We see a scene with a “forlorn woman” walking alone at night, searching for someone in saloon doorways. For a moment we imagine it might be Maggie, but then we discover it is Hattie, a woman who has been seduced and abandoned not by Pete but by Jimmie. She finds Jimmie, and he once again rebuffs her. But when Jimmie goes home, the reader is reminded that an identical situation afflicts Jimmies own sister, who has returned to face her mothers wrath. Mary is impossibly cruel, holding her silent daughter up to ridicule in front of the assembled neighbors, who treat Maggie like a leper. Jimmie, too, rejects his sister. Cast aside, Maggie leaves; her only shred of comfort comes from the old woman, who offers her shelter.
Quickly, the scene cuts to the next day, in Petes barroom, where Pete is washing his hands of the entire affair, for which he does not consider himself responsible. Maggie comes to see him at the bar, and Pete angrily sends her away. In response to her question “where kin I go?”, he snarls “Oh, go teh hell.” Walking away aimlessly, Maggie comes upon a man whose “face was a picture of benevolence,” but even he, the personification of the “Grace of God,” shudders and turns away from her.
Several months later, on a wet evening, “a girl of the painted cohorts of the city”–a prostitute, and possibly Maggie–is walking the streets of New York. She passes scorned, unnoticed, or leered at, through the busy streets, and eventually finds herself in the blackness near the river. There, a disgusting fat man detaches himself from the shadows and follows the girl; the sounds of the city fade away into silence, and her fate is anyones guess.
The novels penultimate chapter finds Pete in a saloon with a half-dozen giggling women; one of them is Nellie. Pete is badly drunk, and spends the evening buying drinks for the party and slurring nonsense about his own goodness, in an attempt, it is implied, to fend off pangs of conscience. Before collapsing, Pete gives Nellie money, and declares pathetically that he is “stuck on” her. When he loses consciousness, she leaves him, saying, “What a damn fool.”
In the final scene, Jimmie returns to the tenement with the news that Maggie is dead. His mother chooses this occasion, when it is far too late, to express motherly love and sympathy for her daughter. She works herself into a frenzy of mourning, whipped onwards by Miss Smith. The last words of the novel have Mary, the novels “sated villain,” ironically forgiving her daughter for her imagined sins: “Ill fergive her! Ill fergive her!”
Just as we are not shown the scene of Maggies seduction, we are not shown its eventual result; her death is shrouded in mystery. It is enough, the novel seems to suggest, to say that Maggies early and tragic death was a nearly inevitable consequence of her life and her romanticism.
The novel certainly suggests the circumstances of Maggies death. We see a young prostitute walking through the city; by the riverside, she meets a disgusting man, the embodiment of the filth and violence of the lower city. The sounds and lights of the city fade behind them; “at their feet the river appeared a deathly black hue.” It could be inferred that Maggie is murdered by this man, since the next time we hear of her, she is dead. However, because the cause of Maggies death is never shown, one can just as easily infer that Maggie, disgusted with her life, commits suicide.
But, of course, there is no proof that this woman is Maggie. Indeed, the only time she is called by name, a passerby calls her by Maggies mothers name, Mary. This leaves open a number of possibilities and interpretations, all of which are left intentionally open. Possibly, the prostitute is indeed Maggie, who has lost her individuality and become simply “a girl of the streets,” as promised in the novels title. Alternatively, we are meant to infer that Maggie has somehow become undistinguishable from her degraded and dehumanized mother, Mary: when we last hear of the prostitute, she is referred to as “the girl of the crimson legions.” This is, of course, a euphemism for her prostitution, but it is surely also a reference to the crimson legions of hell. Maggie has repeatedly been damned, repeatedly been told to go to hell. And finally, she has arrived, joining her mother, a demonic incarnation who is frequently referred to as “red” or “crimson.” In this interpretation, one might see the “great figure” of the fat man along the riverside to be an incarnation of the devil himself, encased in “great rolls of red fat.” There is a corollary to this interpretation. If Maggie has become as crimsoned with sin as her mother, it is a reminder that Maggie, had she survived her ordeal on the streets, might well have become like her mother, ruining her children just as she was ruined. Social forces and poor choices would prohibit escape, keeping the cycle of misery intact.
In light of the novels emphasis on the inescapability of social forces, Cranes narrative decision not to show the cause of Maggies death takes on an additional significance. If social forces are inescapable, does it matter whether Maggie was murdered or committed suicide? Each outcome is as likely as the other for a fallen woman turned prostitute, and each is simply a different variation on a course of events set in motion by social forces that Maggie could not escape. Even if one believes that Maggie committed suicide, it is difficult to argue that when looked at from one step remove, her death was caused, or to put it more strongly, she was murdered, by the social forces swirling around her.
If Maggie is a realist novel about social forces so powerful they constrain individual choice, it is also–implicitly, through its subject matter and form, and quite explicitly–an attack on romanticism and sentimentalism. Social forces do constrain choice, but Maggie was not utterly without choices in this novel; she might have become like Nellie, a manipulator and schemer who may not be morally superior, but who at least survived. But Maggie set her mind toward romanticism rather than survival and toughness. And it was her failure to see Pete clearly that led to her seduction: thinking him an opportunity for escape from Rum Alley, she failed to see him as deceptive and coercive. Her innate romanticism was strengthened by a steady diet of the sentimentalist pabulum fed to the masses as public entertainment: “Maggie always departed with raised spirits from the showing places of the melodrama. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and wicked. The theater 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 a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory.” Maggie is, among other things, a condemnation of the artistic conventions of Cranes day, which presented the public with illusions and sentimental impossibilities.
Nowhere in Maggie is the tendency towards melodrama and sentimentality so viciously skewered as in the novels final chapter. Mary, the closest thing this novel has to a villain, has spent weeks bemoaning the imagined injustices done to her; she asks–and Crane means for the audience to understand the deep but obvious irony behind this–how a sinner like Maggie could have emerged from a home so putatively pure as their tenement. Here, in the final chapter, she cloaks her villainy behind a sentimental outburst of fake emotion. Spurred on by the assembled women, she weeps ostentatiously and melodramatically for the daughter whom she did not love and could not forgive. And she convinces herself, through this ersatz display of motherly love, that she has done her duty by her daughter, and has even acted with transcendent, albeit posthumous, kindness in forgiving Maggies crimes. It should not be lost on the reader that this Mary, devilish throughout the novel, cloaks herself on this occasion in religious piety. Religion in this novel serves as an aid to sentimentality and melodrama; it substitutes illusion and deceit in the place of honesty and clear sight. And these last, for Crane, are the highest values.