Maggie A Girl of the Streets and Other Stories
Two Perspectives, One Reality: Analyzing “The Open Boat”
Novelist Ray Bradbury once said, “I used to take my short stories to girls’ homes and read them to them. Can you imagine the reaction reading a short story to a girl instead of pawing her?” (“Ray Bradbury Quotes”). While speaking from a comical perspective, Bradbury understands this: short stories are powerful. They have the power to create an alternate reality. Sadly, they often underrated when compared to the typical novel because have less content, less quantity, or less detail. But a story’s length does not determine that the quality of its message or the style of its language. The essence of a story, regardless of its length, is determined by the reader’s reaction. To grab attention, the writer must include the essential elements of story telling, such as setting, characters, and theme. Yet, in Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” the reader understands these three elements from a chillingly realistic perspective when given the facts that drive this historical fiction.
First, the historical facts regarding the location and context of this story not only give context to its setting, but they also create a disturbingly authentic reality. The reader must first understand that this story is based off a real incident in Stephen Crane’s life and career. As a war reporter, Crane traveled to varying locations across the globe in order to report events and incidents related to war. In the specific instance of both this historical account and this short story, Crane is supposed to be traveling to Cuba to report an event of gunrunning to rebels in Cuba right before the Spanish-American War began in 1898 (“Fact and Fiction”). However, he is sidetracked by a shipwreck. Considering the amount of context given in the short story itself, this information is priceless. The narrator only hints at the actual, physical context of the story when discussing the water’s condition. He says, “The January water was icy, and he [the correspondent] reflected immediately that it was colder than he had expected to find it off the coast of Florida” (356). After reading and sifting through such a lengthy short story, the reader may often overlook this simple detail. However, understanding this one simple detail brings reality to this situation. First of all, this story is real. Florida is an actual place that exists on the maps our children learn about in fifth grade. Florida is the real place from where Crane departed in order to purposefully travel to Cuba and to unknowingly spend 30 hours on a dinghy (“Fact and Fiction”). Deep-sea swimming is a serious matter, and if ill prepared, deep-sea swimming is a deadly matter. In a newspaper article reporting the sinking of their ship, Crane states, “The whistle of the Commodore [their ship] had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle” (“Fact and Fiction,” pp. 43). Here, Crane discusses an actual reality from a first person point of view. This reality of this fact creates a new sense of urgency in the short story. Urgency often leads to panic, and panic often ends in disaster.
These historical facts only contribute to the reality of this situation: four men stuck in the middle of the ocean, fighting for life. These four characters, who are fighting for life and bonded by a “subtle brotherhood,” have real counterparts in history, counterparts which also offer an element of frightening actuality to this story (345). In reality, the correspondent represents Crane, the cook exemplifies the actual cook of the Commodore, the captain signifies Captain Edward Murphy, and the oiler is Billie Higgins. Simply put, these four individuals are real people who had families, occupations, identities. According to Crane’s newspaper article, both Murphy and Higgins were men of outstanding character. If Crane had reported the entire story in this article, “the splendid manhood” of those two men would have shined from it (“Fact and Fiction,” pp. 72). Yet for some reason that mortal men may not understand, Murphy and Higgins nearly lost their lives on this dinghy. As previously mentioned, deep-sea swimming is not a laughing matter. Neither are the lives of two honorable individuals a laughing matter. But sadly, one of these lives does end by the conclusion of the narrative’s action. While the short story does not explicitly mention Higgins’ death, Crane outright mentions this fact in his newspaper article. In this story, the narrator briefly mentions that the oiler lay “face downward,” but in his newspaper article, Crane states that the captain saw “Billy Higgins lying with his forehead on sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead” (358; “Fact and Fiction,” pp. 73). While the reader can infer his death from the short story, the story is is missing the word “dead.” The reader may have hope while reading the end of the story, but the historical account crushes this hope. The historical reality regarding the characters makes this horrifying reality alive not only because the characters did not deserve such struggle, but also because of the euphemisms regarding their reality.
Finally, the frightening reality of this short story is furthered by the combination of its history and its theme. A prominent theme of this short story is the struggle man faces when attempting to define his purpose in life. Universally speaking, almost every human being that has, does, or will exist asks himself about this “purpose” in life. The narrator of “The Open Boat” struggles with this as well. Throughout the story, he re-states this quote, If I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees (353). Without understanding Crane’s purpose in life and specifically in this trip, the consistency of this phrase may cause pity and a misunderstanding of his pleas. The reader may easily think the narrator is simply upset by the thought of death. But it goes much deeper than that. Historically speaker, Crane has a set purpose for being on the Commodore. He was en route to Cuba in order to document an important moment in history. He was aiding the rebel cause. He was ready to help people. But in a seemingly random series of events, his purpose was immediately taken away. The depth of his purpose is essential to understanding why Crane constantly doubts his existence. The reality of losing purpose is deep, real, and bit depressing. Defining purpose in life is rough enough, despite the added complication of a shipwreck en route to Cuba.
Crane’s fiction is powerful in its cumulative effect: it contains images, characters, setting details, lessons, themes, and more all within a few pages. Even without knowing personally knowledge of these characters, the reader can almost interact with them. But when the reader goes beyond these literary elements and explores its historical context, the reader is given a new, more frightening perspective. From setting to characters and even themes, these elements and the history of the narrative are constantly working to create a story with a reality no man may desire.
Implications of the Second Theater Scene in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
With the second theater scene of Stephen Crane’s novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the plot of the selected play is used ironically to provide insight to the hopes and concerns of its audience. Because the theater is a form of escape for Maggie and those of the Bowery tenement specifically, the strife of characters is very much reflective of their reality and elicits raw, visceral reactions — to both their “imagined” and “real” condition (31). This is seen in the chosen melodrama wherein a “heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her guardian,” which is ironic in that its inevitably hopeful and happy ending both simplifies and falsifies life — setting up the idea that those above the audience are always happy and that all those less than are innocently unhappy, until they can better their circumstances (31). The plot also reflects the concerns of the audience, affirming that the “poor and virtuous” may “eventually surmount the wealthy and wicked,” giving hope to the otherwise hopeless, and playing off of their subconscious desires — although providing no real method for ascension other than random acts of heroism (32).
This unrealistic promise of heroics is ironic too, as it is what likely leads Maggie to see Pete as her only escape from predetermined reality, and gives reason for her attachment — as she believes him to be her “hero with the beautiful sentiments” (31). Crane uses this example of disillusionment as a form of commentary on the poor’s distorted understanding of social mobility, which he ultimately argues perpetuates the cycle of poverty in the tenement. Additionally, the choice of diction employed by Crane in his descriptions of the audience holds negative, monster-like connotations which serve as a more basic commentary on the ironic position of power perceived by the audience when at the theater. These “shady persons” are from the perspective of Maggie, “unmistakably bad men,” and are seen throughout the play showering “maledictions” upon similarly villainous characters, who now represent the upper classes (31). The audience is also seen vulgarly “hiss[ing] vice” but “applaud[ing] virtue” with the intent to show support for those “unfortunate and … oppressed” characters they now identify with — uncharacteristically showing a new, “sincere admiration for virtue” (31). This is very much unlike the proper etiquette of a traditional “uptown” theater, but understandable of a tenement audience entranced by the theater’s effect of “transcendental realism” and hypnotized to the teachings of its plot, which bestow upon them a new, third-person perspective and unite them under common sentiments (31). Together, they “encouraged the struggling hero with cries … jeered the villain … [and] sought out the painted misery and hugged it as akin” (31, 32). Their reactions to the play, as well as the plot itself, are reflective of their own desires, and it is only within the theater that they are provided the power to ensure these things, and the position to “confront” and “denounce” the rich — which is unsurprisingly taken full advantage of (32).
