1. Characterization of the Water Woman as a Literary Type
1.1. The Figure of the Mermaid
1.2. Shakespeare’s Ophelia
2. Crane’s Maggie as a Rejected Woman
2.1. Maggie’s Falling Down
2.2. A Summary of her Rejections
3. Maggie in the Context of ‘Water Woman’
3.1. Maggie the Temptress?
3.2. Rejection as a Characteristic of ‘Water Women’
3.3. Maggie’s Solitude
3.4. The Description of Death and Mourning
Stephen Crane’s first novel, Maggie – A Girl of the Streets (1893), is a characteristic specimen of Naturalist or New Realist Literature. The plot is quite different from Victorian Realist literature as well as the Symbolist literature by the likes of Kipling and T.S. Eliott. In fact, Crane purposely wanted to get away from that sort of writing as he states in one of his letters: “If I had kept to my clever Rudyard –Kipling style, the road might have been shorter but, ah, it wouldn’t be the true road.” While the early Realists still concentrated on people from the middle class upward, Crane’s characters belonged to the lowest scale in terms of social standing. This meant that the young author had to break with some taboos installed by Victorian writers and as a result from that, he had difficulties in publishing the novel in the first place and also received a lot of hostility from critics.
The most basic feature that distinguishes Maggie: A Girl of the Streets from Symbolist or Aestheticist works is its focus on the concept of ‘truth’. For Symbolist authors, the highest principle of art was ‘beauty’ whereas Naturalists saw the need of objective descriptions of life and nature in order to portray them as close to reality as possible. Helga Quadflieg sees this as a replacement for the divine, which both Symbolists and Naturalists did not believe in:
“Im Gegensatz zum Ästhetizismus stellt der New Realism aber nicht ‘beauty’ an die Stelle früherer Gottheiten, sondern ‘truth’, die [...] den höchsten Stellenwert hat.“
While Symbolist literature in some cases still contained supernatural apparitions, e.g. in Kipling’s The Mystery of Purun Bhagath or The Bull that Thought and Hardy’s For Conscience’s Sake, Naturalist authors excluded this completely from their works. Surprisingly, though, the main character in Maggie, in drowning herself as a result from unlucky love, seems to be a counterpart to the figures like the sirens from Greek mythology Brentano’s Lore Lay, de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine and Shakespeare’s Ophelia who make up a group one may call ‘water women’. Such ‘water women’ were common literary figures especially in Romantic poetry and may be considered to have their roots in Homer’s Odyssey. This certainly does not fit into Naturalist literary theory but I will try to show how Stephen Crane interweaves this theme into the novel without neglecting the Naturalist basis of it.
In the following text, I will quote Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by adding the page number at the end of each quote in round brackets. I will use the Fawcett Gold Medal/New York edition from 1983.
1. A Characterization of ‘Water Women’ as a Literary Type
In the twelfth chapter of Homer’s Odyssey, the male protagonist Odysseus sailed past the Sirens who were said to be able to allure any man with their singing and thereby kill him. The ancient hero made his crew seal their ears with wax and himself was tied to the pole of the ship. Thus outwitting the Sirens, he not only survived but also put some damage to their reputation. Later on, this even led to the question whether the defeat caused them to commit suicide:
“An keiner Stelle nimmt die Odyssee die Perspektive der Sirenen ein. Wir können nicht wissen, ob sie realisierten, daß ihr zaubermächtiger Gesang an der welterfahrenen Mannhaftigkeit des Odysseus abprallte. Oder ob das Wissen, um ihren Sinn gebracht zu sein, sie umbrachte“
Odysseus’ resistance to the sirens can be seen as the birth of the ‘water woman’ as a suicidal figure in addition to the connection to death in their being able to kill men by causing them to jump into the water as a consequence of irresistible desire.
1.1. The Figure of the Mermaid
Two examples for suicidal ‘water women’ are found in the tales of Undine (1811) by Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué (which picks up a story from medieval times) and that of The Little Mermaid by Hans-Christian Andersen. Both describe the fate of mermaids who fall in love with a man in the human world but whose love is rejected.
In de la Motte-Fouqués tale, the heroine was turned down by her husband after he witnessed her having contact with water spirits. She returned to the water as her actual home but was still in love with her human lover even though he married another woman. Undine eventually had to kill her former husband according to divine order, thus being reunited with him. The story delivers a clear-cut separation between the human and the water world. This characterizes the mermaid figure as not belonging to the human world, an entity torn between two worlds. However, if they come into the human world, they seem to be destined to suffer and cause others to suffer.
