The Intersection of Violence, Sexuality, and Social Mobility in Stephen Crane’s Maggie
In Maggie, A Girl on the Streets, Crane uses naturalism to challenge his middle class readership to recognize the lack of social mobility for lower class women during the Gilded Age. As a result, his social problems novella emphasizes the moral and ethical complexities surrounding violence, sexuality, and class in America. The characters of Maggie prove to be intensely limited by their social imaginary and are ultimately unable to escape their brutal social circumstances.
When experimenting with naturalism, Crane plays with elements of realism by depicting Maggie as a character that can consciously process her surroundings. However, the work ultimately exists within the naturalism genre because she proves to be unable to overcome or change her position in society. Crane was careful in using a style that would accurately reflect the circumstances of lower class America. “Crane’s narrative mode deflates the ideal of transcendence structuring the sociological paradigm. We can regard Maggie, then, as a cautionary tale about critical analysis…it nullifies the romanticism of moral engineers” (Horwitz 610), which is why Crane’s naturalism serves as a reaction against the popular Romantic and sentimental genres of the time. By Crane illustrating the lower class as inescapable and ultimately deterministic, characters are often compared to and depicted as animals, to symbolize the elements of beastiality in their lives. In response to Maggie’s death, her mother’s neighbors are described as “staring in at the weeping woman as if watching the contortions of a dying dog” (Crane 103) while “the bravery of bull-dogs sat upon the faces of the men” (Crane 63) as they prepare to fight earlier in the novella. This animal imagery works to further the argument that, like animals, the characters of Maggie don’t make choices during their evolution, as they are strictly influenced by their environment. Crane’s depiction of his characters is vastly different from what had appeared in popular literature prior to the novella’s publishing as “…something like a ‘crisis of representation’ afflicts realism during the last few decades of the nineteenth century” (Rothfield 11). Crane recognizes the complexity of assigning a set of moral values to the lower class. While it can be argued that characters seem to be able to make their own choices based on a universal moral agency, those choices conflict with the moral codes of the middle class because the lower class characters are limited by their social imaginary. As a result, characters do not seem to approach enlightened ideals with the same tenacity as someone belonging to the middle class. This can be seen when male characters resolve to physical fighting to settle their differences, despite being repeatedly reprimanded by local law enforcement.
As Crane works to establish an environment that is overwhelmed by the effects of generational poverty, the ruination of naive women like Maggie seems to be inevitable, despite her ability to think and dream beyond her social circumstances. Throughout the novel, Maggie is consciously processing her surroundings in a way that the men do not. And while the protagonist is still portrayed as being subject to inescapable massive social forces, Maggie’s ability to imagine and ponder a course of action to improve her current condition suggests her actions are a product of her own doing, rather than being governed by nature or fate. However, the choices she makes are severely impacted by her inability to consider their effect on her future. When she decides to live with Pete, she abandons and disobeys her family. She fails to recognize that in losing their support, she has lost her safety net if things between her and Pete were to not work out. Her fixation on the present and inability to account for multiple possibilities in the future stands to be one of her largest flaws as a character.
Her limited way of thinking can be attributed to how she spent her developing years. As much of her childhood is spent holding onto a sense of detachment that comes from her dream-like world, her cover functions much as a primitive animal attempting to blend into its surroundings. Crane describes Maggie’s transition from childhood to womanhood as, “when a child…dirt disguises her. Attired in tatters and grime, she went unseen” (Crane 27) until her attractiveness emerges and she is exposed. “The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl” (Crane 27). Although Maggie stands to be an exception to what is commonly found in her neighborhood, “Crane’s language is dramatizing and inflecting a maxim of late-nineteenth-century social reform and sociology…the child is a creature of the environment” (Horwitz 607), which is why Crane’s depiction of tenement housing allows him to express a culture and identity that is both organic and deterministic. Because of this, Maggie exists in an environment that breeds moral contagion. She is surrounded by models that succumb to alcoholism, violence, and emotional abuse. Despite being recognized as beautiful and an outlier of the average lower class individual, she is “traumatized by betrayal in love and rejection at home, [and] she sinks into psychic paralysis” (Krause 128), which is what sparks her initial desire to escape her circumstances.
