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Power and Control in Maggie

The world of Stephen Crane s novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, is a dark, violent place. People curse one another openly and instigate fights over petty issues. The intense poverty of the populace leads to a feeling of general despair and creates a lack of self-confidence in each individual. People want to feel that they mean something. They want to know that their life does not go unnoticed. They desire power over others lives. The poor, who are constantly controlled by the rich, yearn for the opportunity to control their world. In a typical society these urges would be satisfied by successful careers and families but in the torn and impoverished world of Maggie people gain power and control only through violence and the moral desecration of others. This thesis will be shown through the fighting amongst the children, the violence of the household, and the family s treatment of Maggie s death.

The kids in the world of Maggie fight each other for the positions of control and power among other children. The novel opens with a scene of violence. Two different groups of boys are engaged in a bloody scuffle. Crane writes, A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil s Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him (Crane 3). That the kids are battling for the so-called honor of Rum Alley (Crane 3) shows that the kids are trying to gain a position of power through battle. If they can injure those who stand in their way in front of everyone else they will earn the respect and, therefore, the control and power they are seeking. Donald Pizer explores this idea in his essay, Stephen Crane s Maggie and American Naturalism . Pizer states that the scene quoted above of the boy on top of the rock pile fighting with the other kids has what he calls a basic chivalric cast (Pizer 188). He writes, The very little boy is a knight fighting on his citadel of gravel for the honor of his chivalrous pledge to Rum Alley (Pizer 188). Pizer compares the fighting for control and power to medieval battles in which knights (who were all from the noble class) battled for fame and fortune (Pizer 188). A further examination of the theme of medieval battle is found in Jay Martin s essay Maggie and Satire . Martin points out the cliche found in Maggie when Pete smites a boy on the back of the head (Martin 209). The word smite is a antiquated term used mostly in a medieval context. Crane has melded a memory of the past with the violent present to come up with a world of heroic despair (Martin 210). Just as the knights hoped to gain status among their peers the boys hope to show that they are strong and should be feared and respected.

In a typical society the family unit is a refuge from the outside world. Home is a shelter where we receive love and support for others. In the dark world of Maggie home is another battleground where wars over power and dominance rein freely. The characters in the novel fight physical and emotional battles with each other. Poverty, alcohol abuse, and moral degradation fuel this fighting into great everlasting conflicts that destroy everyone involved. In the second chapter of Maggie we find an example of this horrifying violence. Jimmie has been caught by his father fighting among the other kids and has taken him home. As they walk through the door the mother exhibits the same behavior 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 the mother s treatment of the urchin (Crane 7). The mother shook him until he rattled (Crane 7). She then soaks a rag in water and scrubs his lacerated face with it. Jimmie screamed in pain and tried to twist his shoulders out of the clasp of the huge arms (Crane 7). The above sort of treatment of the children is the rule and not an exception. It is an example of the parents gaining power and control over their children through violence. John Berryman writes in his essay, Hallucination and Hysteria in Maggie , a good description of the characters in the family. He writes, Self-indulgent, brutal, self-pitying, none of these people can help each other (Berryman 164). Berryman also points out that [i]t is not that they lack moral ideas but that these ideas are the perverted ones common to their conditions weight (Berryman 164). The children posses the best of these ideas while the parents are far below [the children s morals] already (Berryman 164). Charles Child Walcutt comments on the setting in his essay, Hallucination and Hysteria in Maggie . He writes, In telling this story, Crane fuses elements of poverty, ignorance, and intolerance in a context of violence and cruelty to create a nightmarish world wavering between hallucination and hysteria (Walcutt 165). He further explains a couple paragraphs down stating, A dominant idea that grows from this landscape of hysteria is that these people are victimized by their ideas of moral propriety which are so utterly inapplicable to their lives that they constitute a social insanity (Walcutt 166). In a normal household the parents have control through love and respect. In the world of Maggie the parent s only way of getting power and control over their children is through intense physical and emotional destructiveness.

The last chapter of the book, which details the family s response to Maggie s suicide, shows the characters mourning over her death. But the scene is more like a stage act than a funeral. The characters are playing for an audience to try to show that they are not like their misguided (Crane 57) relative Maggie. They are virtues people who cannot understand why Maggie would choose such a drastic action as suicide. The mother, after hearing of Maggie s death, laments what a ter ble affliction is a disobed ent chil (Crane 57). They portray Maggie as a horrible person. A person afflicted (Crane 57) with bad moral values and needing forgiveness from everyone. The family does this so that others can see that they are good people who deserve respect. The Johnson s want the power of others approval and the control that that approval will bring. They achieve this by portraying Maggie as a horrible individual. Janet Overmyer in her essay, The Structure of Crane s Maggie , writes of the theatre-like atmosphere of the novel. She writes, The final, disgustingly ironic comment of Maggie s mother- I ll fergive her! – would not have been uttered at all but for the neighbors prodding. As they repeatedly ask if the mother will forgive, she senses that it would be a fine gesture to make; it would make her out a martyr (Overmyer 185). Maggie s mother wants the power and control that being a martyr encompasses.

Maggie is a powerful work of fiction. It sets us in a desolate and hopeless world. But the world that it creates is closer to reality than some would like to think. The characters in the book are not born with evil in their souls. They are shaped by their environment just as much as everyone else that has ever lived. It just so happens that the environment around them is so oppressively bleak that it affects them in a negative way. This environment leads people to feel inadequate and unimportant. The characters in Maggie want to have an element of control and power in their lives. But in their horrifying world they must use violence and the moral destruction of others to gain that power and control. This is shown through the fighting amongst the children, the violence of the household, and the family s treatment of Maggie s death.


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