In Crane’s narration of the scene, the reader is moved between a wide, generalized perspective and a descriptive one presented through the perspective of Maggie, in order to provide insight to her psychology rather than the greater audience’s. Hence, it is Maggie who perceives the fine details of the scene; the church windows as “happy-hued,” heroine’s home as “palatial,” her guardian as “cruel,” and the hero as man of “beautiful sentiments” (31, 32). This stylistic perspective change is utilized both to share the thoughts of Maggie, and to relate the details of the melodrama back to the larger, outside themes and progression of the novella. For instance, with the hero’s “erratic march from poverty in the first act, to wealth and triumph in the final,” there again lies support for the idea of social mobility, which, the reader is shown, is not only widely praised by the audience, but leads Maggie to “think” that perhaps similar “culture and refinement…could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house” (32). While this likely occurs in many minds of the audience, it is done so ironically in this instance, as Maggie eventually becomes a prostitute — the only role for which she can comparably ascend and descend the social scale.
Stephen Crane’s descriptions throughout the novel use naturalism to suggest that it is the tenement which dehumanize poor individuals, but attributes the perpetuation of their status to the distorted perception of reality shown in the plots of the Bowery’s popular melodramas. To illustrate this, irony is employed throughout the descriptions of the plays, commenting on the use of their plot for the audience’s consolation, which ultimately distracts from directed efforts to better their own positions, but leaves them “with raised spirits” (32).
Literary Naturalism: A Comparison of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and To Build A Fire
For centuries, philosophers have debated just how much truth can be found in the concept of free will. As humans, we tend to favor a viewpoint that grants us more control, that is, that we are capable of determining our future with our actions. However, with the movement of literary naturalism came the counterargument: with the forces of economics, biology, and psychology, humans are left with no free will. This concept has been explored in naturalist writings, including Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and To Build A Fire, which both explore the extreme control one’s environment can have on life. Though the texts use contrasting settings, both are set in worlds of harsh cruelty closing in on the protagonist. While both works prove to be exemplary examples of literary naturalism, using similar characterization and thematic techniques, differences lie in how the natural forces are used to leave protagonists without control or hope.
Both works feature a theme of environmental determinism. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, protagonist Maggie is surrounded by rampant poverty, crime, and alcoholism. Though Maggie imagines growing up and out of this world she knows, this proves impossible. No matter how honest her actions are, Maggie’s environment sets her back enough so that she is constantly fighting to survive, emotionally and physically. No character is pardoned: Jimmie opens the story by getting in a street fight to maintain his reputation, and grows up to be a womanizing drinker like so many men around him. The economic environment of poverty stunts the growth of all characters, preventing them from making choices to overcome this hardship.
Likewise, in To Build A Fire, the environment of the wild Yukon determines the fate of the man, no matter what self-sustaining actions he takes. Throughout the story, the man must endure a horribly harsh winter climate with no respite in sight. Despite being cognizant of the dangers of the Yukon and doing his best to overcome them, the man continually falls victim to the ultimately more-powerful forces of nature. In one scene, after the man has successfully built a fire that he so desperately needs for survival, snows falls from a tree and extinguishes it. Like Maggie thinking Pete might be her ticket out of poverty, the man sees his small fire as a chance to survive the wintry tundra. However, the environment ultimately asserts control: just as Pete leaves Maggie, the fire leaves the man. Though both characters fight to rise above circumstances, ultimately their environments dictate their fates.
Perhaps due to the comparably difficult environments of these stories, the protagonists are characterized in similar methods. Both Maggie and the man become numb to their environments, demonstrating the toll their surroundings have taken on them. When Maggie watches Pete leave the bar with Nellie, she does not respond by calling after him or ranting and raving. Instead, she calmly decides to go home. Maggie has been beat down by her circumstances so severely that she is numb to pain, and has lost any inclination to defend herself. In To Build A Fire, the man is physically numb due to the cold. As he is attempting to light the fire, the match begins to burn his hands. The only reason he notices is due to the smell of burning flesh; his hands are too numb to even feel such pain. The cold environment has robbed him of basic self-preservation instincts, leaving the man as a risk to himself. Both characters are depicted as victims of lost sensation, both emotionally and physically.
Another similar characterization can be found in the rejection of social norms. Acting in desperation, both characters are forced into situations that would appear amoral, or at least socially unacceptable. After Maggie has been rejected by both her family and Pete, she turns to prostitution. Though morally questionable, this profession appears to be the only way for Maggie to survive. Similarly, in To Build A Fire, the man finds himself increasingly numb and unable to build a fire, arriving at the conclusion to kill the dog for warmth. In Western cultures, dogs are perceived as beloved pets and companions, and the idea of killing one’s own dog and inserting body parts into its body seems horrific. Yet the man sees this as a solution to his rapidly falling body temperature. Though he does not kill the dog because his hands are too numb, the mere act of considering such behavior is socially unacceptable. However, like Maggie, the man is a victim of a desperate environment.
A key component to literary naturalism is the use of forces to explain why characters have no free will. Though Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and To Build A Fire do not use all forces in the same way, both apply the force of biology. Maggie is a pretty child who grows up to be a beautiful women. Though facial beauty is usually seen as a blessing, in her environment of patriarchy and chauvinism, this is a disadvantage. Maggie is prone to having men lust after her, and she falls victim to their womanizing ways. In To Build A Fire, the man suffers from simply being human, the ultimate biological curse. As his feet and hands go numb, the man is forced to watch the dog curl up with its fury coat for warmth. No matter how many layers the man wears or how big a fire he can build, his biology forces him to submit to the cold.
Despite these similarities, significant differences can be found in how these two texts explore naturalism. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the choice of setting: While Maggie: A Girl of the Streets takes place in a slum of New York City, To Build A Fire is set in the frigid Yukon wilderness. Both environments prove to be harshly antagonistic towards the main characters, though in differing ways. Because Maggie lives in a crowded area, running rampant with underemployment and alcoholism, she is damaged primarily by the people around her. Other humans who exemplify the characteristics of the neighborhood punish and scathe her, leaving her isolated and desperate. However, in To Build a Fire, the man’s only companion is the dog. Because of the natural setting in the Yukon, the man is not betrayed by humans, but by nature itself. The cold air, falling snow, and icy springs inhibit any progress he can make. With such drastically different settings, these two works show their characters falling victim to their environment in directly opposing ways.