Throughout the novella, Crane is presenting readers with characters whose lives are rigidly directed by violence and poverty. As a result, “their fundamental condition is violence….a condition which must necessarily prevail because the world is governed by violence” (Fitelson 184) . In this, Crane presents issues of class as a way of understanding them, rather than blaming those belonging to the lower class for their social imaginary. When establishing a different set of moral codes followed by the lower class, “Crane perceives in the turn-of-the-century slums, not vice, but an alternative morality- and moral inspiration” (Gandal 759). This alternative morality is extended and justified in Maggie’s character. Crane emphasizes that Maggie turns to using her sexuality to pursue Pete because of her social imaginary, noting that, “she did not feel like a bad woman. To her knowledge she had never seen any better” (Crane 67).
Crane illustrates the social imaginary of the lower class from the opening scene of the novel, as characters are frequently depicted fighting. While men often partake in physical altercations to prove their dominance, Maggie similarly fights against rejection, poverty, and her inaccurate perceptions of middle class ideals. Their fighting is not about power but powerlessness. Maggie’s fight for financial stability and to improve her class ranking rests on her sexuality while the physical fights between men rest on their strength and endurance. However, both versions of fighting serve as unsuccessful negotiations for power. By turning to prostituion, it can be assumed that Maggie exchanges access to her body for financial compensation and the perceived opportunity to move between classes. However, Maggie demonstrates how people of the lower class have learned the wrong cultural strategies when it comes to improving their social and financial ranking. As they never learn to not fight, they are never presented with the opportunity to see that fighting, or relying solely on their sexuality, won’t improve their situation. As men are described fighting, “the range of fear shone in all their eyes” (Crane 63). While characters are often depicted as being aware of their bad behaviors, they are unable to provide a solution to them. Crane emphasizes that members of the lower class are destined to remain there because they never gain the skill set to acclimate to the middle class. As a result, the characters of Maggie are unable to modify their environment as their social imaginary limits them to solely reflecting and reproducing it.
This can be attributed to the fact that none of the characters ever saw any positive role models. With a father “swaying about on uncertain legs” (Crane 16) and a mother that “drank whiskey all Friday morning” (Crane 35), the tenement children are taught that alcohol serves as an inevitable vice and that violence exists in all disagreements as a result. Just as the male characters in the novel learned to fight as a way to establish their dominance, Maggie turns to prostituion as a way to gain control. Although her involvement in the sex industry seems to be pre-destined, her inclination to improve her social standing is what leads her there.
With this, Crane contributes to a conversation regarding the intersection of gender and social mobility. While female sexuality, and their assumed purity, is traditionally viewed as something to preserve and idolize, this viewpoint is another designation of class. Middle and upper class women are afforded the privilege of maintaining their modesty as they exist in separate roles and separate spheres than Maggie:
The sexual ethics of the slum are misunderstood: there is a portion of Crane’s Bowery that has no prohibition against premarital sex. The girl’s inner experience is misrepresented: because her values do not correspond to those of the middle class. Maggie experiences no temptation, no sense of sin, and no remorse for her sexual activity; rather, she is awed by a tough because he is, in her ethics, a moral exemplar (Gandal 760).
The ethical disparities between lower and upper classes exist to provide an inescapable barrier to women in Maggie’s situation. Her sexual activity makes her unmarketable to upper class men. However, as seen in Pete’s experience, sexual activity does little to limit a man’s social mobility.
Limited by her gender, Maggie recognizes that she needs to learn a certain script to successfully move from class to class. Prostituion presents her with the opportunity to interact with members of the middle and upper class so she can learn how to fit in and present herself as one of them. However, she is limited by her social imaginary in believing that this will best improve her social standing as, “in late nineteenth-century America, the ‘grotesque female’…was most clearly visible in the figure of the prostitute” (Irving 32). Maggie’s turning to prostitution relies less on sexuality and more on a quest for power. Crane explores the role of power and how it affects a young woman’s social mobility by arguing that while power comes in many different forms, it is always negotiated and never absolute.
These gender-driven power dynamics are why Pete’s attention functions as a bridge between Maggie’s life in the tenement district and the one she imagines excitedly. “She contemplated Pete’s man-subduing eyes and noted that wealth and prosperity was indicated by his clothes. She imagined a future, rose-tinted, because of its distance from all that she previously had experienced” (Crane 67). In her naivety, Maggie views Pete differently than other men. Averting her eyes from the hungry glances of surrounding men, “she thought of her former Rum Alley environment and turned to regard Pete’s strong protecting fists” (Crane 67). As she was never exposed to a man’s reliability existing beyond his physical dominance, she is easily swayed by his seemingly protective nature. Growing up in the same neighborhood, Maggie and Pete speak the same social language, allowing him to appeal to her without intimidating her into inaction. “Pete practices the kind of mimetic excess made possible by modernity, with its proliferation of images and goods; his ‘miming body’ exhibits an ineffable plasticity in the face of the world’s forms of life” (Lawson 597). Pete recognizes that Maggie is attainable to him and molds himself to represent the known object of her lower class desires. It can be assumed that Maggie has no experience with traditionally honorable men, and much less with independent and successful women, which is why she perceives Pete as her sole ticket to a better life.
