In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, squalid and devastating conditions prove more resilient and determining than the power of will or character. This is not only one of the most prominent aspects that defines this as a novel of naturalism, but is what makes the rather inconclusive ending more tragic.
Time and again the reader witnesses Maggie as she struggles to overcome her conditions of poverty but in each effort, it seems that the Darwinian struggle between her and her society is an impossible force to tackle. Naturalism in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets then proves to be more than simply a social message the author seems to make but also becomes the central element in the classification of this story as a tragedy. While other elements of tragedy that are often found in classical texts are present as well, the most notable of which is the tragic character flaw, these merely contribute to the ultimately tragedy but are not the powerful force that the social conditions are. In short, by presenting readers with a struggle that takes place in the modern urban jungle between aspirations to leave and “evolve" into something better and the inevitability of such conditions, Crane is suggesting that for the most part, such conditions are, with rare exceptions, signs of an inevitable impoverished fate, no matter if she was the victim of murder or took her own, tragic life (Salemi 59).
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets has been coined as “Naturalism’s first novel" (Fudge 43) although according to one scholar, “Crane never claimed to be a naturalist, though he did famously inscribe copies of Maggie with the declaration that ‘environment is a tremendous thing’" (Hunter 19). It should also be noted that as graphic as the novel is in its depictions of filthy slum life, there was an original edition that Crane had that was more graphic, but was not released initially (Stallman 530). While Crane was aware of the shocking nature of some of the descriptions, particularly in terms of sexual and violent content, the purpose was to reveal in a fictional form, a world that most of Crane’s readers were unable to conceive of, let alone personally experience. Horwitz (609) remarks on the deviation much of the content of this novel had with what was being written for mainstream audiences and suggests that this was a strong form of naturalism, especially when set in contrast to women’s roles of the time and ideas regarding the cult of domesticity that encouraged piety and purity above all else. Maggie can be seen as tragic because due to her social and environmental conditions, she is not permitted the opportunity to take part in what was historically defined as “proper femininity" and that herein lies one of the other elements of tragedy. Without an alternative environment or even any exposure to one, Maggie and many of the other characters are doomed from the time they children until they are adults to a life that is outside of the context of mainstream America during this time of growing middle-class wealth elsewhere.
Even without such a formal declaration of this text being officially naturalist, there are multiple cues that allow the reader to fully understand what Crane meant when he remarked on the power of environment. First of all, there is no point at which many of the characters suddenly “become" victims of their environment; from the moment children are born, they are introduced to an environment that does nothing but encourage the same behavior as such violence and debauchery will be all they know for the rest of their lives. At any point in which children are introduced in the text, they are done so revealingly, with great description to reinforce Crane’s perceptions about the power of environment. Children are never, as they are in other texts in different settings, represented as being innocent or full of promise. They are presented in hopeless conditions and given textual examples, there is no reason for the reader to feel that they will ever be able to move beyond their circumstances. Environment is such a powerful influence that children are beyond redemption by young boyhood, as evidenced by the opening (as well as throughout) Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
The very fact that one of the opening lines of the book begins with a street fight where the “honor of Rum Alley" (Crane 1) is at stake is revealing in itself about some of the themes about the struggle to overcome poverty and one’s conditions. Although in this novel of naturalism the characters who are fighting at the beginning have few aspirations to rise beyond their current state and instead are engaged in petty, violent struggle, the notion this honor on Rum Alley is important to the text. Honor for the denizens of this part of New York is directly related to wealth and the appearance of wealth. While a character like Maggie desperately seeks this form of honor, when matched against the poverty and struggles of life in such a rough area, she seems doomed to fail from the very beginning. In this first opening few paragraphs, Crane is setting the reader up for two important conditions. First, the meaning of honor in a place that seems almost completely morally bankrupt and how this is an unrealistic goal and secondly, the violent, brutal struggles themselves as men fight in the street like animals in the jungle. These men have the “grins of true assassins" (2) and it is clear that anyone who were to stumble across such a scene, with those who identify themselves as members of “Devil’s Row" would not stand a chance of ever leaving alive. This is all true of Maggie who, despite her striving for some kind of “honor" nonetheless becomes yet another victim of the unending cycle of violence and base behavior.