In terms of natural forces asserting power, these texts take two starkly different approaches. While Maggie: A Girl of the Streets does incorporate the biological force of Maggie’s beauty, this is not the central focus. Rather, economic forces are what primarily dictate the fate of Maggie’s life. Maggie is raised in the working class, experiencing poverty, crime, unemployment, and alcoholism. Though Maggie is a pretty girl, she is surrounded by equally impoverished men, giving her a skewed perspective on romantic interests. Economics forces led her to Pete, who she considered to be financially stable and successful, in relative terms. In contrast is To Build A Fire, which prioritizes biological forces. Throughout the text, the man is focused on the painful numbness of his body. His face is covered in ice, his hands are too cold to be useful, and his feet are wet and giving way to frostbite. Biologically, the man is ill-equipped for this climate. No matter how hard he works, he can never overcome the biological forces of being a human.
Though both of these works use thematic development and characterization to exhibit literary naturalism, specific contexts differ. Contrasting settings and natural forces show the reader a lack of free will in two completely different realms. Between the two works, the literary naturalist movement makes a clear point: an attempt to defy the determined fate is futile.
Realism: Compare and Contrast
In each of the two short stories, “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, and “A Mystery of Heroism,” by Stephen Crane, the author portrays life’s realism through the thoughts, actions, and descriptions of a central character. Both characters undergo harsh and dangerous, yet realistic circumstances while attempting to accomplish a particular goal. The authors ridicule Romantic tenets, unveil arrogance and ignorance, expose naturalism, and utilize impressionistic writing to manifest their central theme of realism. London and Crane both scoff at Romantic notions in order amplify realism. For example, London undercuts every Romantic event his character experiences with reality: “There was the fire, snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame…grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out!” (502-503). London builds the reader up to this false sense of Romantic optimism in order to augment and dramatize the fall back to reality. Furthermore, London obliterates any notion of hope the reader may hold for the character, and, in effect, this unveils the harsh reality of the character’s situation. Furthermore, the nurturing fire seems incongruous in this frigid and heartless weather. This nameless character-nameless so he may represent humanity-should not survive this long in such low and dangerous temperatures, and, by destroying the fire, London pulls the reader back into the realm of reality. Similarly, Crane utilizes an analogous technique: “Sometimes they of the infantry looked down at a fair little meadow which spread at their feet. Its long, green grass was rippling gently in a breeze. Beyond it was the gray form of a house half torn to pieces by shells and by the busy axes of soldiers…” (488). Again, the “fair” and “green” meadow seems absurd in the current harsh conflicts and bloodshed. Still, these adjectives hold significance because they contrast the stark “gray” and “half torn” house. After looking past the Romantic view, the soldiers see the demolished house, which reminds them that they are currently fighting a war and nothing Romantic exists about war. Within undercutting Romanticism, Crane uses a different technique. As an impressionistic writer, Crane describes the landscape with very unpretentious words so the reader may merely grasp the outline of the story without venturing into details. This technique paints a realistic picture, because in reality, a soldier would not be meticulous in describing the scene; instead, he would flash a cursory glance while continuing to look out in his self-interest. In addition, both authors ridicule man’s arrogance by providing the characters with preposterous goals and concluding with pessimistic outcomes. In London’s story, the character must rationalize why he stops to rest: “It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch” (497). Instead of simply admitting his frailty in this freezing temperature, he sets his goal of reaching the “boys” at six o’ clock as a greater priority than his personal safety and well being. Furthermore, he challenges the advice of the elder about traveling alone with temperatures under negative one hundred and fifty degrees, which manifests his haughtiness even more. The character chooses to ignore this crucial advice and he suffers due to his stubbornness. On a symbolic level, this can represent humanity’s lack or loss of instinct to heed warnings. The realism here arises from London exposing the foibles of the character. In reality, no one can attain perfection, but those who think they can will suffer, which London lucidly demonstrates. Moreover, in the end, the character dies, which presents the harsh reality of life without the fluff and other Romantic views. Similarly, in Crane’s story, the character’s manhood feels threatened when his comrades taunt him about getting water: “Collins was shaking his fist in the faces of some laughing comrades. ‘Dern yeh! I ain’t afraid t’ go. If yeh say much, I will go!'” (489). Collins’ purpose in getting the water does not lie so much as to quench his thirst than as he covets to prove the others wrong, which is commensurate to the sign of arrogance displayed by the character in London’s story. Collins finally obtains the water, but stops when an injured officer asks him for water. Eventually, when Collins arrives back at his station, the soldiers find the bucket empty. Crane leaves this scene ambiguous, possibly to show life’s ambiguity. In addition, assuming the character obtains the title of a hero in the end because he gives the water to someone in need, Crane shows that heroes do not have to be and never are perfect. By using an inept character for the typical Romantic hero role, Crane effectively dissects the Romantic definition of a hero and inserts in its place a realistic hero, one who is not perfect but still significant. However, London and Crane do not completely utilize the same realistic techniques in their stories. London focuses on naturalism while Crane’s story shows man possessing control over nature. In “To Build a Fire,” the character recognizes the factual information about the temperature but fails to comprehend what realistic importance it holds. However, the dog, which possesses natural instinct, proves to be much more pragmatic and discerning: “It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgement” (498). This passage shows that instinct prevails over judgement, which simply disconnects humanity from the simplest of ideas, in this case, the true coldness. However, the dog, which possesses instinct, realizes that the coldness is overbearing and that they must seek fire and shelter. Still, the man holds too much pride and thus possesses no power over nature. Eventually, the character tries to grab the dog and use it as a warmth provider. However, because the unprepared character lacks the necessary tools, nature wins again. Furthermore, this scene shows that the man has a growing sense of panic, but it is too late, and, as in reality, nature is aloof to his pleas. Contrarily, in Crane’s story, humanity possesses control over nature: “For the little meadow which intervened was now suffering a terrible onslaught of shells. Its green and beautiful calm had vanished utterly” (488). In this case, humanity oppresses over nature. However, nature still regards man as incomprehensible because humanity fails to realize the pain and suffering it causes each other. Crane believes that in reality, nature is a spectator of man’s ignorance and foolishness. Furthermore, war holds no glory because the passage proceeds to describe nature solely being torn up and not any soldiers of the opposing army. This may show how nature mocks humanity for squandering resources and, in general, shows war’s emptiness and wastefulness. In the end, London and Crane effectively manifest realistic aspects about life mainly through ridiculing Romantic views. In both stories, the characters confront difficult situations and demonstrate that pride or arrogance will not achieve anything. These authors show that life is not perfect, but if one prepares and uses instinct, he or she may fair better.
