American Studies
February 2018

Essay Assignment on Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1892)

Essay on Maggie due Thursday 2/22 at 3:30 pm.

What is Stephen Crane’s political point in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets? What can be done about the millions of people whose lives spiral towards Maggie’s sad fate? Look at her story through the lens of at least one of the four key thinkers of the Modern Age: Darwin, Freud, Marx or Nietzsche.

Some ideas to consider:

1. Decide whether Crane is a hard determinist or a soft determinist:

If Maggie is free to choose her actions, then we can demand moral responsibility from her. Soft determinists argue that our choices are free and flow from an individual’s character. Despite the difficult challenges posed by being born into a dysfunctional family and an unhealthy environment, Maggie is capable of exercising independent action and therefore responsible for her fate. 

If, however, Maggie is a mere pawn in the hands of forces beyond her control, then we cannot blame her for her sad fate. It is sad, but it just happened that way, and there is nothing that she could have done on her own to avoid her doom. The responsibility for her demise falls on society as a whole.

2. Think about Crane’s use of melodrama and irony in telling Maggie’s sad story.

Crane helps define the powerful shaping forces of Maggie’s environment in his choice of narrative form and literary style. 

The form he has chosen is sentimental melodrama. The plot of this type of story is familiar: an innocent slum girl suffers betrayal at the hands of those whom she loves and then spirals quickly downward into shame and despair. The sequence of events in Maggie’s story is pre-determined. Unless Maggie can overcome her own ignorance, self-delusion, and vulnerable innocence to recognize that she has been cast as the victim in this hackneyed plot, she will not be able to break the momentum leading to her destruction. Look for key moments in the action when Maggie has the opportunity to see her life and her world with new eyes. Then decide for yourself whether she should have been able to take control of her life and break free from the culture of poverty in which she has been raised.

Crane’s literary style is pitched to exaggerated extremes in his effort to convey the riotous sensibility of the culture of poverty. His sentences are full of startling metaphors, screaming diction, and hyperactive exaggerations. The language is also suffused with irony! Unless Maggie can learn to see her world with the same tough, sardonic irony that crane uses to describe her, she will not be able to achieve a healthy perspective on her life.