Maggie A Girl of the Streets

"It is probable that the reader of this small thing may consider the author to be a bad man, but, obviously, this is of small consequence to–The Author."1 Stephen Crane wrote this as part of an inscription on a personal copy of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) for fellow author Hamlin Garland. Publishers refused to go anywhere near Maggie: A Girl of the Streets because its setting and subject matter were too shocking for the general public of the nineteenth century. Crane ultimately self-published, and critics and the public disapproved as he predicted. However, an analysis of the themes shows Crane's attempt to show the futility and desperation of poverty was honest and sincere.

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Table of contents
    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Photograph of the Bowery, StudySmarter

    Photograph of The Bowery, the setting of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Wikimedia commons

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Summary

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets begins with a description of family dynamics. Her older brother Jimmie brawls with boys from another neighborhood. He is roughly snatched up by their physically abusive father and brought home bloody and bruised. Their mother is sloppy drunk by the time they get there, which is a daily occurrence. Maggie, Jimmie, and their baby brother Tommie cower as their parents begin to scream at each other while exchanging blows. Finally, the father leaves for the bar, and the mother passes out on the floor.

    Years pass, and the reader learns Tommie died as a young child, Jimmie has been head of the household since his father died, and Maggie has grown to be an attractive girl who works away her days in a shirt factory. Their mother is still a belligerent alcoholic, but now her criminal record precedes her into frequent court dates where she has become a joke to the officers.

    Maggie develops a crush on Jimmie's friend Pete. Pete's fancy clothes make him look like a sophisticated gentleman to the naïve Maggie. She admires how he seems to brush off the poverty, violence, and disease that define their existence in the Bowery.

    Pete takes Maggie on a few dates and is surprised when she behaves modestly at night's end. However, Maggie's mother and Jimmie accuse her of promiscuity, and her mother kicks her out of their home. Maggie attaches herself to Pete, which he allows for a few weeks until Nellie, a flashy woman he seeks to impress, comes back to town. Nellie persuades Pete to leave Maggie, so she tries to go back home. Unfortunately, Maggie's mother, brother, and neighbors create a spectacle of disowning her and treating her as if she is tainted. The following morning, Maggie tries to go back to Pete, and when he refuses her, she approaches a minister who avoids her.

    After several months, a woman is described as walking down the street, attempting to pick up men she meets. One man recognizes her as having worked the streets for a while. As she walks down to the river, a grotesque man follows her. It's implied that the woman is Maggie and that she meets her death. It's not clear whether her death results from suicide or murder.

    A final snapshot of Pete shows him partying with Nellie and a group of her friends. He is slurring words and paying for everything. His waiter is unimpressed. Nellie steals his money, insults him, and leaves him alone in the booth when he finally passes out. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets closes with Jimmie arriving at home and breaking the news to their mother that Maggie is dead. Maggie's mother becomes hysterical, reminiscing about the shoes Maggie wore as a baby and screaming to the crying neighbors that she forgives Maggie.

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Image of scuffed baby shoes, StudySmarter

    Image of scuffed baby shoes representing Maggie's baby shoes, pixabay


    Maggie Johnson: A young woman whose innocence clouds her perception. Her desire to escape her brutal life with her family pushes her into a relationship with a man who has no intention of providing for her. Maggie is the main character Crane developed to illustrate that a person's environment determines their fate.

    Jimmie Johnson: Always ready for a fight. Average intelligence and cynical personality who pushes away deeper insight. Jimmie is the head of the household but defers to his mother. Jimmie is the walking embodiment of the violence and apathy that plagues the tenement.

    Mary Johnson: Maggie and Jimmie's mom–a verbally and physically abusive alcoholic. She is the ultimate hypocrite who judges her children's behavior without having the slightest awareness of what a nightmare of a person she is herself.

    Pete: Works as a bartender, so considers himself superior to Jimmie and Maggie. Somewhat of a womanizer who appears to be a savior on the surface, but once he tosses Maggie to the side, takes no responsibility for how his actions affected her life.

    Nellie: A woman whose fancy dresses and good times are funded by the various men she takes advantage of, including Pete. She's no angel, and perhaps her story isn't over yet, but since she's described as seeing through the roughneck men who surround her, she's the closest thing to an independent woman found within the story.

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Analysis


    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is credited with being the first American Naturalist text. Naturalism was an artistic movement that began in the late nineteenth century and continued into the early twentieth century. It is similar to Realism in that naturalist writers attempt to capture reality in their tales by writing about everyday people in ordinary situations. However, Naturalism, influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution, goes a step further to use society and nature to show that a person's environment is responsible for life outcomes.

