Maggie’s Failure to Fight Against Her Fate
Book Review of Maggie, a Girl of the Street
Maggie is the protagonist in Stephen Crane’s book Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. As the title suggests, Maggie is the product of her brutal childhood in the streets of southern Manhattan, victim to her parents’ alcoholism and local environment. Growing up as a beautiful, soft-hearted and romantic young woman, she is successively seduced, thrown out by her family, discarded by society, and eventually dies a prostitute. Stephen’s detached but realistic tone criticizes the poisonous environment that gives no meaningful escape for ordinary people like Maggie. However, despite the strong elements of environmental determinism shown in this book, Maggie could have done more to fight against her eventual fate as a result of her surroundings. Society, however, also should have presented more meaningful opportunities to ordinary girls like Maggie, born to a situation they cannot change.
Maggie’s tragic situation is partly comparable to Greek philosopher Plato’s famous deterministic allegory of prisoners. Maggie spends her childhood in a loveless and meaningless state, the spiritual equivalent of growing up facing a blank wall.
However, a small part of Maggie is not a prisoner of her environment. For example, Maggie’s nature is far from that of her callous parents and brother. The book starts with a gang fight attended by Maggie’s elder brother, Jimmie, as a very small child. It quickly reveals all of Maggie’s elder family members as violent and cold-hearted, the deaths of Maggie’s younger brother and father described with a tone detached and unsentimental. Maggie is nevertheless both sentimental and naive, with a peculiarly soft nature despite the way she grew up. It is almost rebellious to her genes and upbringing, and firmly stacks the odds for survival against her in the brutal city where she lives. In this regard, she escapes from being completely determined by her family, heredity and environment, firmly against the mold.
However, most of Maggie is still a prisoner. The gloomy environment hardly encouraging, and constrains Maggie’s basic instincts and passions. Her escape from reality through her romantic view of the world is only temporary. Jimmie grows up to be heartless and brutal, impregnating two different girls. However, he does have a sentimental moment when observing the moon. Even then, he remarks that the moon “looks like hell” (Maggie, p 18). He does not see an astral body commonly seen as romantic; the savageness of the world around him leads Jimmie to see everything through a blackened lens. That same environment limits Maggie’s escape and rebellion, offering little chance for getting out.
Maggie is easily visualized, but not very well-rounded. Her soft personality and dreamy escapism from her world are the extent of her inner rebellion. In fact, her world is so limited in scope that she falls in love with the first man she lays her eyes upon, who merely “[dangles] his checked legs with an enticing nonchalance” (Maggie, p. 19). The man who she takes as unafraid of the world is, however, simply part of it. The streets of Manhattan will not harm Pete because he is a fixture, not an exception. However, just like the prisoners who mistake the shadows on wall as reality, Maggie mistakes Pete as having “a correct sense of his personal superiority” with his “valor and contempt for circumstance” (Maggie, p.19). Maggie’s fatal attraction toward Pete reveals the effect imposed on Maggie by her impoverished environment. Such an environment affects her basic instincts, limiting her imagination and deciding her passions. In this regard, what seems to be the free will and choices of Maggie are actually determined by social forces and instincts, which eventually leads to her ruin and tragic death.
Nevertheless, certain omissions in Maggie’s thought processes demonstrate that she could have fought harder and become more than a face on the street, and that society could have done more to empower her.
On one hand, Maggie could have fought harder to overcome her shortcomings. She lacks proper judgment when it comes to evaluating personal qualities as well as basic rationality, making her easy to deceive in such a toxic environment. Passivity is what holds Maggie back from a better life. She has little to no ideas of her own, and without any way to spark her own in the streets, Maggie ends up ignorant and almost mentally a child.
On the other hand, Maggie fundamentally lacks a spark of life, a proper motivation for being more than she is through her own work. Maggie’s admiration for someone like Pete is a clear sign of her lack of inspiration, a result of her life not allowing any way of thinking critically about her surroundings. She has no higher motivations, no spiritual pursuit or complete need of escaping at almost any cost. Maggie has no love of life and a future and the struggle to pull herself up from the dump by the nails. Without a proper motivation, Maggie cannot move up in life, and without an environment that readily supplies ways of providing them, Maggie cannot go forward.
Maggie, however, is not completely to blame for never working for higher aspirations. Her society could have helped spark an idea, provide a means of escape, let the impoverished out of the slums. The Hillbilly Eulogy, a book published in 2016, presents astonishing figures of pregnant girls dropping out of high school and ending up unable to hold down a job. Though they are in better situations than people at the time, it still isn’t something to skim over. Many are restricted by their environment and have been from childhood, and much more can still be done to increase awareness about other opportunities starting from a very young age. Maggie is born in a place where even the moon is hell, and her death allows her mother to finally say “I’ll forgive her, I’ll forgive her” (Maggie, p 69). And so, it is evident that those in less fortunate circumstances deserve sympathy and care that could allow them out of a world where everything is bleak and the moon is hell.
December 8th, 2018
Crane, Stephen, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, The Modern Library, 2001.
Vance, J.D., Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Harper Press, 2016.