Violence and Moral Hypocrisy
Much of this novels power comes from the deft manner with which Crane combines these themes into a critical, irony-driven thrust at his culture. In the first three chapters alone, Jimmie fights a rival gang, a member of his own gang and strikes his sister. His father kicks his son and fights with his wife. Maggie drags the suffering Tommie down the street to the apartment where she is in turn beaten by her mother who also does violence to her husband and destroys the furniture. But in Maggie Cranes narrative probes deeper than a strictly naturalistic reading would warrant. Maggie dies not because she is surrounded by violence but because her family and the society of the Bowery consider her unworthy of inclusion except as a whore. Mary, Jimmie and Pete rationalize and accept Maggies ruin by standards they pretend to uphold but fail to achieve themselves. Mary is a drunkard and a brawler – she rains violence upon the heads of her children and she smashes their belongings. Yet she judges Maggie to be worthy of damnation for what society believes to be her compromised virtue. Like Mary, Pete also believes that hes done nothing wrong by the girl. Rather, he believes that Maggies family is attempting to ruin his reputation by raising “such a smoke” about nothing at all dishonorable. He dismisses himself from responsibility for her downfall without allowing himself to consider his somewhat less than honorable motives in pursuing the girl and his callus abandonment of her once he had achieved his aims. Of the three, Jimmie comes closest to recognizing the various factors that contributed to her downfall. He briefly considers the idea that Maggie might “have been more firmly good had she better known why” and reflects that the girls he has pursued might also have brothers but fails to draw the parallel to his sister. Jimmie is a product of his environment and he capitulates entirely to the social codes of the Bowery by publicly denouncing his sister and fighting Pete for the honor of the family. When he flees the fight he does so believing that he has exacted the necessary revenge and his honor is intact. He comes to this conclusion without regard to the relative valor of abandoning his friend to the police in the process.
It would be a mistake to class Maggie among the openly didactic and purportedly realistic portrayals of slum life popular in Cranes day. Rather than seek to inspire compassion for the lower classes by presenting their squalid lives as subjects for class pity, Crane imbues his story with an ironical tone that implicates the middle class reader in subscribing to the same moral hypocrisy as that being practiced in the slums. Where other writers provided the reading public with a window to the slums Crane sought to inspire social change by providing a mirror. Crane valued honesty with ones self above all else and in Maggie he sought to inspire a better society by describing the tragedy of a young girl destroyed by not only the selfish dishonesty of those around her but the dishonesty of her culture at large.
Survival of the Strongest
Because the characters in the book are products of their environment, the novel has no villains in the traditional sense unless one counts the Bowery itself as a perpetrator. In this manner Cranes vision is in keeping with the central tenets of Darwinism that were coming into vogue at the time that he wrote the novel. Individuals act according to the demands of their environment and their actions are determined by what they learn from their surroundings. In the environment of the slums as presented in Maggie the only guarantee for survival is strength. Thus, Maggie becomes enamored of Pete not because she sees him for what he is but because shes never known anything better. Significantly, her first encounter with him is hearing him describe his prowess in fighting. Maggies attraction to Pete is not confined simply to her romantic notions but also to her very real need for a protector. Similarly, Jimmie grows up an irreverent young man without respect for the world because “he had begun with no idols that it had smashed.” As a truck driver, however, he comes to fear and respect fire engines for their power to destroy him. Though Pete claims great feats of strength he is ultimately undone by his infatuation with Nell whose charms render him helpless and, in her words, “a damn fool.”
Violence and Moral Hypocrisy