1.2. Shakespeare’s Ophelia
In one of William Shakespeare’s most important plays, Hamlet, one can find another specimen of a ‘water woman’ in Hamlet’s wife Ophelia. She certainly is not a mermaid and in no way does she belong to the water as her natural dwelling place. She can be considered a ‘normal’ human being who does not feature anything supernatural like the Undine figure. One thing the two characters have in common is that they felt rejected. Ophelia was not so clearly turned down as Undine but she felt neglected by Hamlet, who was all absorbed by his revenge on the King. This becomes especially clear in the first scene of the third act, when Hamlet tells her:
“If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go; farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.”
One may say that a rejected woman who becomes insane and finally drowns herself should not be connected to the Sirens or the Undine-figure, but it is the context of love, rejection and suicide that makes the ‘water woman’ a literary figure. It is obvious that Ophelia in committing suicide fit herself into the role of a woman who could not live in this world. This theme would later on become famous especially in poetry. A popular poem by Arthur Rimbaud is called Ophélie (1870) and describes her death by clearly blaming Hamlet’s rejection as being the cause of her insanity and consequently of her death: ‘C’est qu’un matin d’avril, un beau cavalier pâle, Un pauvre fou, s’assit muet à tes genoux.’ (lines 27-28)
Compared to the Sirens and the mermaid figure, the feature of insanity is exclusive to Ophelia. One may argue that the mental illness in a way substitutes the supernaturalness of the other two types of ‘water women’ and therefore is responsible for Ophelia’s not belonging to the human world whereas being supernatural was the separating force for both the sirens and the mermaids. One must not forget, though, that it was not merely Hamlet’s disinterest that made Ophelia suffer but that her father’s tragic death also contributed to her state of mind. One may still argue that if Hamlet would have been a genuine lover, she might not have gone mad.
2. Crane’s Maggie as a Rejected Woman
Maggie’s fate is one that exemplifies the following description of Stephen Crane’s writing:
“Für Crane war […] das Dasein etwas Grausames und Hoffnungsloses. Er glaubte nicht an den durchschlagenden Erfolg sozialer Reformen ; an die Möglichkeit, durch Umwandlung der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse für das Individuum größere Mengen Glück freimachen zu können.“
This suggests a feeling of despair on the authors behalf which leads to the assumption that the bleak career Maggie pursued has to be understood as the result of a natural order: She came from a poor family, her parents were drunkards, the only education she received was perpetual beating and her first and only boyfriend was a superficial rowdy who eventually cast her off when he felt like doing so. Her final occupation was that of a prostitute which must have been the ultimate stumbling block for her to decide to commit suicide.
2.1. Maggie’s Falling Down
If drawn as a diagram, the curve of Maggie’s life would have turned slightly upward from the fifth to the eighth chapter and more rapidly and dramatically downward for the rest of the novel. In the fifth chapter she first encountered Pete and was stunned by his appearance: “Maggie perceived that here was the ideal man […] Under the trees of her dream-gardens there had always walked a lover.” (32) Next, she received what might have been the first compliment of her life: “Pete took note of Maggie: ‘Say, Mag, I’m stuck on yer shape. It’s outa sight’ ” (33). In the course of the following pages, the reader is tempted to assume that a typical romance is taking place: Maggie dressed up for her lover (35, 41), he took her to a music-show (36-40) and a museum (42-43) and even promised he would be taking her to a picnic following summer (43). To the girl from the lowest social level, all of this was wonderful and must have fortified her love for Pete even more. In the last paragraph of the eighth chapter, her feelings after having seen a stage play are described:
“Maggie always departed with raised spirits from these melodramas. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually overcame the wealthy and wicked. The theatre made her think. She wondered if the culture and refinement she had seen imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by the girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory.” (45)
Her elevated mood could have been taken as the starting point of an ascent to a higher social level but she already seemed to have doubts as to whether that could be “acquired by the girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory”. And keeping in mind Crane’s pessimistic view of the world, it is logical that his heroine would never be able to improve her situation. This is confirmed at Maggie’s next appearance in the novel when she is denied access to her home by the mother (48-49). What had been the state she wanted to improve (the “tenement house”) was then even taken away from her. It seems that once she tried to grasp the opportunity to start a better life, everything got even worse.
