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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Symbols



Crane paints much of life in Maggie's rundown neighborhood as drab, cramped, and dreary, with everything crowded close and in a state of tattered decline. Yet the first color other than gray or brown that he depicts is that of a red-faced, screaming toddler—Maggie's little brother Tommie being dragged down the street by her. It's there that they also encounter a blood-soaked Jimmie after his fight. In this light Crane uses the startling contrast of the color red to symbolize the anger, frustration, and violence that the characters often feel about their circumstances in the slums.

The next shade of "fervent red" that is depicted is that of the mother's alcoholic, angry face screaming at her children. Alcoholism causes redness of the face, and alcohol as a coping mechanism is a strong motif throughout the novel. It also induces and enables the helplessness and anger that characters such as the mother and her husband feel toward their lives and one another.

Red is also a color that historically symbolizes both danger and sexuality, and in this light its constant presence in the novel foreshadows Maggie's inevitable descent into prostitution, danger, and death. Crane attempts to paint the world of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in a brutally realistic light. His constant use of the color red serves as both the contrast to the wearying, desperate drabness of this world and as a symbol of the constant current of anger, violence, and sex that runs through it.

Animals and Insects

Crane paints a claustrophobic portrait of life in tenement housing as humans being nothing more than the animals they are, fighting and surviving as best they can, and constantly subjected to dangers and threats to their existence. In Crane's Naturalist view, humans are no better than animals or insects but are merely another organism struggling to survive in a harsh and uncaring world.

Crane paints characters such as Jimmie and the mother in broad, animalistic strokes of anger and violence, rendering them nearly one-dimensional as their ability to stay alive each day is constantly up for debate. Crane also compares both Jimmie and Maggie to dogs at certain points in their dumb devotion to the things they love—fire trucks for Jimmie and Pete for Maggie. Yet even characters on the periphery of the novel are compared to animals and insects at various points, such as in Chapter 1 when Crane paints a group of convicts as looking like "a worm [that] crawled slowly along the river's banks."

Crane uses the symbolism of humans as animals and insects to point out that, although humans have elevated themselves to a standing above animals, they become reduced to their baser instincts when forced into survival mode. Civility falls by the wayside, and violence becomes the norm. They fight each other like animals and only seem able to see as far ahead as they can see their own survival—not far.

Filth is another uncomfortable element of using animals and insects as symbols for humans since humans prefer to see themselves as more orderly and civil. Yet as Crane so realistically depicts in the portrait of the rooms that Maggie, the mother, and Jimmie inhabit, filth and poverty seem to go hand in hand. Even the insects that Crane uses to compare the masses of people to are ones associated with filth: bugs and flies. For Crane, humans, like any other species of insect or animal, are subject to survival of the fittest, which contributes to their violent tendencies.

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