However, the dynamic between Maggie and Pete quickly shatters with the introduction of another woman. Nellie is designated as a member of the middle class by the way she dresses, her knowledge, and the way she speaks. With language being one of the best ways to identify class, Nellie recognizes the power she has from her experiences as an active member of the middle class. Maggie is passive and she “sat still, unable to formulate an intelligent sentence upon the conversation and painfully aware of it” (Crane 76). The interaction depicts Maggie as a child and marks her losing her self reliance as trauma from her childhood has shattered her confidence. Meanwhile, Nellie thrives on the competitive situation as “she paid no attention to Maggie, looking toward her once or twice and apparently seeing the wall beyond” (Crane 76).
Despite differences in class, it’s important to acknowledge that both women’s lives are overwhelmingly dominated by men. In this, Crane suggests that women are unable to move between social classes without the aid of a man. Restricted by their gender, both women understand that female power is created by male desire. As a result, sexuality settles into a public role as the two women fight for Pete’s attention:
Historians have long pointed to the elaboration of the discourse of private and public spheres in nineteenth-century America, and to the concomitant mapping as a gendered one. This discourse worked to contain female sexuality and contributed to the hysterization of women’s bodies that marked the feminine body off as saturated with sexuality (Irving 35).
It’s important to recognize that Pete’s ability to improve the lives of either woman primarily works as an illusion, proving that relying on their sexuality as a way to achieve power is unsuccessful. Much like the city is “made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness” (Crane 95), the men that Maggie chooses to pursue create an impression of stability that only works at a distance because her constant attempts to win a man’s affection do little work to improve her social circumstance.
As the novel progresses, Maggie’s character is replaced by an unnamed woman. It is assumed that a considerable amount of time has passed by as the woman is experienced and confident in the company of men:
The woman of brilliance and audacity stayed behind, taking up the bills and stuffing them into a deep, irregularly-shaped pocket. A guttural snore from the recumbent man caused her to turn and look down at him. She laughed. “What a damn fool,” she said, and went (Crane 101).
The depiction of unnamed, female characters for the rest of the novel emphasizes how unextraordinary Maggie’s situation proves to be. Despite her tragedies, she is eventually blurred into an unrecognizable silhouette of the character that once provided readers with a fleeting sense of familiarity. Maggie’s dialogue is limited throughout the novel, which is why it should come as no surprise that her identity eventually proves to be obsolete. While Crane risks losing reader’s empathy for Maggie by producing the unnamed woman, the loss of individuality serves a broader purpose. The characters of Maggie are unable to modify their environment as their social imaginary limits them to solely reflecting and reproducing it. The woman depicted in the final paragraphs of the novella could be Maggie, or a descendent of hers, or someone completely unrelated to her. No matter her identity, this woman suffers the same reality and subsequent tragedy that can be assumed for Maggie’s death, which is why Crane removes her individuality to emphasize the blanket-like influences of class.
As a result of her social circumstances, Maggie does not face the same moral responsibilities as many other literary characters of the nineteenth-century. Much like many other American works of the same time period, Crane’s novella grapples with a sense of moral complexity without ever fully resolving it. Perhaps Crane is limited by his own social imaginary when illustrating the darkest parts of American society. As a result, Maggie is severely shaped by her society, and her overwhelming consciousness of her position is, at times, rather suffocating. This consciousness leads to the middle class reader’s discomfort, as Maggie teaches us that despite generations of tragedy, the system will continue to perpetuate itself.
In the novella’s conclusion, Crane risks allowing his middle class readership to feel superior to Maggie’s mother in order to convey that her mother is as equally trapped as Maggie. Readers can easily imagine Maggie eventually evolving into her mother if she had not been met with an early death, proving that neither character can claim a moral high ground on the other, which is why her mother’s untimely forgiveness has no effect on her daughter’s life or legacy. Remaining consistent, the novella ends with actions and emotions that prove to be ineffective in providing a concrete resolution for any of the characters involved. The shortcomings of the lower class continue to be frustrating to the middle class reader. Crane’s ending is intentional in reminding us that sometimes the poor aren’t very lovable and sometimes we don’t want to help. That realization is one that the middle class reader must carry long after setting the book down.
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