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Eng 353 - a New Critical Analysis of Stephen Crane's Maggie

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Barry Molitch

Susan Crandall

English 353

21 August 2011

A New Critical Analysis of Stephen Crane's Maggie

In a career tragically cut short by tuberculosis, Stephen Crane published fifty stories and sketches, four novels and two collections of poetry. His art reflected the naturalist philosophy of deterministic, materialistic pessimism (Ruben) and the bohemian lifestyle, which he chose to live in the underbelly of society, among the poor artists, whores and slumdwellers of New York. His first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, is an impressionistic narrative of a young girl, born in the slums of New York, and driven into prostitution (Baym 995-996) by a chain of events that take place independently from the will and judgement of the characters involved; characters whose "beliefs of moral propriety are so false to their experience yet [they] function as operative forces in their lives" (Nagel). Crane's sensitivity to the sound of language, his painterly use of color and imagery and use of sharply observed detail and convincing dialogue, makes this naturalistic novel an excellent choice for a New Critical reading.

New Criticism is an approach that treats a piece of literature as an autotelic (having or being an end or purpose in itself) object which cannot be judged by any considerations beyond itself (Siegel).The New Critic is interested in the interplay of images, symbols, metaphors, figures of speech, rhythm, irony and ambiguity in the building a complex and organic piece of art (Soria). New Criticism emphasizes that good art reflects unchanging universals of human experience and values; that precise analysis is vital to the understanding of literature; and that the text's relationship to the world beyond, is of little interest (Hedges). New Criticism has been accused by its detractors as little more than aestheticism by another name, profoundly unattached to historical and societal concerns (Logan). Crane's Maggie is a grand impressionistic mural which must be seen in its totality to be truly appreciated.

From the description of the Rum Alley tenement that housed the Johnson family, in a:

"dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against an hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. . . . infants . . . sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress . . . screamed in frantic quarrels. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels" (Crane Chap II).

to Maggie's final appearance in the :

"blackness of the final block. The shutters of the tall buildings were closed liked grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes . . . Afar off the lights of the avenues glittered as if from an impossible distance. Street-car bells jingled with a sound of merriment . . . the river appeared a deathly black hue. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence" (Chap XVII),

there is the unmistakable evidence of the influence of the impressionist painters on Crane's content, style and personal aesthetic (Petry). Chapter XI's saloon fight, when Maggie's brother Jimmy attacks Pete for deflowering his sister, glistens with the imagery of pyramids of polished glasses, mirrors and liquor bottles shattering and "splintering into nothing" in a violent brawl as the " three frothing creatures on the floor buried themselves in a frenzy for blood" (Crane).

Crane's ear for the idiom and rhythms of the street are captured in the dialogue between Jimmy and Maggie's parents:

"Let the damned kid alone for a minute, will yeh, Mary? Yer allus poundin' 'im. When I come nights I can't git no rest 'cause yer allus poundin' a kid. Let up, d'yeh hear? Don't be allus poundin' a kid" (Chap II).

To the modern reader, the dialect might seem a parody at first, bringing up images of the Bowery Boys comedies, but the internal ear soon accepts the accents of the slum dwellers. It is only Nell, the "woman of brilliance and audacity" who speaks in standard American English as she derides Pete for his interest in Maggie. Pete, already feeling hemmed in by his relationship with her, sacrifices Maggie to the brutality of the streets (Novotny).

The ambiguity of Maggie's death has been a puzzle for readers and critics

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