The Laws of Naturalism
Stephen Crane’s interpretations of life are spawned from his own opinions of the world. These opinions correspond with naturalistic train of thought. He makes use of an observation technique to show the natural law of the universe: One can either accept the laws determining social order or become their victim. In the Novella, Maggie is used as a medium to paint the picture of the devastating consequences that befall one who attempts to violate this unspoken law, breaching the social and economic boundaries set upon them at birth. Crane’s views of the poor allow him to create his characters as shells absent of conscious thought, leaving them susceptible to the ills of their environment. Crane’s writings depict what he believes are the norms of the world. He molds himself after the dying form of realism but finds himself often giving naturalistic qualities to his work. Such is evident in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Though this example of Crane’s work is realistic, offering an accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of life, it is written within a frame that can only be deemed as naturalistic. These shifts in writing form leave the reader wondering from which perspective did Crane approached the story, that of realist or naturalist; evidence supports that of the latter more than that of the prior. Naturalism is synonymous with characters being pitted against forces that are beyond their control. The naturalists of Crane’s day “naturalized historical process”, making it inevitable. They believed that social circumstances were natural and hence unavoidable. These naturalists created effect without necessarily elaborating on the cause. Though Maggie is not the only person that is born into the poor conditions, she is the only one who takes the initiative to attempt to relieve herself of them. Crane insinuates that Maggie is special but does not elaborate as to why she is the only one chosen to try to crack the shell of pauperism that had for years held her at bay. Crane supports these factors of naturalism, when he bestows upon Maggie the initiative to venture beyond what she was born into without giving the reason as to why she alone is chosen. The naturalistic universe falls under one single explanatory theory of all events. “In such a universe one can either internalize the laws determining natural and social focus or be their victim”(P.18). Crane falls into this grouping of writers and supports this view in the novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Maggie is given two options upon arrival at the mental crossroads in her life. She can either submit to the social norms ascribed of her class or venture forth and fight them. Each choice comes with a consequence. By submitting to the assumed cultural standards of his class and making no attempts to distance himself from the life in which he was born, Maggie’s brother, Jimmie, manages to survive. Jimmie gains this life at the price of individualism. He became a pawn of the environment he lived in, conforming to it’s will and not his own. Conversely, Maggie, who attempts to distance herself from her own social circumstances and follow her own will, loses her life, but, in the process, gains a sense of individualism. She make herself one of the few that dares to be different, not follow the implied guidelines set before her at birth. She proverbially colors outside the lines. Naturalistic form can not allow one such as her to succeed and consequently Maggie is consumed by the new life she now leads. Maggie’s fate was determined more by her experiences in the world than by their subjective acts of assimilating those experiences. Maggie’s environment offered no places where a girl of the tenements could get educated, leaving her options of ways to attain wealth scarce. The jobs a person of her skills and class could procure were usually limited to labor. Maggie became a prostitute not to lead a life of indecency but because Crane had endow her with her with two unique qualities: initiative and beauty, and had put her in a place where the combination of the two came at a loss of integrity. Maggie “grows up under conditions which repress all good impulse, stunt the moral growth, and render it inevitable that she should become what she eventually did, a creature of the streets”(Urban Life and Reform, 145). Maggie’s fate was determined more by the environment that Stephen Crane created for her than by her actions as a response to the environment, classifying the novella as naturalistic. In Crane’s short stories he depicts the reality of life for the poor. With vivid imagery he conveys all that he sees to the reader. He does so from the perspective of someone looking down and seeing rather than that of someone immersed in the environment. Crane sees the poor as sub human and gives them no voice in his pieces. They are absent of inner lives. Crane, in his absence of a real knowledge of how the poor felt, is unable to put their thoughts into words. The lives of the poor in the 1880-1890 were riddled with hardships. This made them the perfect specimen for Crane’s writings. In their state, of urban ills, destitution, and alcoholism, they were easily manipulated and could be used, as Crane deemed necessary in his work. To bequeath people these inner thoughts would have made them tangible and not as easily controlled. No longer would they fit Crane’s mold and fall helplessly before the obstacles confronting them. By giving them voices, they were no longer tools to be used; now their opinions and feelings had to be put into accommodation. Fortunately for Crane, such an occurrence did not have to be guarded against for he never fully grasped the concept that the poor actually thought for themselves. Consequently, he threw them into his pieces to fend for themselves, lacking any defense from the inevitable forces that be. Stephen Crane began writing Maggie with “little relatively knowledge about the characters as individuals but had a clear notion of the plot and of his heroine’s inevitable downward slide”(P. 147). He sought to tell the story of a girl of promise who succumbs to the brutal circumstances of her life in the slums of lower Manhattan. Stephen Crane wrote with a purpose and accomplished the goal of the novella: illustrating what happens when one, such as Maggie, defies the conformists ways of her social class and rebels. Stephen Crane, edited by Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin. The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and other selected writings. New Riverside Editions/ Paul Lauter, Series Edition
The Preservation of Tenement Dialect in Stephen Crane’s ‘Maggie’
The dialogue in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is an attempt by Stephen Crane to preserve the language of tenement dwellers in lower Manhattan in the late 1800s. During this time, many citizens were poor. Children were left to fend for themselves. Familes lived in conditions of squalor and filth. Tenements were jam packed with residents, many of whom had to share beds and quarters. Many pictures from this time show residents who slept back to back on the floor, to fill every last inch of the apartment. These places were a horrible place to grow up, and bad for the keeping up of a happy family. This is shown very clearly in Maggie: A girl of the streets. In addition, not many people were well educated, and upward mobility was reserved for upper social class people. While their dialect is intricate and allows the novel its naturalist leaning, Crane’s use of it is reflects his own biases, as well as those of his readers.
Purposefully, the dialect lets upper class readers feel elevated and separate from the tenement dwellers. Readers have to make a conscious effort to spend time with the characters, because of the phonetic and often broken language. This allows readers to feel intelligent for understanding, but also charitable and compassionate for listening to their stories of tragedy. Because the dialect Crane uses in the novel accurately matches some of that the lower class at the time, it creates a palpable distance between upper class readers and the lower class subjects of the novel. For example, in the beginning of Chapter III, an old woman asks Jimmie to buy her a growler of beer. This request could have been expressed rather simply; instead Crane uses more phonetic spellings and apostrophes to shorten syllables and create a rougher sound. “‘Eh, Jimmie, it’s a cursed shame,’ she said. ‘Go, now, like a dear an’ buy me a can, an’ if yer mudder raises ‘ell all night yehs can sleep here,” (43). The woman as a result does not feel grandmotherly or fragile. Instead, she takes on the archetype of a hardened old lady. She is tough, but her kindness towards Jimmie is transactional. The sound of her words are jagged, and contributes to the survivalist characterization of the archetypes in the novel. Although this sentiment did help to alert the wealthy of the inequity in the city, it also makes the poor seem like failures in the realm of social darwinism.
At the end of Chapter IV, Jimmie contrasts the composition of the scene with his dialect. He looks up at the sky, in a moment that Crane uses to cast him in a softer light to the upper class audience, who might be unhappy with his record of delinquency. Jimmie says “‘Deh moon looks like hell, don’t it?’” (49) in admiration of the moon and the sky. Jimmie also uses the term “hell” here as a word of wonder, while other people likely would use a different word choice because of its negative connotation. The use of dialect here is meant to remind the upper class readers that although Jimmie is as human as they are, he has attributes that differentiate them. This is somewhat problematic, but it does succeed at nudging readers to notice the issues with the tenement system, and asks them to forgive the shortcomings of its dwellers. Howeve, it also saturates the story with humanity, and its display alerted the upper class of the serious problems within tenement life. Even Pete, who is seen by Maggie to be much more educated, is written with this dialect. During a fight that is described by Crane to be animalistic, Pete says, “… ‘Youse fellers er lookin’ fer a scrap an’ it’s damn likely yeh’ll fin one if yeh keeps shootin’ off yer mout’s.’” (70). At this point in the novel, readers have agreed to read dialogue like this. However, it is still very difficult to understand quickly and could require multiple readings to fully grasp.