At first, her brother Jimmie started a fight with Pete (54-59) because he felt that his sister was “ruined” (49) by him. Then, Pete’s attention was drawn towards a “woman of brilliance and audacity” (67) probably because Maggie’s dependency on him after she had been deprived of a home made him uneasy:
“The air of spaniel-like dependence had been magnified and showed its direct effect in the peculiar off-handedness and ease of Pete’s ways toward her.” (66)
When Maggie got finally turned down by her lover (69-71) she was still not permitted to re-enter her former home and only the “gnarled old woman” was willing to let her spend the night at her house because she “ain’ got no moral standin’” (75). Thus discarded, she became a prostitute (“girl of the painted cohorts”, 79) and even then was rejected by a number of men just previous to her suicide (80-81).
2.2. A Summary of her Rejections
The girl from a poor family tried to escape from her upcoming destiny as a member of the lowest social level but did not succeed. Bad as this sounds, the tragedy was something else: even though she never meant to harm anybody, she constantly encountered hostility and was rejected by almost everybody she came into contact with. The first one mentioned who treated her impolitely was the owner of the factory she worked in (42). The next incident was the denial of access to her home by the mother (49), introducing the theme of rejection, which was to become predominant in the course of the events. Pete left her (69-71), in a bar she was very openly told about the insufficiency of her looks (71) and for a second time was cast off by her mother when she wanted to return home (74). The woman who took Pete from her regarded her with contempt: “A little pale thing with no spirit […] Dear, dear, Pete, what are you coming to?” (75) and finally there was the beforementioned rejection when she had become a prostitute.
It is quite obvious that Crane tried to push this theme as far as possible. Even as a prostitute she was unwanted. This is not supposed to reflect her being unattractive to men since she was introduced to the reader as “a pretty girl” (29). Much more this is showing the desperate situation of lower class people the way Stephen Crane perceived it. The last man Maggie offered her service to was a “drunken man” who regretted to have no money (81). Her being rejected was not only a matter of outward appearance and punishment by her demonical mother but also due to economical reasons. The moralistic reservations her mother pretended to have were merely a masquerade because she is described as a drunkard who frequently beat her children.
Maggie is not responsible for her fate because she never consciously did anything to propel it. Her parents never told her right from wrong. It was only natural to go out with Pete in order to get away from the misery of her home. She could not have the wisdom to suspect that Pete would not be her lover for the rest of her days and, since she did not have anybody left to support her, she was doomed. Even her brother proved to be a coward in that situation. He could have tried to help his sister but probably did not care enough.
3. Maggie in the Context of ‘Water Woman’
Surely, drowning herself does not sufficiently qualify Maggie as a typical ‘water woman ‘as described in the above but there are facts that suggest that Stephen Crane had a picture of his heroine as a counterpart of at least Shakespeare’s Ophelia in mind. Although, it seems that characteristics of sirens and mermaids are part of Ophelia: her not belonging to the human world reflects upon the character of the mermaids and trying to make Hamlet love her reveals that of a siren. It is also interesting to see that Ophelia’s brother is called Laertes, which is another connection to the Odyssee in which Odysseus’ father had the same name.
3.1. Maggie the Temptress?
It is curious to see that a sympathetic character like Maggie faced such great hostility and was blamed by her mother and other women for being an evil person. The last chapter shows a rather ridiculous scene of lamentation which appears to be a satire on a religious procession. A number of women from the vicinity accompany the mourning mother (87-88). One of them takes on the role of a priest who tries to persuade the mother to forgive her daughter as a good Christian should do. The other women actually serve as a choir: “ ‘She’s gone where her sins will be judged!’ cried the other women, like a choir at a funeral.” (88)
Now, the reader knows that in no way the mother is in any position to forgive no matter whose sins. Neither can she possibly think of herself as a ‘good Christian’ and the fact that it takes a lot of persuasion to finally agree to forgive the daughter she did not treat rightly herself makes the scene very ironic. Hans-Jürgen Heise puts it this way:
“Auch in Maggie spielte die Ironie bereits eine größere Rolle; sie war sozusagen das Tablett, auf dem die tragischen Tatsachen dem Leser serviert wurden.“
Since ending up as a prostitute was only a consequence of a lack of support, the only thing one can think of as a possible cause for is that it was seen as unfitting a young woman to go out with stranger and live with him. But Maggie did not act frivolously. She even was rather reserved in terms of sex as shown when she does not want to kiss Pete as a reward for taking her to a show (40). Moving in with Pete was only a result of her mother’s resentment. Nevertheless, what the women of the Bowery probably reproached her for was something they must have learned in church or from some other religious education. A widespread assumption among Christians was that woman inherited the role of temptress from the Garden of Eden. It was clear to them that it had not been Pete who tempted Maggie but that she was the temptress herself.
