Stephen Crane:  The Advance Guard of Modernist, Expressionist and Absurdist Movements

According to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, “the term modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the twentieth century, but especially after World War I (1914-18)”. This description can certainly be applied to the writing of Stephen Crane in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets even though this novel was written more than twenty years prior to the start of World War I. There is no doubt that the story is based in naturalism due to the day-to-day depictions of human life and the underlying beliefs that humans have no soul and that there is nothing waiting for us beyond our embodied existence. Nevertheless, the use of imagery, the style of writing, the exaggerated representations of characters, and the sense of futility in this novel are indicative of later styles and periods of writing.

A special feature of modernism is avant-garde. In his Glossary, Abrams describes avant-garde as

a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, to ‘make it new’. By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but social discourse, they set out to create ever-new artistic forms and styles and to introduce hitherto neglected, and sometimes forbidden, subject matter… a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and to challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeois culture.

Using the stylistic and artistic forms mentioned above, Crane wrote about societal problems during a time when people still preferred escapist novels. Readers in the late 1890’s did not want to read about slum life in the city, a topic better suited to “serious literary study” (Gullason). By doing so anyway, Crane sought to wake people up to the real world – not the world they pretended to live in. In this, he foreshadowed the modernists and in particular, the group known as the avant-garde.

Coinciding with the modernist period was the expressionist movement. Expressionism can further be described as writers and artists departing “from realistic depictions of life and the world, by incorporating in their art visionary or powerfully emotional states of mind that are expressed and transmitted by means of distorted representations of the outer world” (Abrams). In Maggie, Stephen Crane does this through his use of animal symbolism and color. Crane draws analogies between characters and animals, thus exaggerating reality. He likens Maggie to “a small pursued tigress” while she is eating dinner. Jimmie “became immured like an African cow”. According to Wikipedia, “Immurement is a form of execution where a person is walled up within a building and left to die from starvation or dehydration”. Whether this passage is symbolic of his life in the tenements or symbolic of his being stuck in traffic, it is not naturalistic but rather an expressionist exaggeration of reality. The use of animal imagery by Crane is characteristic of expressionism in their provoking of powerful images and feelings and understandings in the reader by the use of distorted depictions of reality.

Additionally, “Expressionist writers of prose narratives … abandoned standard modes of characterization and plot for symbolic figures involved in an obsessive world of nightmarish events” (Abrams). In Maggie this can be seen in each of the main characters, but none more so than Maggie. Maggie is a sort of anti-heroine. She is living a life of social isolation, experiencing physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, enduring the ridicule and outcasting by the other slum tenants when Pete severs ties with her, taking up prostitution in order to survive, and ultimately in killing herself to escape the horrors of life. Her brother Jimmie is depicted as a drunken thug with delusions of grandeur and high moral standing that are in direct opposition to the reality of his existence. The mother is a drunken, abusive parent who is often in trouble with the law. Mary screams wrathfully and laughs mockingly when Maggie tries to return home after Pete is finished with her. Mary condemns and ridicules her daughter and casts her out onto the street. When Maggie commits suicide, Mary mourns as though she had never cast out Maggie. She is sorry but it is too late. Finally Pete, the despoiler of Maggie (and presumably other women), is himself taken advantage of by a prostitute with whom he is enamored, but who despises him. At the end of the story, all the characters degenerate. They all continue their pathetic, hopeless existences, while Maggie, on the other hand, is released from her horrible life. In Maggie there is no salvation for anyone.

This lack of salvation is typical of absurdism. Literature of the absurd is

works in drama and prose fiction which have in common the view that the human condition is essentially absurd, and that this condition can be adequately represented only in works of literature that are themselves absurd… The literature has its roots also in the movements of expressionism and surrealism, as well as in the fiction, written in the 1920’s of Franz Kafka (Abrams).

This movement began “as a rebellion against basic beliefs and values in traditional culture and literature (Abrams). Crane was himself a renegade and that is reflected in his writing. First, he rebelled against his strict religious upbringing and then became a bohemian and began experiencing all the things his parents preached against (Gullason). Furthermore, being a Darwinist informed a lot of Crane’s naturalist writing. However, in writing Maggie Stephen Crane “railed against the nature of things, raging against the universe which Darwin describes but raging against it as one might rage against the daily rising of the sun” (Gibson). The futility of such an action is illustrative of the absurd. Furthermore, in Maggie, Crane represented life as pre-destined. His characters were doomed. They could not change, could not improve. This is illustrated in Jimmie’s thought that Maggie could do better, be better, and at the same time he was not able to forgive her because damning her put him on a higher moral standing (Simoneaux). Furthermore, on several copies of Maggie that Crane gave to friends, he wrote “tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing and shapes lives regardless” (Gibson). This inability to change or succeed in the face of the ‘tremendous environment’ that shapes the lives of the characters is an early version of absurdism and similar to the writings of Kafka.

Abrams describes the evolution of the absurd movement.

After the 1940’s, however, there was a widespread tendency… to view a human being as an isolated existent who is cast into an alien universe; to conceive the human world as possessing no inherent truth, value, or meaning; and to represent  human life – in its fruitless search for purpose and significance, as it moves from  the nothingness when it came toward the nothingness where it must end – as an existence which is both anguished and absurd.

Maggie was very isolated. She had no one to talk to about Pete and no one to give her advice about him. If she had had someone to educate her about men like Pete she might not have ended up on the street, in an ‘alien universe’. If Maggie had not had an absent father and an alcoholic, abusive mother she might have had a different life that had some value and meaning. But she did not. She repeatedly endured pain, horrors, and suffering. There was nothing significant or purposeful about her life. The only thing she had any control over was the manner and time of her death. Rather than continue in anguish and absurdity, Maggie chose to end her life. Her ex-lover, her mother and brother continue to live their ‘anguished and absurd’ existence “as it moves from the nothingness when it came toward the nothingness where it must end” (Abrams).

Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is not simply a naturalist novel. While Crane is considered to be a naturalist, his style of writing seems to break the mold of naturalistic writing and creates something new and interesting.  His liberal lifestyle and modern beliefs gave rise to an unconventional writing style that influenced future writers.

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