The Question about Naturalism and Realism in "Maggie, a Girl of the Streets"


Essay, 2013

4 Pages, Grade: 1st


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"Maggie always departed with raised spirits from the showing places of the melodrama. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and the wicked. The theatre made her think. She wondered if the culture and refinement she has seen imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory"

(Stephen Crane, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets).

How might this support or undermine the idea that the novella is a naturalist text?

This quote is taken from chapter 9 in Maggie, a Girl of the Streets and depicts Maggie’s desire to achieve upward mobility similar to the heroine in the theatre production she goes to watch. It is an accurate portrayal of how typical dramas (particularly the ‘rags to riches’ sub-genre) invoked the sense that the “poor and virtuous” (Crane 25) would overcome the “wealthy and wicked” (Crane 25). The young lower class woman dreams of a life in which this would be possible for her. This quote supports the idea that the novella is a naturalist text. However, this is only if naturalism is something which aims to duplicate mundane aspects of everyday life without idealising it.(Zhang 1) The genre does not romanticise the harsher elements of Maggie’s life, Crane rather gives an accurate portrayal of what life for a young woman would have been like at the time. This also explains why Maggie becomes increasingly dependent on her love interest, Pete (who is above her on the social ladder) rather than her family whom she is afraid of and partially despises.

It has been argued amongst critics whether Maggie, a Girl of the Streets is actually a naturalist text or if it has more similarities, and falls into the category of a realist text. An essay by Sidney Gendin shows that there is no single set description of the term naturalism. The definitive meaning of the word has been debated amongst novelists such as Alfred Kazin and Joseph Conrad. Whilst Kazin referred to Stephen Crane as being “a naturalist by birth” (Gendin 89) Conrad argues “Crane was…only an impressionist” (Gendin 89). This proves that there is some controversy as to whether Maggie, a Girl of the Streets should be considered as a naturalist text. Various definitions of the term, cause the reader or critic to have an ever-changing opinion on whether the text is an example of naturalism or realism. Realism is defined by Lars Ahnebrink as “a method of composition by which the author describes normal, average life in an accurate, truthful way” (Gendin 90). In some respects, this definition appears to be more relevant to Maggie as Crane writes an accurate portrayal of the life of a lower class woman at the time.

In contrast to this, Ahnebrink refers to naturalism as a word which means “lack of free will” (Gendin 90). It could be argued that this statement is true in regards to characters such as Jimmie and his father. In the opening scene of the novella, Jimmie is fighting for “Devil’s Row” (Crane 1) against the boys from “Rum Alley” (Crane 1). He appears to have no issue with getting involved in a fight, however he is dragged home by his father, which subsequently reinforces the idea that men lack free will. Additionally, Jimmie’s father is reprimanded by his wife every time he comes home drunk. This suggests that drinking alcohol is the only escape he has, which is turn shows his complete lack of freedom.

Maggie chooses to become dependent on her love interest, Pete, which shows her ability to break away from her family. Her feelings for Pete are apparent when she asks ““But where kin I go?” (Crane 48) which “was a direct attempt to give him some responsibility in a matter that did not concern him” (Crane 48/49). Due to the fact that Maggie’s wellbeing is of no apparent concern to Pete it is not surprising when he responds to her question by replying “Oh, go to hell!” (Crane 49). This ultimately demonstrates that Maggie has no freedom, which gives evidence to support the argument that the novella is a naturalist text which displays elements of mechanistic determinism (Gendin 90).

Naturalism is described as a “foggy doctrine” (Gendin 89) which implies it is something that is impossible to outline and no solid definition can be reached and agreed upon universally by all critics. Naturalism is often associated with “mechanistic determinism” (Gendin 90) meaning that everything in the world is behaves mechanically, including humans, which suggests their lack of free will. In opposition to this idea, it was argued by Zola that novels should be a “work of science. A novel should rely on minute observations and make little use of imagination” (Gendin 90). I disagree that as a text, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets is written in such a way. Crane does not write from a purely scientific perspective, as he often mentions that characters emotions and thoughts, such as the description of Maggie after Pete has left her “She wandered aimlessly for several blocks. She stopped once and asked aloud a question of herself: ‘Who?’”(Crane 49). In this scene Maggie has been abandoned by Pete and is wandering without direction through the streets at night, alone. Crane does not directly state that she is disappointed and terrified but shows the reader, rather than telling them, Maggie’s own emotions emanate from the lines.

I agree that Zola’s more detailed definition of what writers should aim to achieve can be applied to Maggie, a Girl of the Streets. Zola states “They should be photographers depicting the squalid, sordid, mean and diseased lives of the lower classes” (Gendin 90). By allowing the reader to experience the world of the lower class through Maggie’s eyes, they are given an insight into the harsh everyday experiences of lower class people. Nonetheless, the plot is not focused around Maggie’s lifestyle, upbringing and career, but around her desire to secure Pete’s affections. Crane mentions the other aspects but the novella does not include Maggie complaining about her life and position in society. The text is partially documentary in the way that Zola describes, but also contradicts the definition through the ways Crane envisions and describes the surroundings, in a poetic fashion. The novella is not fully scientific and documentary or artistic and imaginative, but rather a blend of the two.

