The Environment of Maggie in Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Topography of New York City around

3 Living conditions in New York City
3.1 The Bowery
3.2 The Tenements

4 Mental influences
4.1 The Media
4.2 The Church
4.3 Maggie’s Family
4.4 Maggie’s Path of Life

5 Conclusion

1 Introduction

Stephen Crane published his first novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in March 1893 on his own expenses under the pseudonym "Johnston Smith". As a young author "who was yet to find a public he was cautious about immediately identifying himself with a work that he himself regarded as shocking" (Ziff x) because it tried "to show that environment is a tremendous thing [...] and frequently shapes lives regardless" (Sorrentino 82).

That Maggie is one of the major works to criticize the environment of late 19th century New York City becomes obvious when the reader notices that the protagonist Maggie does neither occur in the first, nor in the last chapter of the novella.

Looking more closely at the word "environment" itself one can observe that the term is ambiguous. On the surface the term seems to describe the external living conditions, namely where and under which circumstances the characters live. But it is not the life in the Bowery and the tenements Stephen Crane is referring to since Maggie does not die of starvation or diseases, but of the mental influences, such as the Church and the theater that constantly affect the people. Exactly this environment, Jacob Riis[1] argues, "is indeed a ’tremendous thing in the world’ and it frequently shapes the lives of children who grow up in it" (LaFrance 42).

Nevertheless, the external living conditions determine the way people are and act. "Crane depicts the influence the city exerts upon the perception of reality of its inhabitants, and this perception differs very much already from one member of the Johnson family to the other" (Schaetzle 19). This is the reason for me to argue that the bad circumstances in the Bowery of New York City contribute to the decay of the moral values and shape lives, as well. The very title of the 1893 version illustrates that the city is also an important factor in

the novella: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York). Therefore, the living conditions are worth being ranked as one criteria to be among the head word environment and thus, also being analyzed.

Stephen Crane immersed himself in the New York Bowery and the experiences he gained in the East Side slums created his first novel. In theory, Crane can be regarded as a realistic writer because he tried to be as accurate and detailed as possible in his descriptions of the settings and the presentation of the slang. But in practice, he went beyond realism. His message was clearly naturalistic when stating that the people were determined by their environment and heredity.

Industrialization, urbanization and a growing sense for materialism created the great gap between rich and poor and was responsible for the development of the East Side slums as "a district that in Crane’s day was becoming synonymous with poverty and the attendant vices of filth, drink, crime, and degradation" (Ziff xvii).

Having argued that the external living conditions contribute to the collapse of moral conventions, I will begin this term paper by describing New York City around the 1890s and then turn to the mental influences.

First, I will give a short introduction to the topography of the city (Chapter 2) and in a second step I will describe the home (Bowery and tenements) of the protagonist Maggie and her family in order to understand one small, but important part of why Maggie was driven into prostitution (Chapters 3.1 and 3.2).

The second part of this paper gives answers to why the mental influences are such an enormous matter. I will analyze the mental determinants in order to show how they control not only Maggie’s life, but also the life of her family and neighbors (Chapters 4.1 and 4.2). Furthermore, in a last step I will give an overview of Maggie’s family and Maggie herself to show how her life is influenced and how she deals with it (Chapters 4.3 and 4.4).

2 Topography of New York City around 1890

Since the original title of the novella is not only Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

but also: A Story of New York, the city itself plays an important role. Indeed, New York City is the place which shapes Maggie and all the other characters, but it is also the place which survives her. This can be seen in the way Stephen Crane deals with the city. He gives her a soul and personifies her. Another indicator for the importance of the place is the description of the Bowery and the locations mentioned in the novella. Whereas the characters are only implicitly characterized, the city is described in every detail:

The restless doors of saloons, clashing to and fro, disclosed animated rows of men before bars and hurrying barkeepers.

A concert hall gave to the street faint sounds of swift, machinelike music, [...]. (Crane 76)

The novella is set in Manhattan, the most densely populated of the five bor- oughs. It can be subdivided into Lower, Midtown, and Uptown regions. West- bound the Hudson River divides the city from New Jersey and East Manhattan is separated from Long Island by the East River.

Maggie and Pete visit several places located in and around the borough of Manhattan:

First of all, there is the Bowery, the home of Maggie and her family, "a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the streets and gutter" (Crane 7). Then Pete promises Jim- mie "to take him to a boxing match in Williamsburg" (Crane 23), a part of Brooklyn. Furthermore, East River, the place of Maggie’s death, is mentioned: "At their feet the river appeared a deathly black hue" (Crane 78). In Midtown Central Park and the Fifth Avenue are locations visited by Maggie.

Rich people tended to settle in Midtown and the poor workers lived Downtown at Maggie’s time. The evidence here is provided by the buildings that were es- tablished around Central Park and Fifth Avenue. One example is the Waldorf Astoria which was and still is one of the most expensive hotel. It opened its doors to the first well-off visitors in 1893. Furthermore, Fifth Avenue began to

become the new home of many aristocratic families. Its high status was con- firmed in 1862 when Caroline Astor, the "leader" of New York’s high society, settled there.

The title of Jacob Riis’s book How the Other Half Lives illustrates clearly that this was only one side of the coin. The poor tenement dwellers had to live in areas "[...] made up of cheap, unsafe, wooden shakes or brick houses lacking proper sanitation and adequate heating [...]" (Ahnebrink 3).

