Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets shocked with its realistic portrayal of nineteenth-century New York tenements and the life of a girl, Maggie, who suffers a difficult childhood, loses her virtue and is ultimately murdered.
But Maggie is also a fascinating example of naturalism in American literature. With his journalistic eye, Crane records in detail the appalling conditions for New York’s poor and then uses his powers as a storyteller to argue for the causal connection between Maggie’s sorry upbringing and her moral and physical downfall.
Most famously propounded by the French novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902), naturalism is concerned with determinism—the idea that humans are governed by natural laws—and so intergenerational inheritance is a key theme that Crane, Zola and other writers, like Thomas Hardy, often dwell on.
In the case of Maggie, her inheritance is violence. When she first speaks in the novella it is to upbraid her brother for fighting (“Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin”) and her complaint is founded on the idea that the run of violence will continue:
“Youse allus fightin’, Jimmie, an’ yeh knows it puts mudder out when yehs come home half dead, an’ it’s like we’ll all get a poundin’.”
Maggie is a victim but also has the potential to be dangerous herself. She is described as a ‘tigress’ as a child. Fighting—for survival, but also as a way of life—is the favoured collective pastime in these slums, where gender is initially no indicator of who will beat and who will be beaten:
“Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin’ yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin’ yer fader?”
Yet as the story continues, and Maggie matures, being a woman marks her out as a particular target. Her love for Pete ruins her and, just before her death, the man who presumably kills her is shown noticing her feminine features and height, indicative of her physical vulnerability:
His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face.
What’s more Maggie’s family and neighbours can’t conceive of an afterlife where this run of violence will not continue:
“She’s gone where her sins will be judged,” cried the other women, like a choir at a funeral.
All that lies in store for Maggie is punishment, for crimes she was born, and raised, to commit.