Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900) was an American poet, journalist, novelist and short story writer. He is perhaps better known for the Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), although it is worth noting that Crane was born after the war and wrote it with no personal experience of war or warfare.
His first novel was Maggie, a Girl of the Street (1893), which is quite bold for that particular era, whereas now it would be considered the norm. It is generally slotted into the category of Naturalism, however I personally believe it also slots nicely into the literary category of Realism.
Unfortunately Crane died at the age of 28 of tuberculosis, despite his short lifespan he managed to make a lasting impression on the literary community, including Ernest Hemingway, and is thought to have inspired the Imagists (Imagism, a reactionary movement against romanticism and Victorian poetry) and the Modernists.
One of his short stories, The Open Boat, is based on his personal experience of being marooned on a dinghy off the coast of Florida for a few days. The story of Maggie is about a young woman, who is disowned by her family after being seduced by her brother’s friend. She ends up on the streets making her living as a prostitute.
In the yells of the whirling mob of Devil’s Row children there were notes of joy like songs of triumphant savagery. The little boys seemed to leer gloatingly at the blood upon the other child’s face.
Little Jimmie was once again in the midst of a mad fight with the boys of Devil’s Row, despite the fact he knew if his father or mother found out he would likely get cuffed round the ear again. Actually the most likely scenario would be that his siblings would get to feel the wrath of his parents too, if he came home looking like he had done twenty rounds with Muhammad Ali.
As his sister continued her lamentations, he suddenly swore and struck her. The little girl reeled and, recovering herself, burst into tears and quaveringly cursed him.
As if on cue, the mother punished Jimmie for his violent behaviour by modelling good behaviour and roughing him up a bit more, which annoyed the father and ended, as always, with both parents going at each other.
They had a lurid altercation, in which they damned each other’s souls with frequence.
Maggie, Jimmie and the infant Tommie lived in fear of the abuse of both parents and their drunken rages, especially the mother’s blind fury. Eventually Tommie succumbed to the neglect and the other two became hardened by the life they had been destined to live.
Jimmie felt nothing but disdain for his fellow humans, which could be easily seen on his face. He wasn’t skilled at hiding his true emotions.
He maintained a belligerent attitude toward all well-dressed men. To him fine raiment was allied to weakness, and all good coats covered faint hearts. He and his order were kings, to a certain extent, over the men of untarnished clothes, because these latter dreaded, perhaps, to be either killed or laughed at. Above all things he despised obvious Christians and ciphers with the chrysanthemums of aristocracy in their button-holes. He considered himself above both of these classes afraid of neither the devil nor the leader of society.
Maggie on the other hand blossomed in the quagmire of dirt. She sewed collars every day and returned to her mother every night. The mother, who by now had acquired quite a reputation with the police and judicial system.
Jimmie’s old rival Pete had become his friend and had started to frequent their home. Maggie found him enticing or rather the young man made sure he gave off the appearance of being a suitable suitor.
His mannerisms stamped him as a man who had a correct sense of his personal superiority. There was valor and contempt for circumstances in the glance of his eye. He waved his hands like a man of the world, who dismisses religion and philosophy, and says “Fudge.” Maggie perceived that here was the beau ideal of a man.
Her mother wasn’t pleased by the fact Maggie had found herself a possible paramour. She feared she would end up on the street like many other girls before her.
“Yeh’ve gone teh deh devil, Mag Johnson, yehs knows yehs have gone teh deh devil. Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn yeh. An’ now, git out an’ go.
Pete did not consider that he had ruined Maggie. If he had thought that her soul could never smile again, he would have believed the mother and brother, who were pyrotechnic over the affair, to be responsible for it.
Maggie was pale. From her eyes had been plucked all look of self-reliance. She leaned with a dependent air toward her companion. She was timid, as if fearing his anger or displeasure. She seemed to beseech tenderness of him.
Several months later, after being thrown out and rejected by her family and by Pete, Maggie took to the streets to survive, because she was after all a ruined woman now.
A girl of the painted cohorts of the city went along the street. She threw changing glances at men who passed her, giving smiling invitations to men of rural or untaught pattern and usually seeming sedately unconscious of the men with a metropolitan seal upon their faces.
The once pretty Maggie with a head full of dreams and a heart full of love for a man, who took what he wanted and no longer wants her. The young Maggie survived a difficult childhood to become the hopeful Maggie, only to end as the disenchanted Maggie. Another statistic among many others.
In a room a woman sat at a table eating like a fat monk in a picture. A soiled, unshaven man pushed open the door and entered. “Well,” said he, “Mag’s dead.””What?” said the woman, her mouth filled with bread.”Mag’s dead,” repeated the man.
And so the mourning began in earnest. Yes, it smacks of hypocrisy. The same people who caused her demise are the ones crying over her dead body. Now suddenly the mother is capable of forgiveness. The drunken, abusive and violent woman, who showed no love and refused to let Maggie stay when she came home after comprehending her mistake.
Here you have it, the irony of the self-fulfilling prophecy but at the hands of others. Their greatest fear or inconvenience is having their daughter or sister become a ruined woman. By casting her out and refusing to help her she becomes the ruined woman to survive. Well, actually she doesn’t.
So hidden in this bitter, dark story are some home-truths that were true then and are still true now.
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