This development came about when America changed into an industrial nation with successful factories and the establishment of the transcontinental railroad. The cities became bigger and the so-called "Gilded-Age" started. According to Spencer [2], only the fittest would survive this change, which fostered an elbow society in which old morals and values collapsed. What became most important were possessions: "Die privaten Eisenbahnwagen, die 500,000-Dollar-Yachten mit den louisquatorze-Möbeln, die Seehundmäntel, [...], die Automobile, [...], die hotelgroßen Sommerpaläste im Badeort Newport in Rhode Island [...]" (Albig 83). But due to a growing number of immigrants to the United States, the first slums came into existence, which stood in great contrast to the noveaux riches, who displayed a life in wealth.

To sum up, New York around the 1890s consisted of a ’wasteful social chem- istry’ (Dowling 60). This is in contrast to what is promoted by the Ameri- can people, that New York is a "city free from social economic distinction" (Dowling 60).

What we find here is the exact opposite, a city divided into two parts by an invisible line: Midtown accommodates the rich, Downtown is the home of the underprivileged people.

3 Living conditions in New York City

3.1 The Bowery

The place, the novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is set in, derives its name from the Dutch word b owerij and means "farm".

During the 17th century, it was a farming area north of the city, whose governor was Peter Stuyvesant. It remained on the outer fringe of the city until about 1800. At that time, the Bowery was a very fashionable place and well known for its entertainment program. The streets were full with taverns, oyster bars, minstrels and theaters. It even housed the largest auditorium on the continent: The Great Bowery Theater.

After the Civil War, the Bowery had to compete with Broadway and Fifth Avenue as new addresses and so, it was more and more associated with cheap entertainment.

When the new elevated line was placed over 3rd Avenue, the once so popular boulevard was doomed. The pedestrians were showered with oil and coal and from then on avoided the street and went along Broadway. This event, and the great number of immigrants from Europe and Asia, who could not find enough room to live in, made the Bowery the place like we encounter it in Crane’s story:

[A] dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and gutter. [...] Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. [...] A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about it in its bowels. (Crane 7).

These first few lines give the reader a short glance at how people used to live at the end of the 19th century. It is a dark place with children playing in the dirt. It does not smell very pleasant and the reader can only hear from reading the lines the creaking and noisiness of the place. But there is more to the Bowery.

It is depicted by other images, as well. Reading the first three chapters of the novella, one gets the impression of a battlefield. Everyone fights against each other: Jimmie fights against "Devil’s Row" and against his father, who wants to stop him. At home, their drunken mother Mary goes on throwing herself upon Jimmie and later also on Maggie because she has broken a plate. At last the parents themselves begin to quarrel with each other.

Pizer argues that the place is like a prison and therefore the people of the Bowery will never be able to escape from there (cf. Pizer 188). "They seek release from their destiny in violence or, on the other hand, in illusions of happiness and grandeur derived from the theater, the saloon [...] and the mission house" (Stallman 74).

This leads me directly to the next characteristic of the place: Alcoholism. Due to the huge amount of bars, liquor stores and the wish to escape, the people tend to drink a lot of alcohol. The best example is provided by Maggie’s parents and Pete, who is an owner of a bar. But also children get confronted with drunkenness very early. They either have to buy it for their parents or neighbors like Jimmie, who "took a tendered tin-pail and seven pennies and departed. He passed into the side door of a saloon and went to the bar" (Crane 13), or they start drinking themselves. The problem of alcoholism leads then again directly to violence, which turns life in the Bowery into a vicious circle. Edward Garnett describes the situation as follows: ’The Bowery inhabitants, [...] can be nothing other than what they are: their human nature responds inexorably to their brutal environment’ (Pizer 188). This argument supports my argumentation that the external living conditions are also responsible for Maggie to die in the end. The girls who did not start drinking, often tried to find their luck in prostitution, which gave them the illusion to be in a better position, because they wore "handsome cloak[s]"(Crane 76).

A term that describes the people in the Bowery best is "variety". Jacob Riis writes that "[a] map of the city, colored to designate nationalities, would show more stripes than on the skin of a zebra, and more colors than any window" (Riis 75). He goes on: "One may find [...] an Italian, a German, a French, African, Spanish, Bohemian, Russian, Scandinavian, Jewish, and


[1] Jacob A. Riis is a social reformer, photographer, and writer. He emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1870. After he witnessed the great poverty and overcrowded houses in the Bowery, he became an advocate for immigrants and wrote the bestseller How the Other Half Lives with many photographs to illustrate the circumstances. He helped improving the living conditions in the tenements of New York.

[2] Herbert Spencer is an English philosopher and sociologist. He applied Darwin’s concept of "survival of the fittest" to society.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The Environment of Maggie in Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets"
University of Wuppertal
Hauptseminar - New York in American Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
982 KB
Gute umfassende Argumentation, gut am Text und an Sekundärliteratur abgestützt.
Maggie, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane, Stephen Crane, Realism, New York City, New York, Tenements, Bowery, Environment, Ghetto, Naturalism
Quote paper
Kim Vahnenbruck (Author), 2011, The Environment of Maggie in Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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