Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
, depicts Maggie Johnson’s childhood in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of the Bowery, New York, and her adult slide into poverty and prostitution. Crane originally published Maggie
under a pseudonym—perhaps concerned about how the novella’s grittily realistic
subject matter would be received—but it was reissued under the author’s own name after the success of his 1895 novel, The Red Badge of Courage
. A poet and journalist as well as a novelist, Crane is regarded as one of the most important American writers of the nineteenth century. His work influenced a raft of later novelists, including Ernest Hemingway.
The novel begins—as does each succeeding chapter—with a wide-angle view of the Bowery, New York, a deeply impoverished neighborhood. The first character we meet is not Maggie but her brother, Jimmie Johnson, a young boy leading the children of his neighborhood in a running battle with a gang from “Devils’ Row,” another part of the Bowery. When Jimmie is outnumbered by his opponents, he is rescued by Pete, a teenager from his neighborhood. Pete is swaggeringly confident and full of scorn for the young hoodlums. Jimmie immediately throws himself straight back into the fight, until his father brusquely and violently hauls him home. There we meet Jimmie’s older sister, Maggie, his toddling brother, Tommie, and Mary, his mother, who is every bit as brutal as her husband. While their father goes out to a bar, the children hunker down to endure their mother’s drunken rage. Eventually, she passes out.
Time passes. Tommie dies, and so does the father of the family. Jimmie hardens as he ages, becoming aggressive and cynical. Maggie, on the other hand, grows “to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl. None of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins.” She is not only beautiful, but morally uncorrupted—even naïve.
Pete has become a bartender, and when he reappears in the lives of the Johnsons, Maggie is impressed by his confidence and worldliness. He has acquired a thin veneer of bourgeois culture, and to Maggie, he seems positively refined. To impress him, she makes and hangs a new curtain in the Johnsons’ home, which Mary destroys in a drunken rage. However, Pete is very happy to date Maggie: her naivety makes her easy prey.
Learning that Maggie is dating Pete, Mary is overcome with rage and self-pity: "Who would tink such a bad girl could grow up in our fambly?" She drunkenly confronts her daughter, accusing her of disgracing the family. Maggie flees her mother for Pete’s, where we learn that they are sleeping together. Jimmie, furious that Pete has “ruined” his sister, gets drunk and attacks his former friend. For Maggie, this is the final straw, and she leaves home to move in with Pete. At first, Jimmy and Mary make a show of grieving over Maggie’s ruination, but soon Mary joins the neighbors in gossiping about her daughter.
Some weeks later, Maggie and Pete are joined in a bar by Nellie. Like Pete, Nellie has a thin sprinkling of sophisticated tastes, and Pete is enraptured with her. He soon leaves Maggie, who begs her family to take her back, but to no avail.
The remainder of the book is presented in a series of brief scenes, separated by varying intervals of time. In the first, we learn that Jimmie, too, has “ruined” at least one neighborhood girl, despite his outrage over Pete’s actions. In the next scene, we see Maggie confront Pete in his workplace: Pete refuses to acknowledge that he owes her anything.
Now we see an unnamed prostitute—presumably Maggie—wandering alone through the streets of New York, passing through ever more run-down neighborhoods, until she reaches the river, where a frightening-looking man begins to follow her.
Pete passes out in a bar, surrounded by Nellie’s “sophisticated” friends. One of them picks his pockets, and Nellie leaves him on the floor.
In the novel’s final scene, Jimmie bears news of Maggie’s death to Mary. Mary’s reaction is melodramatic and self-absorbed. She weeps sentimentally over Maggie’s baby shoes (with which she once threatened to beat her daughter). Her grief culminates in the bitterly absurd announcement: "I'll fergive her!"Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
depicts the role of socio-economic class and environmental factors in shaping people’s lives. It focuses particularly on alcoholism, violence, and the lure of middle-class materialism as factors that condemn working-class youths to lifelong poverty and worse. Although sympathetic, Crane’s portrait of working-class life is also severely critical, condemning what the author sees as the sentimentality and hypocrisy of working-class culture, particularly in the character of Mary. A portrait of the effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization in the United States, Crane’s novel is regarded by most critics as the earliest example of naturalism in American fiction.