Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Chapter 17 | Summary



Several months later, on a wet evening in the theater district, "a girl of the painted cohorts of the city" moves through the crowds, smiling at farmers and avoiding city men—Maggie. A well-dressed gentleman is intrigued by the fact she does not notice him. He is startled when he realizes the woman he is staring after "was neither new, Parisian, nor theatrical," in other words, a prostitute. Other men respond to her as if they identify her immediately as a prostitute. One man bumps into her, calls her "Mary" and says, "Brace up, old girl."

Maggie walks into darker and less crowded streets. Another city dweller calls her "old lady," and bemused by her attention, says, "You don't mean to tel me that you sized me up for a farmer?" She tries to attract a cheerful blond boy who waves back, "Not this eve—some other eve!" A drunken man stumbles into her path and shouts, "I ain' ga no more money."

Now Maggie travels into "gloomy districts near the river" where "she [meets] a ragged being with shifting, bloodshot eyes and grimy hands." They go into an even darker block where the buildings have "grim lips" and "eyes that looked over them, beyond them, at other things." Life goes on as usual for the rest of the city: "The lights of the avenues glittered as if from an impossible distance. Streetcar bells jingled with a sound of merriment." Meanwhile, Maggie's journey ends with the "deathly black hue of the river" where "the varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence."


It is significant that Crane shifts into referring to Maggie as "a girl" rather than by her name. It's as though she has become only another nameless prostitute, defined by her features and gender rather than the person she is. To lose one's name is to lose one's power, and it is a significant decision on Crane's part to take Maggie's name away from her. Crane also seems to highlight Maggie's plight is similar to that of countless other girls of her class and neighborhood who are forced into a life they didn't ask for but had to turn to in order to survive. Maggie is depicted in this chapter as wandering through increasingly shady neighborhoods in order to find clients, yet she doesn't yet seem experienced enough to know whom to approach. She seems just as lost in this life as she did in her previous life, unsure of her own worth. Her depiction as moving from more populous neighborhoods to the ones on the outskirts is symbolic of her descent into darkness in general, and the sense that there is no turning back toward the light.

At the root of her experience is the heartbreaking fact she is utterly alone and the fact that it is the sweet, kind, innocent Maggie who must endure this makes it all the more difficult for the reader to stomach. Crane seems to point out the Realist view that life is cruel, unfair, and unjust in its rewards and punishments. Upon its publication, this view of the life of a prostitute was revelatory for a 19th-century audience, which frowned upon prostitution as a trade even for those as desperate as Maggie. In this light, Crane aimed to portray the realism behind the choices women like Maggie were forced to make, despite society's determination to turn a blind eye.
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