Naturalism in Maggie
The Importance of Implicit Characterization
The Issue of Morality
Scholars classify Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as a “blend of realism and naturalism” (Keenan 937). Set in the Bowery district of 19th century Manhattan, it vividly conveys the poor living conditions of the lower classes. Due to rising immigration rates and urbanization during the so-called ‘Gilded Age’, the social character of New York had undergone dramatic transformations. Thus, the realistic description of the heroine’s poor living conditions in Crane’s Maggie serves as a vivid illustration of the urban 19th century “residential segregation according to [. . .] social class” (Shi and Tindall 780). Despite its evident realistic elements, Crane’s novel cannot merely be categorized as a work of realism. In fact, the dominant techniques of characterization militate in favour of its categorization as a naturalistic novel rather than a realistic one.
Throughout the novel, the impression is conveyed that Maggie’s life is inevitably determined by her social circumstances. Maggie and her family live in a shabby tenement. Both her father and mother are constantly drunk, break the family’s furniture and beat each other up. Thus, they are perfectly adapted to their cruel living conditions. Jimmie, Maggie’s brother, also fits neatly into this lower class environment since he does not evince respect for anyone apart from himself. Only Maggie remains unaffected and somewhat naïve, making an exception to these “[s]elf-indulgent, brutal, self-pitying” (Berryman 164) people. When she falls in love with Pete, one of Jimmie’s friends, the girl’s relationship causes a scandal-like outrage amongst the tenement inhabitants. As a consequence, Maggie’s mother casts her daughter out as a bad seed. After being abandoned by Pete, she is driven into prostitution and eventually commits suicide. The girl becomes the victim of her social background simply because she lacks the ability to adapt to the Bowery milieu.
Naturalism in Maggie
Readers might object that Crane’s implicit characterization techniques could also be regarded as essential for American 19th century realistic writing, giving an authentic depiction of the setting and the protagonists. However, Crane’s novel surpasses the realistic literary school since it tries to show that “environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless” (Crane, Maggie Inscription 1). Thus, Maggie does not focus on the realistic development of the individual but on underlying forces such as heredity, social circumstances and moral conventions. Even the novel’s subtitle A Girl of the Streets suggests the absence of individualism; any girl could be the subject of Crane’s story. Because Maggie and her family are trapped by those underlying forces, they lack the ability to act independently; they “are not free agents” (Walcutt 165). If Maggie had been able to think independently, she would have adapted to her brutal environment or found some other way of salvation instead of committing suicide. The girl’s downfall is not at all realistic but an impressive example of early American naturalism, depicting the significance of the environment.
All of Crane’s personages appear to be naturalistic stereotypes rather than authentic human beings. In the opening scene of the novel, Jimmie, then a “very little boy” (Crane, Maggie 3), is fighting viciously against a group of other urchins. At that point, the reader might expect Jimmie to become more sensible and less aggressive through the process of ageing. However, in chapter XV Maggie’s brother is still presented as an aggressive, reckless man whose “[r]adiant virtue sat upon his brow and his repelling hands expressed horror of contamination” (Crane, Maggie 93). Instead of learning to control his emotions and dealing with problems verbally, the younger and the older Jimmie basically behave according to the same patterns. This incapability of internal development can also be seen in Maggie herself. She is unable to reflect critically on her experiences and adapt her behaviour to her cruel social environment. Even after being abandoned by Pete, the girl still clings to her naïve attitude. Although she never experienced any motherly love, Maggie desperately seeks refuge in her mother’s tenement, only to be rejected under “derisive laughter” (Crane, Maggie 94). Despite their differences, Maggie and Jimmie are both incapable of internal development, and can, therefore, be described as static characters (cf. Meyer 77). In that sense, they resemble stereotypes rather than authentic individuals.
Crane’s effective use of static stereotypes impressively conveys the determinism of life by heredity. Though Maggie and her brother Jimmie are both captured in the conventions of their environment, they represent contrasts in one fundamental respect. Whereas Maggie is presented as inherently good, Jimmie is described as inherently evil. Taking all of the protagonists in the novel into account, essentially two different stereotypes are distinguishable. On the one hand, the stereotype of an innocent, pure and somewhat naïve girl is represented by Maggie. On the other hand, Jimmie, Mary, and Pete represent the violent and hypocritical lower-class character. The explanation for this contrastive development is to be found in the characters themselves, namely, in their varying temperaments. Being provided with distinct biological dispositions, Maggie and Jimmie do not bear equal prospects to survive in the struggle of life. As Jimmie inherited his mother’s strength, he is capable of self-defence and adjustment to his cruel family life. His weaker sister though becomes the victim of an unfavourable combination of her genes and her hostile environment; this notion expresses the “belief that heredity and biology are destiny” (Dingledine 95). Hence, Crane’s novel highlights the naturalistic thesis of life’s determinism by both biology and environment.
The Importance of Implicit Characterization
The prevailing characterization techniques in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets are implicit ones used to convey the naturalistic notion of life’s determinism. Without providing any authorial judgment, the protagonists are vividly described as violent, selfish and hypocritical by means of figural implicit characterization (cf. Nünning and Nünning 97). Admittedly, Maggie is frequently characterized in an explicit way by the other protagonists. Mary, for instance, describes her daughter as a beast: “Ain’ she purty? Lookut her! Ain’ she sweet, deh beast?” (Crane, Maggie 91). However, this kind of explicit characterization only reflects Mary’s restricted point of view and must be regarded as unreliable. In fact, Mary unwittingly provides an implicit self-characterization while commenting on the girl’s behaviour and traits. Not only does her expression reveal her lower-class origin, but it also hints at her hypocritical personality. Throughout the novel, Crane’s characters are predominantly depicted by using figural implicit characterization techniques. Among other characterization techniques, the extensive use of the Bowery dialect and the detailed description of the character’s violent behaviour are effective techniques to convey the influence of heredity and environment on Maggie and her family.
The most important stylistic component for the implicit characterization of the protagonists is their uncensored use of the Bowery dialect. Since this variety of language is a sociolect exclusively associated with the inhabitants of Manhattan’s Bowery district, the protagonists’ lower-class identity is easily detected. In that sense, Pete offers an implicit self-commentary to the reader by bawling “Ah, what deh hell?” (Crane, Maggie 47). Thus, his lower-class affiliations are revealed outright. The copious use of slum jargon (cf. Poenicke 62) illustrates the protagonists’ limited way of thinking and their restricted range of expression. Jimmie, for instance, is unable to express his emotions appropriately when wondering at the moon on a “star-lit evening” (Crane, Maggie 30); instead he uses the word “hell” to describe his astonishment: “Deh Moon looks like hell, don’t it?” (Crane, Maggie 30) Crane provocatively suggests that Jimmie would have had the potential to develop a sense of romance and a more cultivated way of expression if only his social environment had been different. Because he is trapped in the Bowery slang conventions, he is incapable of expressing himself adequately. The protagonists’ inability to transcend the limits of their sociolect vividly illustrates the imprisoned nature of their lower-class affiliations.
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- Universität Leipzig – Institut für Anglistik
- Maggie Crane Stephen Crane A Girl of the Streets Characterization Characterisation Naturalism Naturalismus Interpretation Charakterisierung Stilmittel