American Literature 28/04/2014
Circumstancesversus Choice: Paradox of Vanity
StephenCranes novella, ‘Maggie: A Girl of the Streets’ recounts theexperience of children growing up in a violent and morally decadentsociety. It raises fundamental question as to the extent of man’shelplessness in certain circumstances. Moreover, it juxtaposes issuesof personal choice and responsibility on one side against immensesocial circumstances on the other side. To the reader and critic, thethought to ponder is whether human beings can rise above a morallycorrupt edifice and ride to the high pedestal of decency. In Cranes’novella, the environment condemns characters to irredeemable andinevitable vanity. Vanity exacerbates the situation as characters areengrossed in vainglorious pursuits.
Maggieand Jimmie, siblings whom Cranes uses as protagonists, live indeplorable and violent conditions. The setting is America West,during the industrialization era. The change from agricultural toindustrial economy led to many casualties, including Maggie andJimmie’s parents. They found themselves in periphery of economicedifice where poverty was rampant. Now alcoholics, they are incapableof offering parental care and support to their children. This leavesthe children at the mercies of a violent, vain, and despondentsociety that shapes them to what they became in the end. Cranes’ability to create and sustain characters that readers can empathizewith is epic though critics like Eichhorst have lambasted hisepisodic style (23). This paper will demonstrate that in spite of itsinadequacy, Cranes Novella caricatures American naturalism in a wayhitherto unseen by illustrating the profound effect of socialcircumstances on his characters.
SocialCircumstances versus Personal Choice
Often,the environment in which one grows has a profound influence on whathe or she becomes in life. This does not mean that personal choiceand responsibility has no role in what one becomes. In Crane’snovella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets’, most characters portrays aform of socialization that diminishes any chance for individual’schoice. While Maggie’s parents could make a choice to avoid sinkinginto alcoholism, Maggie and her siblings never had a choice in theirkind of parents. Moreover, Maggie’s parents could shed off theircruelty for a human and caring approach to their children. Maggie andher siblings never had the opportunity with their parent’spersonality. This does not totally exonerate Maggie and Jimmie fromturning out as the kind of people that they did. As Vahnenbruckexplains, the world is replete with people who overcame sordiddecadence in their societies to become paragons of virtues (34).
Cranesmakes a strong hint that social circumstances are responsible for thekind of people that Maggie and Jimmie turn out, but remain coy overthe role of personal choice. It is evident that the weight of theirenvironment surpassed personal convictions on what ought to be rightor wrong. In life, there is a tendency to shift blame and offerexcuses when one ends up in certain regrettable positions. ThroughJimmie, the reader gets to understand that the siblings were notblameless for what they became. By taking us into Jimmie’s mentalprocess, the reader understands that Cranes does not diminish therole of personal choice. Jimmie thinks of his sister and concludes,“His sister would have been better had she know better why”(Crane 13). Regrettably, Jimmie thinks that his sister would havebecome a better person but immediately dismisses the idea asinconsequential. This demonstrates that just like any other person,Cranes’ characters had the capacity for personal choice but decidedto allow social circumstances dictate their collective fate.
Tounderstand the kind of damnation that trailed Maggie and Jimmie fromthe start, it is important to examine their family background andenvironment. As stated earlier, their parents were alcoholics, cruel,and uncaring. They failed to instill proper morals in their children,leaving them at the mercies of a corrupt society. The socialenvironment was irredeemably debauched. Nothing captures theenvironment better than Cranes’ own assertion, “Maggie blossomedin a puddle of mud” (24). This captures a dirty environment thatwould inevitable make anyone dirty. The reader develops a sense thatthe children’s fate is sealed from the beginning (Vahnenbruck 45).To grow in such an environment and with such parents is anunequivocal damnation. Bizarrely, it makes Maggie prettier than whatthe reader would have anticipated.
Properupbringing confers to children the ability to distinguish right fromwrong. It inculcates interpersonal and relational skills. Girls getto understand how to relate with boys and vice versa. Maggieblossomed without the advantage of such values. The lack of care froma man in her family, like father and brother, made her vulnerable tosexual advances from men. She falls easily to Pete, a neighborhoodboy who had had similar socialization. Though better than Maggie andher brother in terms of economic awareness, Pete belongs to the samecadre as any other teenager in the neighborhood. He also shows Maggiethe attention she has never received from her family. Maggie’snatural proclivity for attention, coupled with an adolescent stage,made her fall easily for Pete. Even after their breakup, she cravedthe same kind of care. This set the stage for her descent intoprostitution.
