence. David Fitelson explains in his article “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and Darwinism”, “To the degree that a character is aware of the nature of the world, and more particularly, to the degree that he conducts his life in accordance with that nature – to that
degree will he be a survivor of violence and free from frustration.” (Fitelson 110). Fitelson argues that when the member of society complies with the level of violence, understands, and accepts it, that individual has a better chance of surviving. Fitelson also explains that by living a life of violence, no other morals are applied, and therefore do not exist ( Fitelson 110). Maggie is so naïve that she never gains enough understand to survive in a world of animal violence. Being that she is a non-violent character, she eventually dies after a life of struggling. This behavior seen amongst the members of the slums unfortunately prevents any members from attaining the American Dream or any level of success at all . Although Maggie fails in the end, an interesting observation is that she is never put at fault for her failure . At the end, her moth cries “I’ll forgive her” as if it is Maggie’s fault, which brings about irony because the reader has the impression that Maggie’s naivety excludes her from fault . It is unfortunate that the one character who initially seemed hopeful to escape her predetermined environment still fails at the end. What “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets” boils down to is that because of the environment in which the characters have found themselves, they are involuntarily put into a path that led them to failure. Any hope they had of attaining the American Dream, or any amount of success, was shattered by life in the slums. Slum life led to fighting, anger,
alcohol, prostitution, and ultimately death. Even Maggie, a girl who seemed to avoid the downward pull of the slums, succumbs to the affects of the slums.
Sources: Cunliffe, Marcus. "Stephen Crane and the American Background of Maggie."
Quarterly (Spring 1955): 35-44. Fitelson, David. "Stephen Crane's Maggie and Darwinism." American Quarterly (Summer 1964): 182-86 Pizer, Donald. "Nineteenth-Century American Naturalism." Bucknell Review Xiii (December 1965): 1-18