Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Jimmie is our introduction to the novel. It is not a pretty picture, either: We open with him defending the honor of Rum Alley:
His coat had been torn to shreds in a scuffle, and his hat was gone. He had bruises on twenty parts of his body, and blood was dripping from a cut in his head. His wan features wore a look of a tiny, insane demon. (1.6)
In case you couldn't tell, Jimmie attends the school of hard knocks. And as much as this is the result of being poor and living in a city, it's also something he kind of excels at—almost without exception, he is poised to knock someone's lights out at any given moment. If his sister, Maggie, is exceptional in her lack of nastiness, Jimmie's a chip off the old block when it comes to both his parents and his neighborhood. In short, Jimmie is the ultimate product of his environment.
But Crane isn't interested in the ultimate product of the tenement environment half as much as he is interested in the toll this environment takes on those who don't so readily adapt to it. So he pulls a switcheroo: Though Jimmie dominates the first few chapters, he is not our protagonist. If anything, he sets the scene for his sister's decline, embodying the violence and relentlessness of life under poverty in the city.
You know how we just said Jimmie embodies the violence and relentlessness of life in the city? Nothing proves this more, perhaps, than his behavior on the job. If ever anyone is on their best behavior, it's at work—but when Jimmie gets a job as a truck driver, his anger and hardness follow him to the job. We're told:
He became a young man of leather. He lived some red years without laboring. During that time his sneer became chronic. He studied human nature in the gutter, and found it no worse than he thought he had reason to believe it. He never conceived a respect for the world, because he had begun with no idols that it had smashed. (4.2)
Jimmie starts out hard and only gets harder, finding nothing redeeming in humanity as he makes his way through the world. The world has never given him anything to believe in, so when he has a job, he sees no reason to believe in it—in fact, during this time "He became so sharp that he believed in nothing" (4.18).
One day, Jimmie brings Pete back to their cold-water flat. When they were younger, Pete saved Jimmie's hide, but at this point their friendship doesn't last long, what with Pete running off with Jimmie's sister, Maggie. Jimmie gets on the moral bandwagon with his mother, shunning Maggie for her depraved behavior while giving Pete a bit of a pardon:
Jimmie had an idea it wasn't common courtesy for a friend to come to one's home and ruin one's sister. But he was not sure how much Pete knew about the rules of politeness. (10.1)
If this feels a little like a boys will be boys mentality, then we're right there with you. Sure, Jimmie's mad at Pete and goes to the guy's job to beat him up. But if you've read up on Maggie elsewhere in this section, then you know that she's the embodiment of not knowing any better, while Pete is not only older, but much more aware of the world and its machinations. This eludes Jimmie, though:
Of course Jimmie publicly damned his sister that he might appear on a higher social plane. But, arguing with himself, stumbling about in ways that he knew not, he, once, almost came to a conclusion that his sister would have been more firmly good had she better known why. However, he felt that he could not hold such a view. He threw it hastily aside. (13.34)
So what we see, then, is Jimmie's angry ways manifesting in a refusal to forgive his sister for her moral foibles, and a readiness to toss her to the street despite knowing things can't possible go well for her out there. She may not know any better, but Jimmie, simply put, doesn't care.
In the name of giving credit where credit is due, we will point out that Jimmie does spend a split second almost considering the hypocrisy of his judgment against Pete (no such luck for his sister). Why? Well, righteous Jimmie has spoiled his share of woman—and abandoned them to boot—and he realizes that they just might have brothers, too. And that these brothers might be just as disappointed in him as he is in Pete.
True to form, though, Jimmie shakes this damning self-awareness out of his head and gets back on track with rejecting Maggie, ensuring a lifetime of misery and struggle for her on the streets, while dismissing Pete whole cloth despite behaving exactly as his former pal does.
What can we say? As the embodiment of the relentless violence of life in the tenements, Jimmie just keeps on keeping on with his terrible self.