The sheer amount of work that it might take readers to comprehend the dialect rewards them for their patience, and affirms that the readers are unlike the characters of Crane’s novel. Indeed, the choppiness of its dialogue and its consistent roughness is meant highlight disparities between the upper and lower classes. Such narrative techniques are designed to make readers feel educated and responsible to help change the system of tenements, and the lives of those within them.
A child can feel lost and alone without motherly love. Marian Anderson’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane each detail isolation in light of separation from a mother. Anderson’s timbre, tone, loudness, tempo, and the song’s lack of grand instrumentation help the listener understand the speaker’s isolation. However, instead of being literal, the lyrics only compare the narrator’s emotional state to that of a motherless child. On the other hand, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets involves the reader in Maggie’s actual motherlessness through point of view, imagery, and the unloving setting she finds herself in. Crane’s story is more tragic than the song because he forces the audience to suffer through Maggie’s genuine isolation from her mother instead of listening to a merely figurative account of that emotion.
The song begins with a strong, prominent piano that quiets down as Anderson’s vocals make a commanding entrance. At the instant she begins to sing, the listener is made aware that the speaker is mature due to Anderson’s deep and husky tone, just as a child must be mature and strong while navigating the world without a mother. Anderson cries, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Putting “motherless” in front of “child” indicates how speaker prioritizes their feelings; being a child is secondary to the isolation brought by the lack of a mother. This syntactical choice makes the listener first hear “motherlessness” instead of “child” which sets the tracks isolated tone. Furthermore, instead of being featured as a main part of the song, the piano slowly tinkers around Anderson’s loud vocals, adding to the lonely mood by isolating her voice with minimal instrumentation. Approximately one minute in, the piano is deafening as Anderson screams, “True believer, a long ways from home!” These lyrics portray the narrator as a believer in God who is punished with isolation despite their faith. The situation contributes to the speaker’s isolation because it shows that even in a time of need, when they feel they have done everything right, God is not on their side. They feel both motherless and neglected by God—two figures who are supposed to be unconditionally present and caring. Simultaneously, the noisiness of the piano and vocals reify the narrator’s despair while Anderson’s vibrating timbre makes her sound like she is on the brink of crying due to her loneliness. About one minute and thirty seconds in, the tempo quickens along with her delivery. The speed of this section creates a desperate mood. Just as a child becomes frightened and confused in a grocery store when they lose their mother, the speaker feels increasingly endangered and lonely due to their solitude. Afterwards, Anderson sings, “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone.” The transition from feeling like a “motherless child” to “almost gone” shows that instead of simply feeling like a kid with no mother, the speaker feels like they have been almost completely disconnected from the parent, nearing total seclusion.
Motherlessness and isolation are especially present in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. By page 35, Maggie has arrived home with her lover, Pete, when Mary suddenly begins to scold her. It is unclear why she is upset, but she continues to curse Maggie and banishes her from the home. Maggie stands defenseless against the attack, unaware of what she has done wrong, but her mother continues to unravel:“”Teh hell wid him and you,” she said, glowering at her daughter in the gloom. Her eyes seemed to burn balefully. “Yeh’ve gone teh deh devil, Mag Johnson, yehs knows yehs have gone teh deh devil. Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn yeh. An’ now, git out an’ go ahn wid dat doe-faced jude of yours. Go teh hell wid him, damn yeh, an’ a good riddance. Go teh hell an’ see how yeh likes it.”Maggie gazed long at her mother.”Go teh hell now, an’ see how yeh likes it. Git out. I won’t have sech as yehs in me house! Get out, d’yeh hear! Damn yeh, git out!”The girl began to tremble.At this instant Pete came forward. “Oh, what deh hell, Mag, see,” whispered he softly in her ear. “Dis all blows over. See? Deh ol’ woman ‘ill be all right in deh mornin’. Come ahn out wid me! We’ll have a hell of a time.”The woman on the floor cursed. Jimmie was intent upon his bruised fore-arms. The girl cast a glance about the room filled with a chaotic mass of debris, and at the red, writhing body of her mother.”Go teh hell an’ good riddance.” She went.”The passage begins, “‘Teh hell wid him and you,’” (35). Throughout this page, Maggie’s mother repeats five times that her daughter should go to hell and four times that she should get out. The reader feels Maggie’s pain each time as she is kicked to the curb for no apparent reason. The girl is utterly alone because Jimmie and Peter are not supportive. Crane forces his audience to cram into the defenseless child’s shoes to make them feel afraid, uncomfortable, and lonely in the face of Mary’s tirade. Furthermore, “Glowering at her daughter in the gloom” conveys two images. Since Crane does not specify who is “in the gloom,” the reader pictures either Mary or Maggie. If they think of Mary, they see an unhinged alcoholic losing herself in a poorly lit corner of a tenement home, which is exactly what Maggie sees. The reader is forced to watch from the girl’s eyes with fright as her mother’s sanity disintegrates. If they think of Maggie, they feel sympathetic for a defenseless girl who is scolded for unknown reasons. No matter what the reader imagines, they see Maggie terrified as she either watches her mother unravel or receives unrelenting abuse.
Her loneliness is further underscored when Mary says, “Yehs knows yehs have gone teh deh devil. Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn yeh. An’ now, git out an go ahn wid dat doe-faced jude of yours” (35). Throughout this monologue, though she is not explicitly described, the audience senses Maggie isolated “in the gloom,” trapped due to her inability to defend herself. Maggie says nothing in this passage, indicating her defenselessness. The reader finally gets a glimpse of the girl’s feelings when the narrator says, “Maggie gazed long at her mother” (35). Up until this point, the reader had no idea of Maggie’s expressions as she was baselessly bombarded with harshness. “The girl began to tremble” (35). In these two quotes, Crane interrupts Mary’s incoherent rambling with Maggie’s thoughts, but he does not have to use her own words; through free indirect discourse, the reader knows that Maggie is isolated in a corner, attacked by the one person who is supposed to love her unconditionally. The narrator says, “The woman on the floor cursed. Jimmie was intent upon his bruised fore-arms. The girl cast a glance about the room filled with a chaotic mass of debris, and at the red, writing body of her mother.” The point of view shifts to Maggie’s and the audience sees complete mayhem. Her isolation is palpable as her own brother watches intently as if her anguish is a gripping film. “‘Go teh hell an’ good riddance.’ She went.” At this point, Maggie is finally an impoverished girl of the streets.“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is like a soundtrack to Maggie’s life. Unlike the song’s speaker, Maggie does have a mother, but the relationship results only in isolation, which is a shared theme between the texts. Anderson’s quaking timbre throughout the track relates to Maggie’s trembling during her mother’s first onslaught on page 35. Both the narrator of the song and Maggie feel like lost, lonely, scared children who lack the guidance of a strong parent. Moreover, the rawness of the song is comparable to the unromantic story.
