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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Chapter 1 | Summary



A small boy named Jimmie Johnson fights for the honor of his neighborhood, Rum Alley, a section of the Bowery in Lower Manhattan in the late 1800s. He stands alone, "livid with fury," throwing rocks at a group of children from Devil's Row. When a Rum Alley boy tells him to run, brave Jimmie says, "Naw ... dese micks can't make me run." "Tattered gamins" from Devil's Row charge, while bruised and bloody Jimmie fends them off with the look of "a tiny, insane demon." Adults watch passively without intervening. A rock hits Jimmie in the mouth, and blood gushes down his shirt, while tears trail through the dirt on his face.

The fight is interrupted by "a lad of sixteen years" who is "boastfully sauntering ... with a certain swing of the shoulders which appalled the timid." He hits a Devil's Row child, forcing the group to retreat. When he asks, "What deh hell, Jimmie?"—Jimmie replies, "Well, it was dis way, Pete, see! I was goin' teh lick dat Riley kid and dey all pitched on me." The Rum Alley children return, and the stone throwing and taunting resumes briefly until the Rum Alley "blokies" turn for home, bragging of their valor. Blue Billie boasts, "Ah, where deh hell was yeh when I was doin' all deh fightin?" This infuriates Jimmie, and the two quickly come to blows, rolling on the cobblestones while Pete and others cheer them on.

Jimmie does not hear the warning of his approaching father. Mr. Johnson "plod[s] slowly" and looks "listlessly" at the boys until he recognizes Jimmie. Then he says, "Here, you Jim, git up, now, while I belt yer life out, you damned disorderly brat." He kicks into the tangle of boys. Blue Billie retreats, and Jimmie curses his father. Jimmie "swore luridly" the whole way home, for "it was degradation" for "a man of blood ... to be taken home by a father."


Chapter 1 introduces the tense, dog-eat-dog setting of Rum Alley, a rundown and impoverished neighborhood in late 19th-century New York City. The action is immediately full of frenzy and violence as a group of children chase and throw stones at a young boy, Jimmie Johnson, until he bleeds. Crane depicts Jimmie as wearing a "look of a tiny, insane demon," characterizing him as a boy capable of harboring a great deal of anger. Although there are adults around, none of them bother to interfere or scold the children. The author quickly establishes that poverty and survival in this neighborhood boil down to survival of the fittest and watching out for oneself first. The gang of children is depicted as a scrappy, dirty group of savages. The reader's introduction to Jimmie is significant, as the story will follow him into adulthood and trace the cause and effect of his own inability to get ahead in life. Crane highlights here how people born into this impoverished environment are cursed and have little recourse due to lack of money and education. Even when Jimmie's father shows up, it's hardly to rescue him but to threaten to kill him for getting into trouble—he even delivers a kick to Jimmie to emphasize his point. Here, parents don't soothe their children, instead believing that toughening them up is the only way they will survive.

Crane's intention in thrusting the reader into the heart of this violent environment is to deliver an unflinching portrait of the lives of people who had to survive in the Bowery. Violence is constantly lurking, both overtly and as a hovering threat. Writing in the Realist vein, Crane holds the reader's attention by opening the book with a violent scene. This style is in stark contrast to the notion that a story must have a hero who overcomes obstacles and emerges triumphant. For Crane, oftentimes an uncaring and unsparing reality interferes with a character's true potential. Although the reader may hope Jimmie is able to persevere, Crane sets a pervasive tone of dread that his environment may doom him.

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