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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 2 | Summary



"The father," as Mr. Johnson is called, and Jimmie approach "a careening building" where "a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter." Laundry hangs on the fire escapes. Children, "formidable women," and the elderly crowd the slum. "A thousand odors of cooking food" fill the air. "A small ragged girl," whom the reader will learn is Maggie Johnson, drags a baby down the alley to meet Jimmie and the father. The baby, Tommie Johnson, pulls back.

The girl scolds Jimmie for fighting, saying, "Yeh knows it puts mudder out when yehs come home half dead, an' it's like we'll all get a poundin'." Jimmie threatens to hit her, and then makes good on his promise. The girl retreats, but Jimmie advances, and the father admonishes him, saying, "Leave yer sister alone on the street." The group passes through one of the "gruesome doorways" into a "gloomy" hall, then into an apartment.

Mary Johnson, "the mother," inspects the group as they enter. She berates Jimmie for fighting, knocking down Tommie along the way. She shakes and scrubs Jimmie while the father demands she stop—instead she scrubs harder. When she is finished, the mother confronts the father, and the children retreat under tables and into corners.

The father acts calm during the fight, while the mother screams and shakes her fists. He says she has been drinking, but she denies it. Meanwhile, Maggie goes over to Jimmie in his corner, asks if he is hurt, and offers to wash the blood. Jimmie just vows to "catch dat Riley kid" and turns away to "bide his time." The mother wins the fight as the father leaves, bent on "a vengeful drunk."

The mother hurries around the room and serves potatoes. The children eat, and she drinks from "a yellow-brown bottle," her mood turning to self-pity. Maggie tries to clean up the dishes, but one breaks. The mother's "eyes glittered on her child with sudden hatred." Jimmie runs from the apartment in a panic. He stumbles down the stairs where the old woman opens her door to him, saying, "Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin' yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin' yer fader?"


Although Crane first introduces the reader to Jimmie, once the reader meets his sister Maggie it becomes clear she is the protagonist. In contrast to Jimmie, Maggie is gentle, timid, and caring, despite the constant abuse hurled at her from her mother and brother. It is significant that although children are the most vulnerable and impressionable in the novel, they are also constantly at the mercy of adults who physically abuse them. In this light it begins to make sense why Crane opened the novel with a scene of boys ganging up on each other—this is the dominant display of behavior for dealing with conflicts.

Yet Chapter 2 sees a shift from public violence to private violence in the Johnson household—providing the sinking sensation there is no escape from it. Crane's depiction of Mary Johnson as a violent alcoholic is instantly shocking and horrifying and emphasizes that the children can only depend on themselves for survival. It is no wonder that Jimmie is already full of anger and spite at such a young age—anger is the dominant emotion in his household. His parents seem capable of only expressing themselves by yelling or hitting. Jimmie's escape to his neighbor's house reveals that this abuse is an ongoing, chronic problem when the old woman asks him which one of his parents is being hit this time.

Crane goes to great lengths to depict the environment the Johnsons live in—abject, filthy squalor with little privacy. He describes the building that "quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels." There isn't enough space to thrive and only barely enough to survive. The scene inside the Johnsons' apartment only reinforces the reader's sense that these characters are trapped with no way out of the life they must live. In contrast to the rest of her family, however, Crane shines a brief beacon of hope in the character of Maggie, who is kind and dutiful, taking care of her baby brother as best she can, although it is clear her own rough treatment causes her to treat him roughly as well. Yet even though Maggie takes care of Jimmie after he is beaten, Jimmie has no qualms about leaving her alone with their rampaging mother, highlighting that personal survival has been ingrained in him from a young age.

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