    One of the most blatant examples of Naturalism in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is Maggie's brother Jimmie. He cannot escape his upbringing. After his father's death, he grows into the role of being the man of the house, "[stumbling] up-stairs late at night, as his father had done before him" (ch. 5). He is an alcoholic who talks with his fists, just like his dad.

    It was common to include a chorus in ancient Greek plays made up of a group of actors whose emotional reactions, songs, and comments helped the audience follow the story and moral issue. The neighbors in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets resemble the chorus of a Greek tragedy because they are present at turning points of the story, most notably when Maggie is kicked out of her home and again when Jimmie reports her death.

    The crowd's behavior mirrors Jimmie's and the mother's behavior. When Maggie moves toward Jimmie to plead with him, he moves away from her as if he were afraid of "contamination" (ch. 15). In response, when a young child falls in front of Maggie, a woman scoops them up "with a chivalrous air" (ch. 15). At the end of Maggie, when the mother shows the neighbors Maggie's baby shoes, they "burst anew into cries as if they had all been stabbed" (ch. 19).

    The neighbors are another instance of Naturalism. Crane uses them to represent society. Their gossip about and reaction to Maggie's dates with Pete voices society's condemnation of female sexuality at this time. They join with Maggie's mother and brother to publicly humiliate and judge her even before she's done anything other than accompany him to the theater.


    Authors use irony to engage the reader by providing them with insight into the future consequences of characters' behavior or words that the characters don't have access to.

    Irony refers to the surface appearance of a situation or conversation that contradicts reality. It is usually used as comic relief, but can also be used to build tension.

    There are multiple types of irony, and Crane uses irony in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in various ways.

    Verbal irony

    The narrator in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets says, "[Maggie] and Jimmie lived" (ch. 4), which in contrast with their little brother dying is ironic. The word "living" has a positive connotation in everyday use, and yet its juxtaposition with Tommie's death implies that Tommie escaped, and Maggie and Jimmie's soul-crushing struggles will continue.

    Verbal irony is when what the character or narrator says opposes their meaning or intention or the situation's circumstances.

    Dramatic irony

    The way Maggie worships Pete is one example of dramatic irony, and Crane lays it on thick. The narrator reveals in chapter 7 that, according to Maggie, Pete is the embodiment of an elegant gentleman when he berates the waiter while ordering Maggie a beer. Pete tells him, "'Ah, git off deh eart'" and Maggie's reaction is that he "brought forth . . . all his knowledge of high-class customs for her benefit" (ch. 7). Maggie has never been outside the Bowery, so she is only familiar with its mannerisms. However, Crane wrote Maggie for the middle and upper classes, who would laugh at the idea that Pete has any manners at all.

    Dramatic irony refers to a situation when the audience knows more about what's happening than the characters do.

    Situational irony

    As Maggie grew up, she dreamed of escaping from her life, and chapter 3 of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets reveals that "there had always walked a lover" in her fantasy. The situational irony of the relationship between Maggie and Pete is that Maggie dates Pete because she thinks a relationship with him will improve her life. Instead, within months of their first date, Maggie becomes a prostitute and dies.

    With situational irony, the contrast lies within what is expected to happen and what actually happens.

    Maggie: A Girl of the Street, image of  Embracing couple, StudySmarter

    Image of a couple embracing represents Maggie's dream of a happily ever after, pixabay

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Themes

    Crane wrote Maggie: A Girl of the Streets with the purpose of exposing the reality of tenement life, but he also discusses themes that pertained to society in general.


    After disowning his sister, a troubling thought nags at Jimmie. He feels his friend Pete betrayed him by dating his sister. The thought of the brothers of the "sisters" he's known flashes through his mind, but he pushes it away. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, women in the theater perform stripteases while they sing, and prostitutes work the streets, catering to men's sexual desires. Jimmie's struggle with viewing other women through the same idealistic lens he expects from his sister exemplifies the hypocrisy that surrounds female sexuality. As the narrator tells the reader in chapter 10–"all sisters, excepting [Jimmie's] own, could advisedly be ruined."

    Religious hypocrisy is another theme in Maggie. In chapter 16, Crane includes a physical description of the minister Maggie tries to ask for help to illustrate religious hypocrisy. The minister is overweight, meaning well-fed. His clothes are fancy and made of fine materials. The description implies that the minister, in contrast with his "face [that] was a picture of benevolence" (ch. 16), takes great care to secure comforts for himself before sharing with the poverty-stricken residents of the Bowery. Although there was a look of "good-will" in his eyes, he quickly avoids Maggie's touch without pause to preserve his "respectability" rather than "save a soul" (ch. 16).

    Free will and fate

    Free will doesn't exist in the Bowery. Maggie dreams of a man who will help her escape the tenement, but when she chooses to date Pete, her reliance on him makes her "spaniel-like" (ch. 14). She loses herself and defines her happiness by his feelings toward her, "[following his] eyes with hers, anticipating with smiles gracious looks from him" (ch. 14). Similarly, Jimmie cowers in the corner and avoids his parents as a child but still becomes his father as an adult.