This certainly is far from being true and Stephen Crane made this clear with his ironic account at the end of the novel. This still is a first hint towards the topic of ‘water women’. The Sirens can be seen as archetypes of the temptress apart from the book of Genesis. Ophelia as well tries to make Hamlet concentrate on her instead of pursuing his revenge-plan in the first scene of the third act. Both the Sirens and Ophelia do not succeed which they again have in common with Maggie. She could not make Pete her lover for the rest of her life. One might also argue that Undine had a similar problem when she could not live with her husband in the human world.
3.2. Rejection as a Characteristic of ‘Water Women’
At this point, the importance of the theme of rejection for the topic of water women comes into play. Each of the possible role models for the Maggie-figure did not succeed in an erotic enterprise, the circumstances of the respective rejections they received varied from case to case, though. The Sirens were outwitted by Odysseus while Undine was a victim of her heritage as a mermaid.
With Ophelia it is a bit more complicated. I already pointed out that she had her problems with belonging to the human world and that it is quite possible that her insanity was the valve for expressing this. There is a direct indication in Hamlet uttered by the Queen: “Or like a creature native and indued unto that element”. If she was born for the water, it is likely that her attachment to the human world was not as strong as that of an average human being. She was torn between the two environments. Anna Maria Stuby puts it this way: “ Sie löst sich, halb willens, halb fahrlässig auf, taucht zurück in jenes Element, dem sie sich ohnehin nie ganz enthoben hatte.“ This implies a return to her innate environment in the fashion of Undine, although there is no further hint towards her not being born like any other woman. It just adds to the mythical nature of Ophelia as one that draws together the different kinds of ‘water women’. Another characteristic would be her singing: she only sang shortly before her death, which again is an allusion to the Siren’s singing from the Odyssey and maybe even to the Lore Lay.
However, her suicide is not the result of a universal force of the water collecting those who belong to it from the beginning. Hamlet’s neglect and her father’s death primed her despair and eventually her mental illness. Thus, we have three different types of suicidal women who all belong more or less to the water as their hereditary element and are turned down by a male human being. Stephen Crane’s Maggie provides very similar features. Her rejection by Pete and her suicide in the river are closely connected and her enthusiasm for music also serves as a reminder of Ophelia’s singing and that of the Sirens and Lore Lay. The only reservation to that is that the latter tried to allure men while Ophelia was foreboding her death. Since the music shows are in a way the beginning of the end in Maggie, it becomes obvious that the similarities between Maggie and Ophelia are most significant.
3.3. Maggie’s Solitude
Visiting the dime museum with Pete, Maggie is confronted with abnormal, odd beings and is said to have “contemplated their deformities with awe, and thought them a sort of chosen tribe”. (43) Maybe she unconsciously discovered something she had in common with them, only that her “deformities” were not visible from the outside. Her situation after having been left by Pete may be regarded as her “deformity” and it would have been interesting to see how Maggie would have coped with the situation if she would have had a friend or a relative to support her. Stephen Crane was very distinct in presenting her as a lonesome person especially in the second half of the novel by telling about the various turndowns she received. There were early hints as well, though, like her being the only person in the Johnson family not heavily into alcohol. Her growing up was a singular thing, too: ”She grew up to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl. None of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins.” (29) (A sense of not belonging to her environment is portrayed here, too) The most emphasised account of her solitude is this:
“Maggie was anxious for a friend to whom she could talk about Pete. She would have liked to discuss his admirable mannerisms with a reliable friend. At home, she found her mother often drunk and always raving […] Jimmie came when he was obliged by circumstances over which he had no control.” ( 42)
With her father and younger brother already dead, the only people she was said to have contact with were the bad-tempered boss of the shirt factory and the “gnarled old woman”, who definitely did not qualify as “reliable friends”. At this point of the novel, she was already very much alone and when her lover left her and the mother and Jimmie, instead of providing her shelter, cast her off, she was absolutely solitary. The fact that even the potential customers showed no interest in her as a prostitute made her the most lonesome person one can possibly think of. It is certainly not much of a rare occurrence for a prostitute to be turned down but it is a good device for Crane to magnify Maggie’s solitude.
Apart from the Si1rens, this is another typical characteristic of the ‘water women’. Undine, as an entity out of the water, had only her husband in terms of attachment to the human world. Ophelia, again, shows the most striking similarities. She was not all alone like Maggie since the King and Queen had a lot of sympathy for her but she also did not have a female friend. Hamlet, the person she was most interested in, rejected her and afterwards accidentally killed her father. The only relative left was her brother Laertes, who was absorbed with a plot to kill Hamlet in revenge for his father’s death. He only returned for that enterprise and therefore was not very helpful for her in terms of comfort.
