The “naturalism” school of American literature, especially the area of late twentieth century writer Stephen Crane, certainly defines itself with a straightforward, journalistic descriptive style and an eye for the people of everyday, American environments. In terms of Crane’s novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the naturalist’s work shines through despite the geographical and narrative differences of the story. Specifically, this paper will analyze the naturalistic layers of Crane’s narrative, which plays on reader assumptions from the journalistic composition to create a link between style and theme.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets surfaces to the reader’s consciousness early in the story mainly through the importance of the visual details of color, the appearance of its inhabitants, and the placement of physical objects. The representation of the streets of the tenement-housing district “Rum Alley,” works with shadowy and bitter textures to enter the reader into the visual world before solidifying a gruesome effect through supporting imagery.
“The dark region” of the tenement alley where “A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust,” and where “Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings” alongside “Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners” and “A thousand odors of cooking food that came forth to the street” (130). This initial passage, interested in the color of the dust, the dark shapes, and, lastly, the textures of smoke and smell, appears as an impersonal and “gruesome” atmosphere through inviting the reader visually before enhancing the landscape with textures of cooking food and clusters of pipe smoke.
The depiction of factories complicates the reader’s mental eye throughout the story through its playing on internal/external perspective. Particularly, Maggie “received a stool and a machine in a room where sat twenty girls of various shades of yellow discontent,” an overview of the interior of the factory segues the reader into following Maggie more closely in the active, verbal sentences that follow, while also importantly coloring the mood of urban “discontent” on the skin of her coworkers through use of “yellow” (142).
Furthermore, the nameless “girl” in the chapter wanders along “the gloomy districts near the river, where the tall black factories shut in the street and only occasional broad beams of light fell across the sidewalks,” the appearance of “the deathly black hue of the river” and the way “Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters of lapping oilily against timbers” rises to the reader’s consciousness (183-184). The key use of “yellow glare” signals the urban “discontent” on the surface of life in the Lower East Side and, after engaging the reader to a panoramic view of outside this factory, also detaches the reader from Maggie’s perspective altogether.
This organization of the reader’s mental eye connects more integrally to the world of the narrative, particularly in a more direct relationship to Maggie’s relationship with Pete, the sophisticated bartender and pal of her truck-driver brother. Specifically, Maggie and Pete’s respective way of interacting visually with their environment genders sight into a spectator/spectated difference (as well as a class difference) that advances their relationship.
For example, after meeting Pete and watching “him as he walked down the street” from her stationary window above, Maggie’s purchase of an expensive flowered cretonne, in which she invests her hopes of catching Pete’s own eye on his next visit, fail after leaves “without having glanced at the lambrequin” (146). Likewise, during their dates at spectacular sites such as the Central Park Menagerie and the Museum of Arts, “Pete did not appear to be particularly interested in what he saw,” which Maggie associates with his upper-class sophistication (152). This power dynamic in the relationship is later expressed more tightly in a short dinner scene, shortly before her abandonment, in which Maggie “gazes at him wonderingly” so that “he took pride in commanding the waiters, who were, however, indifferent or deaf” (166).
The scenarios of this play, “in which a dazzling heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her treacherous guardian by the hero with the most beautiful sentiments” reflects and contrasts with the actual concern of rising above Lower East Side life within the story of Maggie’s seduction. In this way, the “transcendental realism” of the spectacle pushes them to hug “themselves in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition,” so that they respond to the play viscerally and sympathetically (153).
This model of class theatre, which “made Maggie think” critically about her own possibility of social mobility, features a descriptive progression from Maggie’s “losing herself in sympathy” to a detached, panoramic perspective of the “Shady persons” in the audience huddled together, seeking out the “painted misery” and “hugging it as akin” (153). The effect of this spectacle first takes us into Maggie’s perspective as the centralized perspective, before removing us from it, and so that we notice the parallels and contrasts between the spectacle in the scene and the narrative itself and the foreshadowing it offers. This thematic effect comes across through a complex; stylistic organization of the different layers of gazing in Maggie is a subtle effect of Crane’s literary naturalism.
Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, employs a simple composition style on the surface, this narrative has a more complex playing with visual imagery to unite style with theme and challenge or enhance suspension of disbelief for thematic effect. While Crane’s tragic and pessimistic Maggie may work with engaging the reader to think critically about the direction of the story through its short theatre scene and so pull out a more complex theme of cosmic irony, the reality of social mobility, and art as a medium for expressing such ideas. Precisely, while Crane expresses his “naturalism”—the “realistic” depiction of a living place through calling attention to the artificiality of storytelling. This visual strategy strengthens the thematic agendas of naturalism as interested in using “real” people and “real” geographical locations to express an ironic view of human nature and social relationships.
Crane, Stephen. “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.” Great Short Works of Stephen Crane. New
York: Perennial Classics, 2004, 127-189.