“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is put together with only a pianist and a vocalist, but that simple combination creates a heartbreaking account of isolation through lyrics and sound. The lyrics are comparable to Maggie’s predicament when Anderson sings, “True believer, a long ways from home.” Throughout the story, Maggie is also found far away from home, whether home is her house or the comfort of a loved one’s acceptance. She is constantly in a liminal state as she transitions between living spaces, often far from achieving the acceptance of others. Isolation is a common feeling, and the narrators of each text share it, but their lack of a mother makes it even more heartbreaking. However, their differences are stronger than their similarities.Contrasting elements between the texts show the harsh reality of Maggie’s situation. Firstly, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” offers a heart-wrenching account of the loneliness the narrator feels, but the use of “sometimes” and “like” make it clear that the narrator is not actually without a mother. The speaker is using the feeling of being a motherless child as a simile for their isolation. Furthermore, the song’s idea of home is not literal. The speaker means that they feel lost and far away from the symbolic, reassuring embrace of a mother. They are not literally far from home, but instead isolated and far from comfort.
In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, however, the reader observes the life of a child truly without motherly love, and often literally homeless. Crane’s use of focalization when describing Maggie’s expressions isolates the reader from the girl who is berated by her mother. The audience only gets to see that Maggie is gazing and trembling in a gloomy corner of the house. The disconnect between the reader and the main character makes the former focus upon Mary’s monologue, making them feel as if they are there with Maggie as she is attacked. In addition to the passage, Maggie rarely speaks throughout the entire story. She is the titular character, and her movements are the focus, but her actions are usually described by the narrator from an outside perspective, making her seem like a less significant character. The narration styles separates the audience from the main character. Instead of giving his audience a clear understanding of what Maggie is thinking, Crane displays her mood by showing her exterior actions through free indirect discourse.
Conversely, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is told from the standpoint of the lonely narrator. The song allows the speaker to express their isolation not only through the lyrics, but through Anderson’s choked up, expressive voice which is the focal point of the track. The lack of instrumentation makes Anderson’s voice feel alone, but in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the girl is accompanied by a brother who is supposed to support her. The presence of a family member should make Maggie feel supported, but her company is dormant in the face of Mary’s tirade. Mary is doing everything except loving her daughter while Jimmie is seen “intent upon his bruised fore-arms,” watching the attack in awe instead of supporting his sister. His presence only heightens her loneliness. He just stands there, letting her know that he does not care enough about her to intervene. Ironically, while the song has a lonely tone due its lack of any accompanying vocalists or layered instrumentation, Maggie’s isolation is emphasized by her complacent company.After she understands that she is banished, the narrator declares, “She went,” which is said of Maggie four times throughout the story. The reader feels the girl’s situation growing more dire with each banishment. The first time Maggie is rejected by a loved one is on page 35. The next is on page 54 when Pete leaves Maggie for Nell. Thirdly, when Maggie comes back to her family, she is turned away yet again. Finally, Maggie returns to Pete for solace, but he tells her to “Go teh hell” (59). The reader feels increased anxiety each time she is rejected by a loved one because after each instance, it becomes increasingly clear that she will fulfill the destiny of the title by having to live in the streets. She seeks refuge with loved ones four times, but each time they make it clear that she is not loved. While the song’s narrator is “sometimes” isolated, Maggie is constantly transitioning between homes without any love or support, making her isolation more tragic than the song’s.
Anderson’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets tell intensely emotional stories about solitude due to a lack of motherly love. However, the song is simply drawing a comparison between isolation and motherlessness, while the short story offers a view from within the depths of an impoverished household headed by an alcoholic parent. Crane uses a third-person point of view to separate the reader from Maggie, employs imagery to make the audience feel her isolation, and details her surroundings to convey the heartbreaking extent of her solitude. The differences between each text contribute to Crane’s novel offering a more tragic account of loneliness when compared to Anderson’s song.
Wealth and Poverty in American Literature
In American literature and culture throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the signs of wealth and poverty are often indicated by an individual’s appearance. The belief that one’s exterior reflects their class is demonstrative of the narcissism of American society during the Progressive Era, as the population – more notably the middle class, grew obsessed with the idea of visibly displaying one’s wealth. The expansion of conspicuous consumption remains central to evaluating the signs of economic power, as without the development of this concept, appearance would not be considered so wholly symbolic of one’s pecuniary strength. As a result, a person’s image provides many signs of their financial status; such as their physical appearance, their display of possessions, the manner in which they speak, but also the type of activities they partake in which affect their mien. The significance of these signals is explored in many pieces of American literature, which capture the dramatic contrast between the extravagant exterior of the rich and the ragged appearance of the poor.
The physical appearance of an individual is shown to be representative of their financial status, as those who are smart and well-dressed are assumed to be wealthy, and those who are unwashed and unkempt, poor. In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the extreme wealth of the characters is reflected by their clothing – with particular focus on Countess Olenska, whose hair is said to be ‘held in place by a narrow band of diamonds’. This small accessory alone is an indicator of her fortune, as it is evident that only the upper classes can afford to wear such valuable jewelry. Wharton also draws attention to the Countess’ ‘long sealskin cloak’, which reinstates her affluent image, as authentic animal fur is recognised as a luxury good. The elaborate clothing of the wealthy Countess contrasts greatly to the pitiful physical state of the impoverished characters in Crane’s Maggie. On the first page of the novella Crane highlights the dishevelled appearance of the peasant boy Jimmie, stating ‘His coat had been torn to shreds […] and his hat was gone’. This immediately hints at his poor background, as the only clothes Jimmie is wearing are almost unwearable due to their severely tattered condition. The fact that Crane makes particular note of the loss of his hat rather than listing all the clothing he possesses (like Wharton), stresses his destitute image. Similarly, the author first describes Maggie as a ‘ragged girl’; instantly underlining her bedraggled state and therefore alluding to her indigence. By introducing the characters in terms of their physical appearance, Crane stresses the importance of clothing as a sign of monetary power. This is also demonstrated by the character Pete, who adapts his clothing in order to make himself appear richer; Crane notes ‘wealth and prosperity were indicated by his clothes’, suggesting that he is deliberately wearing finer garments to build a wealthy image. Throughout the novella, the author focuses on the description of visual aspects, which reinforces the idea that appearance provides an insight into one’s economic situation – he tells us what poverty looks like.
However, American literature also demonstrates that it is not merely a person’s clothing that reflects their class, but also how one makes themselves appear through physical activities. Wharton’s novel captures the importance of engaging in cultural practices in order to exhibit one’s wealth – as the characters attend the opera, read educational books, and host dinner parties (each of these lavish pursuits representative of their affluence). The opening scene of the novel takes place at the opera, to which critic Hossein Pirnajmuddin states “right from the outset we know that Wharton’s dramatic personae are upper class New Yorkers.” With this view in mind, it is evident that partaking in intellectual activities instantly entails wealth – especially ‘high art’ like the opera, as it is associated with those who have a higher level of education and a higher social origin. Pierre Bourdieu explores this theory, as he argues that taste in the arts “function as markers of ‘class’” due to the way in which arts and their consumers are constructed hierarchically. This shows how an interest in culture is symbolic of prosperity – as an individual who has grown up in an educationally and socially richer environment is more inclined to appreciate the arts. Consequently, by attending the opera, Wharton’s characters immediately appear sophisticated and fashionable because of the association tied to it – meaning partaking in cultural activities such as this serves as a clear sign of wealth. Contrariwise, the lack of involvement in such pursuits is also a sign of belonging to a poorer class – as it suggests that one lacks a proper education.
