| Maggie is a tale of survival. No less physical than emotional survival. Throughout the book, several degrees of survival are portrayed; whether it is Pete, Jimmie, or Maggie herself. Within this piece of fiction, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, there dwells the philosophy of Social Darwinism. This form of Darwinism is best described as “survival of the fittest (Crane, Fitelson: 110)”. Crane’s use of Naturalism shows this candidly. In an attempt to show this, I intend to express this by giving you four examples of survival in this story.
Let us begin by flushing out Social Darwinism. Critics of this philosophy argue that “survival of the fittest” is not a component of Darwin’s theory, off of which Social Darwinism is based, that the philosophy is one based on fallacies and therefore, worthless (ThinkQuest). But in this matter, such accusations matter not. They matter not, because either way—in terms of the theory’s validity—the philosophy can still be applied to Maggie. Social Darwinism is no less than, as Darwin’s grandfather said in 1754, “eat or be eaten,” (Crane, Fitelson: 110). It is important to note, though, that the environment is of central importance to Social and Natural Darwinism; thus, Naturalism becomes a prime piece of evidence for Social Darwinism in Maggie.
Naturalism is the style of American literature, popular around the turn of the Twentieth Century, which provoked the idea that the outside factors have an impact on personal stories (WSU). Although this is quite a far-fetched statement, I feel that Naturalism implies—to varying degrees—Social Darwinism. This is so, due to the fact that Social Darwinism is based, at least in part, on the theory Evolution by Natural Selection; and that aforementioned theory stakes its claim that evolution is imposed by the outside (as Carl Sagan described the theory in his program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage). Thus, I say again that Naturalist literature implies, at least subconsciously, socially Darwinian philosophy. Now, to the meat of it all:
First, let us deal with the root examples, which are Jimmie and Maggie’s parents. The parents are fully enveloped in tenement life: angry, abusive alcoholics with no intention of changing their ways, even for the benefit of their children. In the beginning of the novella, we see the two arguing at first over how to deal with Jimmie; that soon degenerates into screams, howls, and violent throwing fits (Maggie, 8). After coming back “home” after fleeing the parents’ drunken rage that night, Jimmie and Maggie find their mother sprawled across the living room floor, their father hanging over a chair (Maggie, 12); this may not seem like much, but this sight is a metaphor for the parents’ lost battle for they were not fit enough to survive the urban jungle (Maggie, 9: footnote VI).
Maggie is a striking example of the “survival of the fittest” mentality. She “blossomed in a mud puddle,” (Maggie, 16). That statement should, if given proper thought, provide an element of foreshadowing. A flower never grows and blooms in a puddle, for a puddle is to saturated, too filled with microbes to allow for a flower to blossom. Maybe that’s taking it too far, but no matter, because it is fundamentally right. As we see by the end of the tragedy, Maggie is far too weak to cope with losing Pete. Her apparent weakness is drowned out by Pete’s weakness, but that’s for later (Maggie, Chapter XVIII). Maggie is the poster child for the person “born to the wrong parents, born in the wrong place.” Her death at tale’s end should confirm this.
Jimmie was almost certainly born in the right place. Although he never rises above his father, he—as far as we know—doesn’t fall below him. Jimmie’s dominance is demonstrated when he beats a fellow kid’s head in with a brick (Maggie, Chapter I). It is quite obvious that the father approves of Jimmie’s status, since he still lives at home even when Maggie is becoming an adult. Near the story’s end, he shows further dominance over his peers when he ridicules Pete for his actions towards Maggie (Maggie, 49). Jimmie may fare better than Maggie, and it could be argued either way when compared to his parents, but Jimmie nonetheless survives. Prosperity is irrelevant to him; survival is fit enough for him.
Jimmie’s best friend, and Maggie’s man (at one point) is Pete. Pete seems to show promise of not only surviving, but thriving! Since he owns and runs a bar in the ghetto. His apparent wealth is shown when he takes Maggie across town to dime museums and shows, and in his moderately elegant attire (Maggie, 19). Pete’s weakness is shown to be, as is not surprising, alcohol (Maggie, Chapter XVIII). He also seems to be falling victim to his surroundings; as demonstrated by the drunks who often visit his bar. He, in a sense, fulfills the old saying: “you are what you hate.”
Perhaps that is why Nell doesn’t hate the micks of the ghetto in the Bowery. It is Nell that we see a thriving person, probably not economically, but at least influentially. She has a man tagging along at her side; she wields substantial power over Pete and belittles him easily (Maggie, Chapter XIV). Even with the lack of back-story on Nell, it is clear that she has some wealth, more than any other character. It is also apparent that she came from the Bowery, since she knows Pete and speaks the dialect. Nell’s clear superiority is proclaimed in the oft-used description of her as “the woman of brilliance and audacity” (Maggie, 56). This however reaches its crescendo when she laughs and says, "What a damn fool,” (Maggie, 56).
Fools are not fit, or, at least logic would say so. True or not, that statement perfectly fits Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. The application of Social Darwinism allows the reader to more fully understand and comprehend the tale, and its implications. This book is often considered the first Naturalist tale (Maggie, back cover), and often the first is the most extreme and stark in contrast as to what came before. The tale may be stark as such, but not extreme, I think. The morals of the society of that time censored the harsher aspects of tenement life out. Some may believe this book is anti-Capitalist, or at least, anti-Rockefeller capitalism. I feel that is pushing it. While Crane might be pushing some progressive politics here, I do not think it is a social commentary of the fallacies of our free market world. He may simply be trying to alert the hopeful migrant to the city that life there might be much worse than the countryside.
No one can be sure of what Crane meant, implied, or wrote into Maggie, but as critics or analysts of literature, we are obliged to find themes, philosophies, morals, or ideas imbedded, either intentionally or inadvertently into the fabric of the story. At its heart, the story can be seen as the American dream unrealized. It warns every hopeful immigrant that the American dream is just a dream. It takes ambition to make it a goal.
Crane makes frequent use of colors, and to startling effect. On every page, one can find multiple colors, hues, or shades; why does he use them so verbosely? I feel he used colors so often to express the variety and intensity of life in the Bowery, just as color defines the beauty of life and its evolution. However, color in the Bowery represents the hardship and cruelty of tenement life.
Maggie’s death presents an interesting possibility. Does her death, and her mother’s reaction to it, represent Humanity’s reaction to the extinction of certain species of late? Since we are discussing Social Darwinism, we should discuss the other form of Darwinism dominated by Man: artificial selection. Maggie’s mother, Mary, cursed her as she left home with Pete, yet promised forgiveness after her death (Maggie, 54). Does that not parallel our feelings towards the tiger or wild horse, who near extinction day-by-day, and those in their midst wish them gone, or care not for their preservation? Would those people plead Nature to give them back what they hated or did not want? This question can extends to materialism: we never know what we need, want, or love until we lose it.
So, it seems fair to say that Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is a morality tale which is set against the backdrop of the dying Gilded Age, in the framework of Social Darwinism and expresses the influence the outside world has on our destiny in the genre of Naturalism. The first of its kind, this novella is unique in its philosophy; it is not overt or subversive, it is plain and clear. It makes no promises, nor any statement of an opinion, only simply proclaims what is visible and known to be true. The story shows the realities of life in that setting, and sugarcoats none of it; for if it did, it would not have aged as well as it has. But, none of these things matter if you’re just looking for a good story, because anything can be a good story—Darwinian or not—and, as Plato said, “Taste is indisputable.”