Maggie and Ophelia both are described as virtuous and good-looking women who found themselves in a relationship with a man. But in either case, the outcome was unhappy and ended in suicide through drowning. At this point, one may say that the assumption that Maggie is a modern Ophelia-figure is not altogether far-fetched. Curiously, Jimmie also tried to take revenge on his sister’s lover just like Laertes did. In both cases, the woman died as a discarded woman and post mortem was only forgiven after a lot of discussion: Ophelia for committing the sin of suicide and Maggie (ironically) for bringing shame to the Johnson family.
3.4. The Description of Maggie’s Death and Mourning of the Relatives
More interesting parallels between the two literary figures can be found in the descriptions of their deaths and the mourning for them. First of all: there is no explicit description. Both Hamlet and Maggie only give hints previously to the drowning of the female heroines. The reader knows what is going to happen but is not explicitly told. In Crane’s novel, the actual moment of jumping into the water is not presented at all. In Shakespeare’s play, it is the Queen who reports the bad news to Laertes: “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, so fast they follow: your sister’s drowned, Laertes.” Stephen Crane’s novel tells the reader the definite end of the heroine’s life in a rougher tone: “A soiled, unshaven man pushed open the door and entered. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘Mag’s dead.’ ” (86). The structure is alike in both texts. The act of suicide is hinted at, it is not literally told but reported by another character.
The main character and Laertes chiefly do the mourning in Hamlet. Both wind up in a competition as to who is hurt the most by the deceased Ophelia in the first scene of the fifth act. After Laertes had jumped into his sister’s grave, Hamlet said:
“What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? Whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I, Hamlet the Dane.”
Having uttered this, he jumped into the same grave and started fighting with Laertes. The whole affair seems awkward and ridiculous, even more so since both men previously did not care much for Ophelia at all.
A similar thing happens in Maggie: her mother, the one who had caused her the trouble in the first place by not letting her live in her house anymore, wept for her as if she had really been a caring mother and always obliged to help her child. I already hit on the religious character of the last chapter of Crane’s novel. The mother’s dramatic last words in the book “Oh, yes, I’ll fergive her! I’ll fergive her!” (88) push the ironic voice of the narrative to the top and give its ending a lot of effect. The violent drunkard took the liberty of forgiving a person who basically never did anything wrong. Furthermore, the sentence is heretical since only priests of the Catholic Church are allowed to forgive sins on this earth.
A parallel to this can be observed in the discussion whether Ophelia would be buried in sanctified ground or not. The mourners eventually were allowed to entomb her there but the second gravedigger’s assumption that only her belonging to the gentry was responsible for the sanctified burial suggests a slight irony and social criticism on the behalf of Shakespeare as well.
Apart from the obvious religious criticism in the last chapter of Maggie, the author’s laconic view of the world becomes visible. The “girl of the streets” is presented as the sympathetic heroine who could not bear her life because she was too good for the world and those who staggered through life by drinking incessantly and giving vent to their frustration by beating others (Jimmie, Pete, the parents) survived. The one of those given the name Mary (!) even assumed to have the right of judging Maggie’s deeds and forgiving her sins.
The main character of the novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets has many features that qualify her as a typical ‘water woman’ in the tradition of the Sirens, Undine, Lore Lay and Ophelia. The most striking parallels are those between her and Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The play itself seemed to have had quite an influence on Crane’s book, too. Even though one has to be careful not to overdo the pointing out of similarities of two works of so different a character and from such different times, it should not be neglected that at the turn of the century, a young author seemed to have felt the need to re-create a classical women’s role in another way. The term ‘modernity’ can well be applied to the works of Stephen Crane and maybe it was his intention to give the suicidal water woman a new, ‘modern’ face.
In doing so, he had to be careful to leave out anything supernatural or mythical in order not to break with Naturalist views. It was exactly this caution that made it possible to give Maggie a tragic but not romanticised appearance. There is nothing in her that qualifies her as a true hero in a romantic sense. She dies because she was weak and all alone. The only fault on her behalf was her credulity and unawareness of the dangers of life. She could not help that because she was not brought up well enough.
Just like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, she was not able to live a solitary life: “Sie ist auch immer schon relational, d.h. untauglich zur Größe aus Einsamkeit, zum heldischen Subjekt.” It is difficult to say whether Crane tried to create a prototype of the Woman of his days. The problem is that there are at least three different kinds of women in the novel: Maggie, the weak and naïve girl, “The woman of brilliance and audacity”, who fits the picture of a prototype of those women we nowadays see as the typical “Roaring Twenties“ woman, and finally Maggie’s mother who is merely a drunkard from the slums.
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