Table of Contents
Exaggeration of fighting scenes
Pete as a critique on the melodramatic idealism and sentimentalism
The theatre shows as a melodramatic parallelism to Maggie’s story
Illusions and Dreams in Stephen Crane’s Maggie as a Portrayal of the Romantic Idealism in Melodramas
In the middle of the 19th century a new type of literature emerged from the prior romanticist novellas. Authors wanted to present life more realistically than it had been portrayed before, separating from romanticist literature which to them did not seem to portray life in an adequate manner. Therefore, the concepts of “Realism” and “Naturalism” were introduced whose followers tried to portray life as it actually was. The book Maggie a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane is often considered a naturalist story which appears to fulfil the aspect of portraying life in a realistic way. It deals with the struggles of existence in lower class society, which is a typical feature of naturalist stories. However, Crane often confronts the reader with illusions and dreams of the characters in his book, which seems to contradict the notion of a realist story. Thus, it is questionable if Crane’s Maggie can really be considered a naturalist work. It is therefore interesting to find out what purpose the illusions and dreams in Crane’s book have, as it does not appear to be coincidental that they run throughout the whole story. Furthermore the question arises why Maggie a Girl of the Streets can nevertheless be considered a realist piece of work. As David Kovacs states, “Crane based many of his fictions rather on literary forms that were tropes of the day” (70). One of these tropes, which appears to play a significant role in Maggie, is the romantic melodrama which perfectly displays these illusions and dreams. Though, according to Paul Sorrentino, “Crane knew about the falseness of romance” (267), which is also a feature of melodramatic works. On the basis of Sorrentino’s statement I want to argue that Crane uses the devices of illusions and ideals in Maggie as a medium to satirise the romantic melodrama along with its sentimentalism, since it strongly simplifies reality. By means of this thesis I first portray Crane’s exaggerated descriptions of fighting scenes, which shall serve as a proof for Crane’s melodramatic allusions, followed by Maggie’s blurred depiction of Pete as the ideal man. Finally I am illustrating how the theatre shows, which contain melodramatic elements, appear to work as a parallelism to Maggie’s story.
2. Exaggeration of fighting scenes
The first indication that romantic melodrama is being satirised is the portrayal of apparently heroic images in the fighting scenes mixed with the banality of their occurrences. At the very beginning the fighting scene between the two parties of children, namely the children from “Rum Alley” and the children from “Devil’s Row”, reminds more of an epic battle than of a childish fight. Jimmie is fighting for his party’s “honor” (1), which evokes the image of a knight trying to protect the honour of his kingdom. Crane reinforces this effect by ascribing martial attributes to the children. He describes them as “assassins” (3) and “small warriors” (5) with Jimmie as their “little champion” (3) while later Jimmie himself considers his person a “vague soldier or a man of blood” (6). The heroic elements which Jimmie incorporates thus remind of a heroic storyline, also being a typical characteristic of melodramatic stories. The exaggerated description of boys as little warriors also contributes to this fact. The scene receives an ironic touch when Crane gives the children these martial attributes and draws comparisons like “two little boys [who are] fighting in the modes of four thousand years ago” (6). While Crane’s description already creates a dramatised scene, the children make the scene appear even more dramatic, as they are retelling their stories giving “distorted versions of the fight” (5): “Blows . . . were enlarged to catapultian power, and stones thrown were alleged to have hurtled with infinite accuracy” (5). Of course, dramatisations and exaggerations are typical for children, but the very fact that they blur reality by idealising their stories reminds of melodramatic stories, which basically deal with idealisations of reality. As James Nagel explains, “[t]he disparity between illusions and realities, in fact, accounts for the basic tone at the heart of his [i.e. Crane’s] fiction” (92). This disparity runs throughout Crane’s story, juxtaposing romantic illusions with harsh reality.
Another “warlike” scene can be found in Jimmie’s struggle with society. As he becomes a truck driver, he “maintain[s] a belligerent attitude” (14) which he acts out on “well-dressed men” (14). In this scene Jimmie shows an insurgent attitude despising “obvious Christians and ciphers with the chrysanthemums of aristocracy” (14). Thus, at this point Jimmie rebels against religion and men with apparently aristocratic characteristics. To him “the clang of the gong pierced his breast like a noise of remembered war” (16). This image of rebellion which Jimmie incorporates once more evokes the notion of romanticist attitudes. Concurrently however, Jimmie feels superior depicting himself “and his order . . . [as] kings” (14) while he is sitting on his “throne” (15). Since kings are usually on top of society’s hierarchy, his rebellion appears to be unnecessary, though the fact that he does rebel shows that Jimmie creates his own ideal reality which again is only an illusion. He lives the romantic idea of him as superior to the upper classes, although he is actually not, while he is dreaming “blood-red dreams” (14). Crane again exaggerates with Jimmie’s dream as he lets him consider that “Providence had caused it clearly to be written, that he and his team had the unalienable right to stand in the proper path of the sun chariot . . .” (15) and even obstruct “the god-driver” (15) of this chariot if he personally came down (cf. 15). By not basically saying that Jimmie impedes the sunlight with his truck but that he would compete with a god, Crane portrays the hubris Jimmie receives by his idealistic dream. Crane perfectly displays the interplay between both, romantic dreams and harsh reality, in the last two lines of chapter IV, as he juxtaposes Jimmie’s depiction of a moon that “looks like hell” and on the other hand his perception of a “star-lit evening” (16).
