Stephen Crane’s first major publication, 1893’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, brought to the public attention a powerful and fresh voice, the sort of voice that even a century after its owner’s death, a reader can scarcely resist. In portraying the life of Maggie, Crane used that voice to describe a world that most of his well-heeled readers would have found scandalous and distasteful. In much the same way that Dickens portrayed the gritty underbelly of London’s less proper inhabitants, Crane sketches the urban world in which he traveled and lived. Unlike Dickens, however, Crane’s portrayal is not tempered with comic characters or the hopeful yearnings of a moral reformer. Instead, Maggie allows the respectable middle-class reader to sit back and shake a head at the deplorable lives described there. (A few years later, Theodore Dreiser would attempt to tell a very similar story in Sister Carrie, penning many more pages to far less effect.)
At the book’s end, of course, Maggie, having been neglected and mistreated by virtually everyone who crosses her path, winds up like all soiled doves should in fiction for the consumption of respectable people. She dies. Crane then creates a closing scene worthy of a Greek tragedy as a chorus-like group of neighbors implore Maggie’s mother to forgive her.
“Yeh’ll fergive her, Mary! Yeh’ll fergive yer bad, bad, chil’! Her life was a curse an’ her days were black an’ yeh’ll fergive yer bad girl? She’s gone where her sins will be judged.”
“She’s gone where her sins will be judged,” cried the other women, like a choir at a funeral.
“Deh Lord gives and deh Lord takes away,” said the woman in black, raising her eyes to the sunbeams.
“Deh Lord gives and deh Lord takes away,” responded the others.
Of course, even the most jaded reader will sit back desiring to comment on this situation. “Bad, bad child?” How about a bad, bad mother? Both of Maggie’s parents are abusive alcoholics. If anyone needs forgiving it is the father and the mother and the brother who systematically placed Maggie on a path to destruction.
The last line of the book belongs to the mother who apparently relents and vows to “fergive her.” Knowing the character, however, the reader is left to wonder if this is a genuine moment of repentance accompanying a realization of spectacularly bad parenting or a typically selfish move by a typically selfish woman. Urged on by the very neighbors who had guided her to shun her daughter when she attempted to return home, Mary Johnson now falls into line with her dysfunctional community.
Written during the grittiest days of 19th century industrialization and urbanization, Maggie stands as a dystopian bit of realism. The reader, almost exclusively of a class that would not people tenements or work in a shirt factory, might instead profit from those who inhabit tenements and wear the factory-made clothes. Indeed, the reader of this novel, perhaps as much as the forgiving mother within its pages, should be asking for forgiveness. Like so many affluent societies, the one Crane describes enjoys a high standard of living at a significant economic and moral cost to those providing most of the labor.