Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets: A Socio-Philosophical Examination into Individual and Cultural Responsibility

Conner Robert Hayes


American middle-class, bourgeois ideology posits a doctrine of self-reliance, meritocracy, and a belief in upward socio-economic advancement. Ethical relativism, on the other hand, views morality and ethics as culturally specific and subject to environmental variances. Stephen Crane, in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, his 1863 novella, incorporates these seemingly opposed notions into his view of the individual’s relationship to his or her environment. Examining the unique ethical framework of the underclass, my research addresses the dialectical socio-economic relationship between one’s social class and the limits of human agency. Critics have tended to read naturalist works as entirely relativistic, depicting characters’ fates as strictly determined by their socio-economic environment. Crane, unlike his fellow naturalist writers, defies such a simplistic worldview, positing a complex philosophy where human agency and social determinism coincide. I will demonstrate Crane’s distinctive philosophical outlook by contrasting the characters of Maggie and Jimmie in their respective reactions to their oppressive environmental conditions. Specifically, I will explore how Maggie and Jimmie possess different levels of human agency, dictated by their personalities and dissimilar positions in the social hierarchy of the underclass. Jimmie recognizes the ceiling of his socio-economic advancement and strives to achieve maximum success in this prescribed social framework. Maggie, on the other hand, possesses a more idealistic view of her life circumstances, allowing herself to imagine the world beyond the slums. Due to her heightened sentimentality and romanticism, along with the social constraints of poverty and patriarchal sexism, she falls prey to nihilism and despair whereas Jimmie existentially wills himself to survive the harsh environment. This research’s aim is to reveal Crane’s idiosyncratic philosophy, which calls for a reevaluation of American ethics and the roles of individual and cultural responsibility.


ethics, determinism, naturalism

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