The display of an individual’s possessions is another sign of either wealth or poverty, as a person’s belongings often hint at their economic power. Actively exhibiting one’s expensive assets, in other words, conspicuous consumption, is described as ‘an evidence of pecuniary strength’ by Veblen in his The Theory of the Leisure Class. The critic of capitalism states that ‘the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit’, therefore indicating that by flaunting upmarket goods, one is immediately regarded as wealthy – and conversely, if one does not conspicuously consume, then in society’s eyes, one is poor. The sociologist also clarifies that comforts of life such as luxurious food, fine furniture and grand dwelling ‘are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class’. This culture of ostentatious spending in order to mark one’s prosperity is captured in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as the author describes the Beaufort’s ball-room; noting the ‘red velvet carpet’, the ‘vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms’ and the ‘conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.’ This is an obvious display of wealth; the imposing furniture and adorned architecture are characteristic of conspicuous consumption. The display of rich colors such as red, black and gold also builds on the affluent image of the Beauforts, as visually, these tones are striking and demand to be noticed – these assets would not be signs of wealth if nobody were there to see them. Conversely, the poorer class is identified by their inability to exhibit such luxuries and their possession of purely basic goods for survival; as Veblen explains, ‘the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence’. This is captured by Riis in How the Other Half Lives, as he documents the squalid living conditions of the New York slums throughout the 1880s. Here he refers to the ‘twenty-five cent lodging house’ as an ‘enclosing a space just large enough to hold a cot and a chair and allow the man room to pull off his clothes.’ The fact that the most expensive pieces of furniture consist of a cot and a chair stresses the sheer poverty of the lodgers. Riis proceeds to describe the bed sheets as ‘yellow’ and ‘foul’, which contrasts dramatically to the lavish image of the Beaufort’s red velvet carpet. The journalist also captures the bleak appearance of poverty in many of his photos, such as “Room in a Tenement”, where a family of seven are pictured living in a single room. The only possessions in sight are a few items of crockery and clothes, a frail-looking cot, a bed and a chair. Here the lodgers severe lack of belongings is a clear indicator of their poverty, as unlike the ridiculously wealthy characters in Wharton’s novel, they do not have the means to conspicuously consume. This demonstrates how the quality and quantity of one’s possessions affects their appearance in terms of economic power; meaning obtrusive spending is a sign of wealth, and the lack of this sign is itself a sign of poverty.
Speech is another important aspect in terms of making oneself appear of a particular class, as the manner in which one speaks is thought to signal their social origin and the quality of their education. The characters in Wharton’s novel speak in Queen’s English, using correct grammatical structures and no slang – this is a clear indicator of their upper class background, as it shows that they are all finely educated. For example, in a conversation with the Countess, Archer questions “Sincerely, then – what should you gain that would compensate for the possibility – the certainty – of a lot of beastly talk?”. Here the complex structure of the sentence, and Archer’s clear pronunciation is evidence of his good schooling. The use of more elevated, somewhat pretentious language is also a sign of wealth, as this sophisticated style of speech is typically associated with a higher level of education. The eloquence of the characters in The Age of Innocence allows them to appear well-moneyed, whereas the dialect of those in Maggie is an sign of their working class background. For example in Chapter 10, feeling betrayed by her daughter, Mary cries “Yeh’ve gone teh deh devil […] Yer a disgrace teh yer people. An’ now, git out an’ go ahn…”. Here Crane’s use of phonetic spelling conveys the strength of the Irish accent; immediately hinting at her underprivileged background, as during the 19th century many poor Irish immigrants fled to New York in search of a better life. The contractions and the dropping of the letter ‘d’ in ‘and’ creates the impression of a lower class, as the pronunciation is imprecise, and the language unrefined. Mary also uses incorrect grammar as she talks about how she “bringed up” Maggie, showing her lack of proper education. Crane implies that the characters themselves recognize speech as a sign of pecuniary strength, as at one point he narrates, “as [Pete] became aware that [Maggie] was listening closely, he grew still more eloquent in his descriptions of various happenings in his career”. This shows that Pete is attempting to make himself appear of a higher class by adapting his speech.
American literature and culture throughout the Progressive Era captures the significance of appearance in terms of the signs of wealth and poverty, as both fictional and factual works convey the societal judgements towards the working and the leisure class. Veblen confirms the importance of the role of conspicuous consumption, as his The Theory of the Leisure Class suggests that this concept is what really drove society to review one another’s financial status in light of their exterior. Wharton presents the power of this notion in her novel, as the New Yorkers’ majestic robes, sophisticated possessions, style of speech, and attending of the opera all contribute to their glamorous appearance; hence indicating their wealth. Crane and Riis also address these signs, however conversely, as the scruffy appearance and use of non-standard English in Maggie, and the lodgers’ ownership of only primitive items in How the Other Half Lives is a manifestation of poverty. Regardless of whether these signs indicate wealth or poverty, they are all evinced through one’s appearance; either directly (visually) or indirectly (through mannerisms or activities that give the impression of a particular class).
Sonic Imagery in Stephen Crane’s Work
Stephen Crane, one of America’s foremost writers of the realist genre, frequently used a sonic aesthetic to breathe life into his descriptions of poor urban environments. In both Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Experiment in Misery, Crane associates loud and chaotic dissonance with the poor urban community. The shared experience of loud, dissonant sounds identifies and strengthens the community within these poor urban spaces. On the other side, Crane typifies the wealthier with low volumes and pleasant music. The middle and high classes are able to escape such cacophony, and are afforded the luxury of soft, low and indistinct sound and music. Crane also highlights sound when penniless characters are reminded of their inability to elevate their own status, again portraying sound as a representational form to convey social standings. Crane’s illustrations of sound essentially give representational form to the social phenomenon of inequality.
Crane’s descriptions of sound as disorderly and inharmonious amplify the chaos and suffering within the cramped confines of poor communities; this sonic discord marks and strengthens the destitute as a solidified social group. As Mary beats Maggie for breaking a plate, Jimmie listens to the hall of his apartment complex: “Above the muffled roar of conversation, the dismal wailings of babies at night, the thumping of feet in unseen corridors and rooms, and the sound of varied hoarse shoutings in the street and the rattling of wheels over cobbles, they heard the screams of the child and the roars of the mother die away to a feeble moaning and a subdued bass muttering” (Crane 10). Words like “roar,” “wailings,” “thumping,” “shoutings,” “rattling” and “screams,” convey intense volume and evoke images of disorder. The clamor of sound reflects the chaos of this poor urban community. The choice of the word “dismal” also conveys the distress of the members of this collective community, while the word “hoarse” to describe the shouting evokes the image that this individual has been continuously shouting in anguish or pain. The phrase “unseen corridors and room” communicates the ignored nature of this destitute community. Moreover, Crane describes the sounds of the tenement as cramped and collective. While there are distinguishable wails, and Maggie and Mary’s screams can be heard dying down, the descriptions of the sounds are continuously listed one after another, almost combining to form this single dissonant note that is unique to poor, suffering communities. The wailings, roars, thumping and rattling all amalgamate to create this representational form of the poor’s class standing and suffering. After Maggie dies, Mary’s loudly weeps, “rocking her body heavily to and fro, and crying out in a high strained voice that sounded like a dirge on some forlorn pipe” (Crane 74). The rhetoric and comparisons of Mary’s voice to a lament of the dead from a pitifully sad instrument underline the sonic intensity and the extent of the pain that she experiences. Mary’s loud and exaggerated reaction acts as a calling signal for her poor urban community; her sounds summon her neighbors to gather and loudly grieve with her: “Two or three spectators were sniffing, and one was weeping loudly… The women burst anew into cries as if they had been stabbed” (Crane 74-75). Mary’s ability to loudly call for her community conveys how Crane uses sound as a representational strategy to depict the poor as a collective. Mary simply needs to loudly wail, and her penniless peers come to cry and sympathize with her. In this sense, cacophony and the chaos of the sonic is a key identifier of the collective poor, and strengthens and solidifies the community.