The third scene of combat between Jimmie accompanied by his ally and Pete includes another romantic motive. This time Jimmie wants to take revenge on Pete for apparently ruining his sister Maggie. Once again there is a heroic motive incorporated by Jimmie as he wants to protect his sister from the evil, while he idealistically talks himself into believing “that all sisters, excepting his own, could advisedly be ruined” (33). In this scene Crane again attributes martial characteristics to the combatants as their faces “fade to the pallor of warriors in the blood and heat of a battle” (36) and as they are fighting with “missiles [which] came to every man’s hand” (37). With regard to the vocabulary of warfare and the ideals which the characters present, it is likely to think that they are used to imply romantic elements, which the melodrama contains. As Giorgio Mariani concludes “by juxtaposing irony and impressionism to the language of chivalry and romance, he [i.e. Crane] wished to ‘make strange’ those sentimental novels and reforming texts which had frozen the seamy side of city life into stereotypes” (19).
3. Pete as a critique on the melodramatic idealism and sentimentalism
The image that Maggie projects onto Pete reminds of Pete as a savior, since he apparently offers the life which Maggie had always been seeking for. There are several aspects which evoke the notion of Pete as the ideal man, Maggie’s “prince charming”. When Maggie sees Pete for the first time she is watching him with “half-closed eyes” (18). At this point one could already assume that Maggie is rather dreaming about Pete than perceiving his real personality. She considers him “a man of the world” (17) and an “aristocratic person” (19). Furthermore, to Maggie “he was a knight” (20), which once more evokes the romantic picture of a hero who is going to save his girl. Crane plays a lot with the ideals that Pete represents. To Maggie Pete has “the attribute of a supreme warrior” (19) who is “invincible in fights” (20). Furthermore, to her he is “a cultured gentleman” who is “extremely gracious and attentive” (22). The magnificence of Pete is even more emphasised by Maggie’s exaggerated thoughts of inferiority noticing his “eyes of superiority” (22): “She vaguely tried to calculate the altitude of the pinnacle from which he must have looked down upon her” (19). Maggie even depicts him as “a golden sun” which is “looming” (26). All these descriptions give Pete the attributes of a shimmering knight, a hero for Maggie, who is “the beau ideal of a man” (19). Considering that a reader who is used to former romanticist stories reads the story of Maggie for the first time, it is to assume that, at this point, he expects Pete to be the key for “the boundless capacity for romance and adventure [with whom] . . . certain streets open up a route of fantastic experiences, far beyond the number that our actual life has to offer” (Stowell 549). Pete is the reason for Maggie to “imagine a future, rose-tinted” (39). In contrast to the romantic melodrama, though, in which the hero usually manages to lead the story to a happy ending, Maggie’s story ends up in a tragedy. All the dreams and hopes Pete’s illusions have evoked faint all of a sudden, as Pete asserts “that he never was very much interested in the girl” (49). At this point Maggie is disillusioned and loses herself in her real life. The interplay between the romantic hero who offers Maggie a place to dream and the disillusion she is exposed to afterwards perfectly illustrates Crane’s critique on the idealism of melodramas. By offering an apparent ideal which, in the end, is not an ideal at all, Crane does not only criticise the artificiality of these romantic plays but he thereby also emphasises the imperfections of reality. In Maggie the characters do not possess destined roles which can clearly be identified by the reader at the beginning of the story, as it would be common in a melodramatic play (cf. Juliet 27). The lack of characters with destined roles makes the story appear much more realistic, since it does not contain an artificial structure as melodrama does. Furthermore, Pete’s reasoning for his rejection of Maggie contradicts the sentimentalist elements which romantic melodramas contain, as feelings did apparently not play any role for him. It is ironic that the man who should provide a better life for Maggie in the end causes her downfall. On a more abstract level Pete could represent the corruption of romantic melodrama.