In the novel Maggie, the predominant themes are power and control. The narrative centers around the ongoing battles faced by Maggie, as she is consistently subjected to the authority and manipulation of those in her life. Whether it be her brother Jimmie, her mother, or Pete, they all enforce their dominance over her and dictate how she should behave. Consequently, Maggie finds herself trapped in a cycle where her ability to act independently is restricted and she must comply with the expectations set by others. This theme serves to highlight the hardships endured by women within a patriarchal society and prompts reflection on matters of personal agency and self-determination.
Power and control play significant roles in the novel Maggie.
The setting of Stephen Crane’s novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, is a grim and aggressive environment. People openly swear and provoke fights over trivial matters. The extreme poverty in the community creates a feeling of hopelessness and a lack of self-assurance in each individual. They long to feel significant and know that their existence has value. They crave authority over others’ lives. The impoverished, who are constantly under the control of the wealthy, desire the chance to exert power over their own world. In a typical society, these aspirations would be fulfilled through successful careers and families. However, in Maggie’s torn and destitute world, individuals attain power and control through coercion and exploiting other people’s immorality. This argument will be exemplified by examining the children’s brawls, the violence within families, as well as how Maggie’s family treats her death.
In the universe of Maggie, children engage in fierce battles for control and power over one another. The story begins with a violent scene, where two groups of boys are engaged in a bloody fight. Crane describes the scene where a young boy stands on a pile of rocks in Rum Alley, throwing rocks at the boys from Devil’s Row who are circling him and retaliating. This display of conflict shows that the children are fighting for power and seeking to gain respect by harming those who stand in their way.
Donald Pizer discusses this idea in his essay, “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and American Naturalism.” He refers to the scene of the boy on the rock pile as a “basic chivalric cast” and compares it to medieval conflicts where knights fought for fame and fortune. Pizer suggests that the children are experiencing a similar desire for control and power.
Another examination of the theme of medieval conflict can be found in Jay Martin’s essay, “Maggie and Satire.” According to Martin (209), he highlights a cliché observed in Maggie when Pete strikes a young boy on the back of his head. The term “smite” is an old-fashioned word commonly used in medieval settings. Crane has blended reminiscence with present-day violence to create a world characterized by desperate heroes (Martin 210). Just like knights sought recognition among their peers, these boys also aspire to demonstrate their strength and establish fear and respect.
In a typical society, the household unit serves as a refuge from the outside world. Home is a place where we receive love and support from others. However, in Maggie’s dark world, home becomes another battleground where conflicts over power and dominance run rampant. The characters in this story engage in physical and emotional battles with each other. Poverty, alcohol abuse, and moral degradation fuel these ongoing struggles, ultimately destroying everyone involved. In the second chapter of Maggie, we witness a vivid illustration of this disturbing force. Jimmie’s father catches him fighting with other boys and brings him home. As they enter the house, Jimmie’s mother reacts in the same violent manner as her son:
Crane writes: “As the father and children filed in, she peered at them. ‘Eh, what? Been fightin’ agin by Gawd!’ She threw herself upon Jimmie.” (Crane 7).
In the next paragraph:
Crane describes how the mother intervenes with the child by shaking him vigorously: “The mother shook him until he rattled.” (Crane 7).
She then proceeds to wet a piece of cloth with water to cleanse his wounded face.
Jimmie screamed in pain and tried to free his shoulders from the grip of the immense arms (Crane 7).
The above type of treatment of the children is the norm and not an exception. It is an example of parents exerting power and control over their children through force.
John Berryman provides a good description of the characters in the household in his essay, Hallucination and Hysteria in Maggie. He describes them as self-indulgent, cruel, and self-pitying, unable to help one another (Berryman 164). Berryman also points out that they do not lack moral ideals, but rather their ideals are twisted and distorted due to their difficult circumstances (Berryman 164). The children possess better moral ideas compared to their parents (Berryman 164).
Charles Child Walcutt comments on the setting in his essay, Hallucination and Hysteria in Maggie. He explains that Crane combines elements of poverty, ignorance, and intolerance with violence and cruelty to create a terrifying world caught between hallucination and madness (Walcutt 165). He further explains that a dominant idea that arises from this chaotic environment is that these people are trapped by their beliefs of moral righteousness, which are completely unsuitable for their lives and result in a social insanity (Walcutt 166).In a typical family, parents establish control by expressing love and respect. However, in Maggie’s world, parents rely solely on extreme physical and emotional destructiveness to gain power and control over their children.
The final chapter of the book describes the family’s reaction to Maggie’s suicide, with the characters mourning her death. However, it is portrayed more like a performance than a genuine funeral. The characters are putting on a show for an audience, trying to prove that they are not like their troubled relative Maggie. They present themselves as morally upright individuals who cannot comprehend why Maggie would resort to such a drastic action. When the mother hears of Maggie’s death, she mournfully reflects on the burden of having a disobedient child and portrays Maggie as a terrible person in need of forgiveness from everyone. The family does this in order to gain the approval and control of others. By depicting Maggie in a negative light, they hope to show that they are good people deserving of respect. Janet Overmyer suggests in her essay, “The Structure of Crane’s Maggie,” that the novel has a theatrical quality to it. She points out that the mother’s remark about forgiving Maggie would not have been made if not for the pressure from their nosy neighbors. As these neighbors repeatedly inquire about the mother’s forgiveness, she realizes that it would be a strategic move to do so, as it would position her as a victim. Maggie’s mother desires the power and control that come with being perceived as a victim.
Maggie is a work of fiction that presents a bleak and despairing universe, closely resembling our own world. The characters are not inherently immoral but rather shaped by their environment, similar to people throughout history. Regrettably, the overwhelmingly dreary surroundings greatly impact them. This oppressive atmosphere results in feelings of inequality and insignificance. Despite longing for control and power in their lives, the characters in Maggie resort to using force and causing moral devastation to achieve it. This can be observed through conflicts among the children, violent actions committed by the family, and their role in Maggie’s death.