|Poverty and Literature
Essay Assignment on Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A
Girl of the Streets (1892)
on Maggie due Monday 2/13 at 3:30 p.m
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 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:
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. Focus on Crane’s use of melodrama and irony in telling Maggie’s sad
|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.