Jimmietoo lacked the benefits of a proper upbringing. Maggie: A Girl of theStreets’ opens with his brawl with neighborhood boys. Bowery, NewYork, the setting of the story, was famed for violence and organizedcriminal gangs (Eichhorst 34). The brawl between rival gangs wascommon. Jimmie gets reprieve with arrival of Pete but the situationexacerbates when the fight resumes. It took the intervention ofJimmie’s father to end the brawl but with trouble in store awaitingJimmie. Back at home, the tyrannical parents reprimand Jimmie withoutoffering alternative recourse in case of a similar occurrence. Inessence, the social circumstances make violence inevitable and therelacks proper structures at home to advice on behavioral change. Justlike her sister Maggie, Jimmie lacks the proper upbringing to copewith a world that constantly victimized them. With the death of theirfather, and mother’s deep plunge into alcoholism, the childrenlacked any semblance of family to rely on for moral and psychologicalsupport.
Onsocial circumstances versus personal choice, Cranes remains coy andleaves it for the reader to be the judge. He dissociates himself fromcharacters, absolving himself from any need to pass judgment. ForMaggie’s descent into prostitution, she extrapolates it as aproduct of the environment. Maggie did not have a role model. Neitherdid her society offer any better example to emulate. Cranes’statement best embodies this situation. He opines, “She did notfeel like a bad woman. To her knowledge she had never seen anybetter” (44). Maggie’s lack of a better person to emulate meantthat her standards of morality were low. This is an unfortunatecircumstance emanating from environment. For his brother, descent incruelty and violence is a product of a socialization that wasconstantly chaotic. However, Cranes does not offer evidence that thesiblings made attempt to take responsibility to change their lives.Jimmie feels that because her sister was pretty, she had the chanceto change her live for better. While remaining innately conscious ofpersonal choice, they were no attempt or moral courage to do so. Tothe reader, there is a sense of de javu that their lives would endthat way.
Vanityand Violence: Literary Inadequacies
Asthis part of the essay will show, Cranes’ ‘Maggie: A Girl of theStreets’ has many literary weakness. However, this does notdiminish the value of the novella in portraying slum live inindustrialization era. As Vahnenbruck asserts, Cranes has handled theinherent brawling with an ironic touch that justifies the attentionthe novella has continued to receive since the 19thcentury (34). The theme of vanity and violence shares the centerstage with social circumstances versus personal choice. They areinextricably interlinked. Characters can chose vanity or allow theirsocial environment to drive them towards the feelings oftrepidations. However, Cranes appear to fall short on use of languageand structure. The plot unfolds in episodic bouts and use of languageis flippant and without any inspiration.
Cranes’use of words and structure make it impossible for the reader toidentify with and empathize with characters’ predicaments.According to Sorrentino, Maggie is an unbelievable ideation that isentirely detached from herself (7). To a critic, as well as an ardentreader, it is highly likely that Cranes did not own and control thestory, leave alone understand the tale in its totality. The use ofwords is questionable especially in escaping out of grind lockedepisodes in his novella. An example is in the way he has caricaturedMaggie. He persuades the reader that the girl is incapable of makingpersonal choices and taking responsibility, either at the spur of themoment or in retrospect. Sorrentino captures the feelings of thereader when he opines that Cranes uses words to generate “atmosphereof grotesquerie in which everything was bigger than life, like aviolent shadow play” (45). It is evident that by his flippant useof words and sporadic structure, Cranes diminished the standing ofhis novella among his contemporaries. However, encapsulation ofthemes is apt.
Nonetheless,Cranes use of irony in exposing contradictions in his character’slives is epic. Mrs. Johnson, mother to Maggie and Jimmie, is atyrannical and chaotic parent. Jimmie is accustomed to violence,right from home to neighborhood. Pete has the same penchant forviolence as he fights for survival in a tough slum. However, theiruse of violence is purely for self-justification. In the opening ofthis novella, Cranes makes clear his attitude towards violence. Heuses metaphor to show that no one can exorcise vanity from humans’psyche. Notice his description of a boy in the first paragraphs: “Hewas throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row who werecircling madly about the heap and pelting him” (2). The readerwonders what interest the boy has in stoning urchins that wouldobviously overpower him. He continues, “His infantile countenancewas livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery ofgreat, crimson oath” (3). While making it clear that humans havepreponderance for vanity, he attitude is clear. Vanity and violenceare self-destructing.
