Power and Control in Maggie
The world of Stephen Crane’s novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, is a dark, violent place. People curse one another openly and instigate fights over petty issues. The intense poverty of the populace leads to a feeling of general despair and creates a lack of self-confidence in each individual. People want to feel that they mean something. They want to know that their life does not go unnoticed. They desire power over others lives. The poor, who are constantly controlled by the rich, yearn for the opportunity to control their world. In a typical society these urges would be satisfied by successful careers and families but in the torn and impoverished world of Maggie people gain power and control only through violence and the moral desecration of others. This thesis will be shown through the fighting amongst the children, the violence of the household, and the family’s treatment of Maggie’s death.
The kids in the world of Maggie fight each other for the positions of control and power among other children. The novel opens with a scene of violence. Two different groups of boys are engaged in a bloody scuffle. Crane writes, “A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him” (Crane 3). That the kids are battling for the so-called “honor of Rum Alley” (Crane 3) shows that the kids are trying to gain a position of power through battle. If they can injure those who stand in their way in front of everyone else they will earn the respect and, therefore, the control and power they are seeking. Donald Pizer explores this idea in his essay, “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and American Naturalism”. Pizer states that the scene quoted above of the boy on top of the rock pile fighting with the other kids has what he calls a “basic chivalric cast” (Pizer 188). He writes, “The very little boy is a knight fighting on his citadel of gravel for the honor of his chivalrous pledge to Rum Alley” (Pizer 188). Pizer compares the fighting for control and power to medieval battles in which knights (who were all from the noble class) battled for fame and fortune (Pizer 188). A further examination of the theme of medieval battle is found in Jay Martin’s essay “Maggie and Satire”. Martin points out the cliche’ found in Maggie when Pete “smites a boy on the back of the head” (Martin 209). The word smite is a antiquated term used mostly in a medieval context. Crane has melded a memory of the past with the violent present to come up with a world of heroic despair (Martin 210). Just as the knights hoped to gain status among their peers the boys hope to show that they are strong and should be feared and respected.
In a typical society the family unit is a refuge from the outside world. Home is a shelter where we receive love and support for others. In the dark world of Maggie home is another battleground where wars over power and dominance rein freely. The characters in the novel fight physical and emotional battles with each other. Poverty, alcohol abuse, and moral degradation fuel this fighting into great everlasting conflicts that destroy everyone involved. In the second chapter of Maggie we find an example of this horrifying violence. Jimmie has been caught by his father fighting among the other kids and has taken him home. As they walk through the door the mother exhibits the same behavior as her son. Crane writes, “As the father and children filed in she peered at them. ‘Eh, what? Been fightin’ agin, by Gawd!’ She threw herself upon Jimmie” (Crane 7). In the next paragraph Crane describes the mother’s treatment of the “urchin” (Crane 7). The mother “shook him until he rattled” (Crane 7). She then soaks a rag in water and scrubs “his lacerated face with it. Jimmie screamed in pain and tried to twist his shoulders out of the clasp of the huge