Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Themes



The lambrequin is a piece of decorative cloth Maggie brings home to decorate the mantel in an attempt to impress Pete. However, by the time he arrives it is in disarray due to the mother's drunken antics. The lambrequin symbolizes Maggie's hope for a better life, and Pete represents the possibility of a different future. Before Pete, Maggie was mostly unaware of the abject poverty she lived in, yet once she meets him she begins to view her environment through critical eyes. The fact that even the lambrequin is destroyed symbolizes all of Maggie's dashed hopes and that in spite of her best efforts, she will never have the life she longs for.


Maggie's worsted boots aren't mentioned until Chapter 19. This is significant because her mother gushes over the memory of them upon hearing the news of Maggie's death. The mother can't stop picturing Maggie's small feet in the boots when she was a child—yet no depiction of Maggie as a child early in the novel ever mentions the boots. The mother conveniently clings to the boots when she chooses to remember herself as a good, loving mother. In doing so she forgets her own neglectful, abusive behavior toward her daughter. The worsted boots symbolize Maggie's lost innocence and a childhood she never fully experienced with a loving, supportive mother.

Double Standards

Throughout the novel Crane highlights the double standards men and women faced in 19th-century society. Maggie and Jimmie are siblings, and many of their life decisions mirror each other, yet only Maggie seems to deal with the consequences of her actions. As a woman Maggie's options for making a living on her own are much more limited than Jimmie's, who makes his living as a truck driver. Maggie works in a factory yet has little independence or autonomy and is forced to live with her abusive mother. When Maggie falls in love with Pete, a rumor spreads that they are having a physical relationship, which marks her as a "fallen" woman in society. This sets off a chain of events in which Maggie is disowned and forced out of her mother's home.

Meanwhile, Jimmie has a relationship with a girl named Hattie that mirrors Maggie and Pete's relationship. While Hattie suffers consequences similar to Maggie, Jimmie is able to leave the relationship unscathed and without a second thought. Maggie's consequences force her into a life of prostitution, while Jimmie's life remains the same. By comparing the two, Crane seems to highlight the unjust and unfair nature of double standards and how drastically consequences can affect the lives of someone as innocent as Maggie.

Victims and Violence

Life in the 19th-century Bowery neighborhood of New York City is depicted as a brutal cycle of being either a victim or a victimizer. From the beginning of the novel, the characters fall into these patterns and are quick to turn on each other in order to gain the upper hand. For characters like Maggie, a love interest like Pete seems the only way out of the desperate life she is accustomed to. Yet even Maggie finds herself the ultimate victim when she is forced to become a prostitute to survive. Crane emphasizes that for many of these characters, violence is the only way to survive a brutal life. Characters like Jimmie and Pete settle all their disputes through violence, and this is not surprising given that Jimmie's only role models were his parents who had an incredibly violent and abusive relationship. Crane questions whether it is possible to undo such learned behavior if it is taught as a survival instinct and wonders if people are merely a product of their environment. Regardless, whoever wields violence in the novel wields power, however fleeting it is.

Poverty and Alcoholism

Poverty and alcoholism are inescapable in the novel, and at times it is difficult to discern which is causing the other. The reader's introduction to the Johnson family is an abrupt, horrific introduction to the effects of both alcoholism and poverty. Crane goes to great lengths to depict the abject state of the slums in which the Johnson family lives and how deeply it colors their daily existence. Maggie and Jimmie, for the most part, are immune to it as children since they know nothing else, but when Maggie meets Pete she begins to notice how horrendous the environment she lives in actually is.

The threat of further poverty colors many of the decisions the characters make, such as Maggie's ultimate decision to prostitute herself in order to survive. Mary Johnson and her husband appear to have turned to alcohol long ago in order to cope with their harsh realities, which in turn make them violent and abusive toward each other and their children. Crane seems to suggest poverty and alcoholism go hand in hand in the novel, and the addiction to alcohol ensures that people like the Johnsons will never rise above their station in life. Even Jimmie becomes the alcoholic echo of his father as he grows up since he lacks any other role model. Both Jimmie and Maggie know their mother has a problem, but neither seems to be aware that anything can or should be done about it. Ultimately the mother's alcoholism ruins her relationship with Maggie and earns her a terrible reputation in the neighborhood.

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