Moreover,the metaphor of Rum Alley and Devil’s Row heighten the irony inhumans’ vanity and proclivity for violence. The tussle, each groupdefending their tuff, brings out the animal instinct in human beings.In spite of their youthfulness, the children have learned to hateeach other with a great intensity. The bitter exchange of words andinsults belies any semblance of decency and honor than their raceespouses. Even without the racial overtures that portray certainraces as more civilized, decent, and with decorum, logic expects thatchildren, by dint of their assumed innocence, should be bereft ofsuch deep hatred. By making the children fight in the opening of hisnovella, Crane invites the reader to humans’ vanity. The childrenare fighting to test who among them is superior to the other. This isthe highest form of vanity especially coming from children. The needto defeat others by might and violence, just to feel superior is notonly repulsive but also primeval.
Moreover,vanity in the society is not confined to children. Adults’indifference towards the fighting children portrays that primevalvanity is deep-rooted in this society. The onlookers are not onlypassive but also hardly moved by the escalating violence betweenchildren. They have accepted it as a reality of life. Nothingcaptures this non-interest than Cranes’ description on page 3. Herhapsodizes, “From a window of an apartment house that up rearedits form from amid squat, ignorant stables, there leaned a curiouswoman” (3). Notice the woman is only curious but hardly concerned.He continues, “Some laborers, unloading a scow at a dock at theriver, paused for a moment and regarded the fight” (3). Theindifference persists, and lastly, “The engineer of a passivetugboat hung lazily to a railing and watched. Over on the island, aworm of yellow convicts came from the shadow of a grey ominousbuilding and crawled slowly back along the river’s bank” (4).This indifference by people who should show concern is not onlybaffling but also an indication of vanity. The symbol of “greyominous building” is a fore shadow of society’s gloom future.
Jimmie’svanity equals his friends, rivals his parent’s propensity for thesame and dwarfs Maggie’s belligerence. In the fight alongside hisfriends, some disappear when it gets tougher and only reemerge toshare accolades. Only that Jimmie scales new heights when hisattitude leads him to despise other people. He deems every otherperson as a hypocrite. This makes him belligerent at a very earlyage. In his pursuit of vanity, he turned to violence for purposes ofself-justification. In contrast, Maggie remains calm, by standards ofher environment. None of the moral decadence in her society appearedto lure her into moral corruption. Her encounter with Pete, however,changed her life completely. Pete’s masculinity and taste of goodlife changed Maggie’s perception of life.
Theencounter with Pete awakened Maggie’s vanity. She became consciousof better-dressed women in her neighborhood. Like them, she desiredto be elegant and attract as much attention. In the words of Cranes,she “craved those adornments of person which she saw every day onthe street, conceiving them to be allies of vast importance to women(34). She hoped that because Pete had some money, he would provideall these adornments. The feelings of inferiority propelled her to doabhorrent things just to feel as special. While her environment takesa share of the blame, it is impossible to exonerate Maggie from anywrong doings leading to her descent into prostitution. She becameaware of her poverty and conscious that her body can help her lead abetter life. Pete, her boyfriend, has no intention to love Maggie. Heis just a sex pest acting on vanity.
StephenCranes novella, ‘Maggie: A Girl of the Streets’ is an epicrepresentation of life in Bowery. Violence is rampant, just likealcoholism and moral decadence. The protagonists’ family is in deepalcoholism, depriving children the benefits of a proper upbringing.The Johnsons are also chaotic and tyrannical. Jimmie and his ilk ofbrawling youths epitomize the violence that rocked the society. Inthe middle of this violence is pursuit of vanity. Children arefighting viciously to establish the superior one. Adults are watchingon indifferently. Maggie gets into prostitution because of pursuingan elegant life. She lacks appreciation of her beauty and persona. Inthe end, the question to ponder is whether human beings have thecapacity to make personal choices in midst of immense socialcircumstances. Regrettably, Johnsons share the blame for the kind ofperson that their children turned out. The society too has remainedpassive in the midst of great social trepidation. Maggie and Jimmieshare the blame for pursuit of vainglorious vanity.
Crane,Stephen. Maggie:A Girl of the Streets.Boston: MobileReference.com, 2010. Internet resource.
Eichhorst,Kristina. Naturalismin Stephen Crane`s `maggie – a Girl of the Streets`: an Examinationof Determinism and Language.München:GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2012. Internet resource.
Sorrentino,Paul M. StudentCompanion to Stephen Crane.Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2005. Print.
Vahnenbruck,Kim. TheEnvironment of Maggie in Crane`s "maggie: a Girl of theStreets".München:GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2011. Internet resource.