A flower in a mud puddle – A reflection on Naturalism and aesthetics in the novella „Maggie. A girl of the streets“

This text tries to combine the claims of Naturalism with the aesthetic categories beauty and ugliness. All the observations are based on the novella Maggie. A girl of the streets, written by the American author Stephen Crane. A brief theoretical introduction will be followed by a summary of the novella’s plot. I will then discuss whether or not it is possible to talk about beauty and ugliness in the specific case of the novella Maggie.

by Lara Ehlis

Stephen Crane’s Maggie. A flower in a mud puddle was published in 1893. It is assigned to the literary movement known as Naturalism, which is a literary trend that became popular in America at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Its goal is to portray reality in fiction, based on the method of experiment (cf. Émile Zola – “The Experimental Novel and Other Essays”), which means testing a general hypothesis in the fictional environment of a novel or novella. By choosing to experiment, a piece of fiction has a didactic element, whereas a simple observation of events would only narrate them. Naturalism is closely linked to the natural sciences, which at the time were concerning themselves with questions of heredity and social context. At the end of the 19th century, Darwinism was a great source of intellectual unrest in society: The place of the human being in a larger context was becoming more and more important. Society saw itself confronted with industrialization and westward movement, which implied economic, social, and cultural changes in society’s structure and in cityscapes. Big cities, immigration, and urban poverty were some of the results of these changes. The slum as a literary topic gained a certain importance because it brings a focus on the environment, social factors, and individual behavior.

It is important to reflect on another consideration before discussing the thesis mentioned at the beginning, namely the topic of aesthetic categories: Beauty and ugliness as aesthetic categories have always been subject to constant change (cf. Umberto Eco, who dedicated two volumes to the changing views on beauty and ugliness). This statement is true not only on an aesthetic level but also applies to social and political aspects. Karl Rosenkranz (“Ästhetik des Hässlichen”) for example discusses ugliness and its connection to moral reprehensibility. The main problem inherent in my argument is that Naturalism claims to show reality as it is, while beauty and ugliness are aesthetic concepts, which are subjects to constant change in their perception. I propose to refer to beauty and ugliness in this case as social categories, and one could speak of moral ugliness and moral beauty. In the case of Stephen Crane’s Maggie, poverty, slums, and reprehensible actions could be categorized as socially and/or morally ugly.

The story’s protagonist is Maggie Johnson, the second of three children of the Johnson family. Maggie’s parents, who are Mary and the unnamed father, are brutal drunkards who constantly argue and fight with each other, yell at each other, and destroy the furniture in their wretched apartment in a dilapidated house in Rum Alley in the New York Bowery.
The story begins with Maggie’s older brother Jimmie getting beaten up in a street fight by a rival gang of adolescents. His friend Pete intervenes in the fight, and Jimmie walks home, only to get mistreated by his mother Mary. This is watched by the father, Maggie, and the youngest of the three children, a toddler named Tommie. The first chapters show clearly that the overall atmosphere in the Johnsons’ home is filled with violence and fear.

In the further development of the story, Tommie and the father die and leave Mary alone with Jimmie and Maggie, who grow up. As an adolescent, Jimmie works as a teamster and has a rather negative and cynical view of the world around him. His sister Maggie starts to work as a seamstress in a factory, where she sews collars and cuffs. She falls in love with Jimmie’s friend Pete, whom she idealizes. Pete takes her out of her familiar, dismal environment, to various places which offer entertainment, such as theaters and museums. Maggie finds little approval of her relationship with Pete from her mother and Jimmie, who state that she has “gone teh deh devil” and is “a disgrace teh yer people”.
Maggie and Pete spend some time together, and then Pete gets to know a woman named Nellie, in whom he appears to have more interest. He leaves Maggie, who returns home full of remorse, only to be ridiculed by her mother and her brother in a scene which is watched by the whole neighborhood. Maggie is regarded as ruined and takes on work as a prostitute. When one day she isn’t able to find any clients, it is implied that she commits suicide. Pete is taken advantage of by Nellie and her friends, who call him “a damn fool”. The book ends with Mary Johnson mourning the death of her daughter and forgiving her.

The setting of the novella Maggie is the Bowery, which is one of New York’s districts in the south of present-day Manhattan. At the end of the 19th century, which is when the story of Maggie is set, the Bowery was known as “the supposed summit of New York’s sinfulness” (cf. Pattee): It offered a multitude of amusements, which, at the time, was synonymous with the type of happiness entailed by “distraction and vicarious experience” (cf. Dowling).
The various theaters play a crucial role in Bowery life. Some of the importance of the theatrical scene in the Bowery was described by Walt Whitman in a short text about the development of the entertainment scene in The Old Bowery (1881):

For the elderly New Yorker of to-day, perhaps, nothing were more likely to start up memories of his early manhood than the mention of the Bowery. […] At the date given, the more stylish and select theatre […] was “The Park”, a large and well-appointed house on Park Row […]. English opera and the old comedies were often given in capital style; the principal foreign stars appear’d here […].

In general, the Bowery in Maggie is represented as a dark, violent, dirty, and overcrowded place. The hostility of the atmosphere culminates in the description of the Johnsons’ apartment. The part of the Bowery which offers various amusements is closely associated with Pete. The world of the theater represents everything Maggie does not have. In this way, Crane creates a juxtaposition between the two narrated spaces, namely the Bowery and the amusement district.

Maggie herself represents an anomaly in the environment of the Bowery, and she is portrayed as a flower in a mud puddle. Taking her as an example, the impact of the environment and socialization can be shown. Throughout the novel it is claimed that “Maggie was different“, which is not true for her brother Jimmie, who adopts his father’s habits of drinking regularly and mistreating women. But at the end of the novella, Maggie’s heredity catches up with her. From the naturalistic point of view and taking into account the scientific discussions concerning themselves with heredity and social environment, Mary can be seen as the prototype of a person raised in the Bowery. She is therefore a counterpart to Maggie. Pete, on the other hand, represents – for Maggie – a kind of ideal man and stands for a more promising future.

Crane uses a whole field of metaphors to describe the various attributes of Maggie’s outer appearance and her character to the reader. He occasionally refers to particular flowers, which can then be associated with the protagonist. Vocabulary associated with flowers such as “withered“ and “blooming“ are used to describe various characters throughout the novel. Roses and chrysanthemums are mentioned, thus presenting parallels to her fate in crucial parts of the novel.

It can be concluded that, even though Maggie is a naturalistic novella, the aesthetic concepts of beauty and ugliness can be identified via the interpretation of the setting and the atmosphere. Moreover, the terms can also be applied to the characters themselves.

This text is a short summary of a longer term paper on the same subject. For any additional information, please contact the author.



Primary sources

Crane, Stephen. Maggie. A Girl of the Streets. 1893. Sweden: Wisehouse Classics, 2015.

Secondary sources

Dowling, Robert M. “Stephen Crane and the Transformation of the Bowery.” Twisted from the ordinary. Essays on American Literary Naturalism. Ed. Mary E. Papke. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2003. Pp. 45-62.

Eco, Umberto. History of Beauty. New York: Rizzoli, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. On Ugliness. New York: Rizzoli, 2007.

Pattee, Fred Lewis. The New American Literature 1890-1930. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1968.

Rosenkranz, Karl. Ästhetik des Häßlichen. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2015.

Whitman, Walt. „The Old Bowery. A Reminiscence of New York Plays and Acting Fifty Years Ago“. The Complete Writing of Walt Whitman. Prose Works III. New York: Henry W. Knight, 1902. 184-195.

Zola, Émile. The Experimental Novel and Other Essays. New York: The Cassell Publishing Co., 1894.