Gendin notes that despite Crane’s observations, Maggie a Girl of the Streets “is a work of pure imagination with no connection to incidents Crane observed” (Gendin 93). Which implies that Gendin disagrees with the idea that the novella is a naturalist text, as it does not fully conform to the scientific or realistic definition. This is further supported by his quote “If we take seriously Zola's dictum about novels not being imaginative but purely photographic, then it is only by a great stretch of language that Crane is even a naturalist in the secondary sense.”(Gendin 94). Gendin additionally discusses how naturalist novels are generally focused around the oppressed and less privileged which according to other critics somehow makes them more naturalistic. He states “to imagine that the lives of the less fortunate are more 'true to life' than are the lives of the advantaged” is a false accusation (Gendin 94). Both types of class that can be written about are, ‘true to life’ but the lower classes may have undergone more hardships in their lives than the privileged upper classes. Gendin concludes that naturalism “is the portrayal without false sentiment of certain classes of people” (Gendin 101) as a definition of naturalism, this can indefinitely be applied to the novella. Gendin is supported by Brown who argues that Maggie as a character “can be explained by her class and condition” (Brown 791). It is interesting to note that both Gendin and Brown mention the importance of social class yet within the novel the plot revolves around Maggie’s relationships with other people such as her family members and Pete. Thus, the apparent central themes of naturalism are not the general focus within the novella.

A definition of naturalism, with all its tropes combined is presented in Xiaofen Zhang’s essay ‘On the Influence of Naturalism on American Literature’. Zhang argues “it is a new and harsher realism” (Zhang 1). Naturalist writers “attempted to achieve extreme objectivity and frankness, presenting characters of low social and economic classes who were dominated by their environment and heredity” (Zhang 1). Furthermore, Zhang argues that naturalism is about the scientific, documentary, detached type of realism which was previously held by Zola. He also agrees with Gendin and Brown who discussed the importance of the lower social class background for the protagonist of naturalist novels.

A true meaning of naturalism has been debated amongst critics, it is difficult to underpin the term by a single definition due to the vast expanse of different opinions about the characteristics of naturalism. According to critics, naturalism can include mechanistic determinism (lack of free will), a scientific, objective outlook which lacks artistic interpretation and imagination and the exposure of the harsh realities of the lower classes. Nonetheless, it is impossible to choose which one of these aspects hold true meaning to the term naturalism. It is not simply one of these factors, but a combination of many. Naturalism cannot be only about mechanistic determinism if Maggie has the ability to leave her family and then return later on. This suggests that she does in fact have free will and the ability to walk away from her old life. It cannot be solely about a scientific observational outlook, as the plot of the novella is entirely fiction, which only takes inspiration from the conditions that Crane witnessed. The novella cannot be dominated by the theme of the lower classes as this is not the main focus within the novella. Crane’s novella Maggie, a Girl of the Streets is made up of a combination of many factors that are supposedly associated with the naturalist text. Nonetheless, due to the fact that it cannot be confined to one type of naturalism, it is debateable whether it is a naturalist text at all.

Works Cited:

Primary sources:

Crane, S (1995) ‘ Maggie: A Girl of the Streets’ & Other Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited

Secondary sources:

Brown, B (2013) ‘The Origin of the American Work of Art’ American Literary History [online] Vol. 25(4), pp.772-802 [Peer Reviewed Journal] Available from: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_literary_history/v025/25.4.brown.html [Accessed: 3rd February 2014]

Gendin, S (1995) ‘Was Stephen Crane (or Anybody Else) a Naturalist?’ Cambridge Quarterly [online] Vol.24 (2), pp.89-101 [Peer Reviewed Journal] Available from: http://camqtly.oxfordjournals.org/content/XXIV/2/89.full.pdf+html [Accessed: 3rd February 2014]

Zhang, X (2010) ‘On the Influence of Naturalism on American Literature’ English Language Teaching [online] Vol.3 (2) [Peer Reviewed Journal] Available from: http://ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/elt/article/view/6297/5029 [Accessed: 3rd February 2014]

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Details

Title
The Question about Naturalism and Realism in "Maggie, a Girl of the Streets"
College
University of Canterbury
Course
BA (Hons) English Literature
Grade
1st
Author
Year
2013
Pages
4
Catalog Number
V286913
File size
368 KB
Language
English
Tags
question, naturalism, realism, maggie, girl, streets
Quote paper
Lucy Chaston (Author), 2013, The Question about Naturalism and Realism in "Maggie, a Girl of the Streets", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/286913

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