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Setting

    The setting of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is the Bowery in New York. The Bowery had its beginnings as an Indigenous American footpath. After English colonization, it grew into a public road used by various groups of people, including the Dutch and African Americans, as its population changed hands over time. It was New York City's first entertainment district and the first place to use streetcars. It was a wealthy neighborhood for a while, but it became a place of brothels, flophouses, and tenement slums during the Civil War. Political revolutions and widespread famine in Europe lead to quickly rising immigrant populations, many of which settled into the Bowery because of its convenient location and cheap housing. The Johnson family is a characterization of the many Irish families that called the Bowery home. The setting of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets reflects the poverty and hopelessness that defined the Bowery in the nineteenth century.

    Industrialization and the Civil War caused upheavals that changed society. Industrialization spurred a transition from skilled men who created goods to make a living into men who worked in factories and scraped by Jimmie exemplifies this new type of man. During the ages he would have previously spent learning a skill, Jimmie's apprenticeship is instead to "stand on streetcorners and watch the world go by" (ch. 4). As he gets older, he heeds the call of capitalism, realizing that "[w]hen he had a dollar in his pocket his satisfaction with existence was the greatest thing in the world" (ch. 4).

    The deaths of so many men during the Civil War created a vacuum in the workplace and traditional gender roles. Factories needed workers and women could no longer depend on growing up to find a husband that would provide for them. As women began working outside the home, society's ideals had to catch up. Crane uses Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to mock popular beliefs about the ideal woman in the nineteenth century. Although nineteenth century women were responsible for creating domestic bliss in the home, the reader gets a laugh at Maggie's expense when she attempts to dress up her tenement by making a piece of decorative drapery for her lopsided mantel, which Pete ignores and her mother destroys (ch. 6).

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Illustration of Cross-section of a tenement, StudySmarter

    Illustration of a cross-section of a tenement that resembles Maggie's childhood home, Wikimedia commons

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Quotes

    The babe, Tommie, died. He went away in a white, insignificant coffin, his small waxen hand clutching a flower that the girl, Maggie, had stolen from an Italian. (ch. 4)

    Maggie's family is Irish. In this quote, Crane illustrates the cultural mix of the Bowery, Maggie's sentimental personality, and the low value the rest of the family placed on Tommie's life.

    'You fellers can't guy me,' he said, 'Drink yer stuff an' git out an' don' make no trouble.' (ch. 11)

    A characteristic of Naturalism (and Realism) is that in its attempts to paint true-to-life portraits, Crane and other Naturalist writers would often write their dialogue using slang and dialects that reflected the characters' world.

    People heard the sound of breaking glass and shuffling feet within the saloon and came running. A small group, bending down to look under the bamboo doors, watching the fall of glass, and three pairs of violent legs, changed in a moment to a crowd. (ch. 11)

    The bar fight between Pete, Jimmie, and Jimmie's friend destroyed the bar's interior, yet Pete didn't lose his job, and people on the street came to watch. Crane uses this scene to illustrate the commonality of violence in tenement life.

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets - Key takeaways

    • Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was self-published by the American Naturalist writer Stephen Crane in 1893.
    • Maggie: A Girl of the Streets tells the story of a nineteenth-century girl growing up in the Bowery, a poverty-stricken neighborhood, who dates without permission, and is kicked out of her home. After the guy she is dating abandons her, it's implied she becomes a prostitute and dies an early death, either by suicide or homicide.
    • Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is the first example of an American Naturalist text. Crane uses the story of Maggie to show that environment determines a person's outcome in life. Its dialogue uses slang and dialect to paint a true-to-life portrait of the ordinary people who call the Bowery home.
    • Crane uses verbal, dramatic, and situational irony in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
    • Crane explores themes of hypocrisy and fate vs. free will in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

    1Crane, Stephen. Quoted in "28 Critics Discuss Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893). 2015

    Frequently Asked Questions about Maggie A Girl of the Streets

    What genre is Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is American Naturalist fiction.

    What is the message of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

    The message of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is that society and environment determine a person's fate.

    How does Maggie: A Girl of the Streets reflect Naturalism?

    In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Naturalism is reflected in how Crane uses Maggie's story to show that environment determines a person's outcome in life. Its dialogue uses slang and dialect to paint a true-to-life portrait of the ordinary people who call the Bowery home. 

    Is Maggie: A Girl of the Streets a true story?

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is a work of fiction based on nineteenth-century tenement life in the Bowery.

    How many chapters are in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

    Maggie: A Girl of the Streets has nineteen chapters.

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