In An Experiment in Misery, Crane also gives representational form to the lower class through descriptions of sound. At a homeless shelter, the youth hears the “guttural cries, grunts, oaths” of sleeping men, and a man who, because of a nightmare, “began to utter long wails that went almost like yells from a hound, echoing wailfully” (Crane 82). Much like in Maggie, phrases like “guttural cries, grunts, oaths” and “long wails” signify pain and suffering. Furthermore, the comparison of the man’s wails to the “yells from a hound” also evokes comparisons of the destitute man and a loud mutt, essentially placing the youth and the dog on the same level. Also, similar to in Maggie, the communal cries and wails of these men indicate a sense of community or shared sense of misery within the shelter. Crane even explicitly states this idea: “The sound, in its high piercing beginnings that dwindled to final melancholy moans, expressed a red and grim tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of the man’s dreams” (82). The shared experience of the unpleasantly sonic links these men together. These sounds simply do not come out of individuals but represent the room’s shared sense of impossibility and lost hope.
Whereas the poor must collectively suffer through cacophony, the wealthier are able to indulge in subdued, indistinct sounds and music, which only further signifies the divide between the rich and poor. When Pete takes Maggie on a date to a theatre for the middle class, they hear a “low rumble of conversation and a subdued clinking of glasses” (Crane 25). Words like “low,” “rumble,” and “subdued” indicate a pleasant level of volume, a stark contrast to the loudness that characterizes Maggie’s tenement. In the theatre, people can talk freely and not have to shout over the noise of the city – an unfamiliar concept to Maggie. In this sense, wealthier people can “afford” to carve places in the city where they have space and quiet. They have the luxury of a peaceful level of sound that the poor cannot bear the expense of. Maggie, undeniably a member of the lower class, savors this pleasantly sonic experience – it is a break from the chaos of home life. She also experiences the luxury of music at the theatre: she enjoys a singer’s “brazen soprano tones,” and the singer is praised with “long rollings of applause” (Crane 27). While words like “brazen,” “soprano” and “long rollings” impart a sense that the singer’s voice is loud and shrill and the audience is noisy, there is still a significant difference between the volume in the theatre and the volume in Maggie’s tenement or the shelter in Experiment. The loudness in the theatre is celebratory, whereas the uproar of poorer areas communicates a sense of suffering and pain. The singer’s audience is overjoyed with the singer’s boisterous performance. They extol her ability to command sound and showcase it to a public willing to relish in her loudness. The theatre reacts similarly to subsequent singers and the orchestra which played “noisily,” as a small fat man begins to “roar a song” and “stamp back and forth” (Crane 29). The crowd “laughed gleefully,” and “broke out in excited applause” (Crane 29). Musical uproar is not a sign of discord for the middle and high class, but as a means of entertainment and mode of happiness. The poor does not have music. Instead, they hear the wailings of babies and hoarse shoutings. They simply cannot afford the luxury of happily listening and dancing to music in the company of a gleeful and celebratory crowd. Crane’s descriptions of the middle class enjoying low, subdued conversation and melodic and euphonious music essentially gives representational form to the lives of the middle class.
Crane often pairs a sonic aesthetic with moments when low class characters are alienated and reminded of their inability to elevate their own status. When Maggie and Pete go to a bar primarily filled with the middle-class patrons, she meets Nellie, a woman who essentially undermines Maggie’s plans to marry Pete. The club’s sonic atmosphere starkly contrasts to the theatre’s: “The room rang with the shrill voices of women bubbling over with drink-laughter. The chief element in the music of the orchestra was speed. The musicians played in intent fury. A woman was singing and smiling upon the stage, but no one took notice of her” (Crane 54). “Shrill” has a negative connotation, evoking images of piercing shrieks. The music, previously a sign of excitement and celebration, is now rushed, and played with calculated “fury.” A singer is practically ignored and not applauded like the singer from the theatre. Those who attend this bar do not indulge in the art of the sonic as they had before. Crane’s deliberate rhetoric serves as a reminder to Maggie, presumably one of the only members of the low class at the bar, of her cacophonous poor community. At this club, Nellie seduces Pete, and Maggie is unable to participate in Pete and Nellie’s conversation: “Maggie sat still, unable to formulate an intelligent sentence as her addition to the conversation and painfully aware of it” (Crane 55). Not only is sonic chaos an indicator of Maggie’s decline in the novel, but it is a harsh reminder of her low-class life – her true status. Unlike before when Maggie was able to assimilate and celebrate with the audience of the theatre, she can no longer connect with Pete and Nellie, members of the higher class. The change in the volume of sound and music in the theatre versus in the bar helps to represent Maggie’s shift from hope for joining the higher class to realization that she cannot. Similarly, in An Experiment in Misery, sound reminds the narrator of his alienation from the higher class and his inability to escape destitution. As the end of the short story, the protagonist wanders through New York and hears the “roar of the city” (Crane 88). This “roar” is different than the roars of Maggie’s apartment complex or the homeless shelter – that dissonance is on a smaller scale. The whole city is unfamiliar to him; he cannot distinguish certain wails and cries and he has not seen the faces and bodies of those who make such noise. In this case, the “roar of the city” further removes him from assimilating into the overall city, not just enclaves for the poor. He “confesses” himself an “outcast,” and begins to wear the “criminal expression that comes with certain convictions” (Crane 88). The dissonance of the city makes him feel alienated and less able, unlike the discordance of the shelter, a community he strongly identifies with.
Part of Crane’s representational strategy essentially imparts to the reader how sound represents different forms of social status. He characterizes the poor urban community with descriptions of uproar and clamor, and emphasizes how this dissonance strengthens this community. On the other hand, Crane describes low volumes and pleasant music as a luxury that only the middle and high class can indulge in. Crane also uses cacophony as a representational strategy to humble the penniless and alienate them from their wealthier environments. The representation of sonic discordance being a mark of the poor community has not changed since Crane wrote Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and An Experiment in Misery in the 19th century. Today, urban noise pollution is worst in poor and minority neighborhoods and segregated cities, and has physically affected members of these poorer communities (Casey).