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Maggie is a sad sack, and we're clued into this from the get-go. How's that? Well, we know from the book's title that Maggie is the protagonist, but we don't meet her right away. Instead, we meet her brother, Jimmie, and get a glimpse of her future lover boy, Pete. In other words, Maggie's such a sad case that she doesn't even start out starring in her own show. Plus, before we even know who this titular Maggie is, the narrator dubs her "A small ragged girl" (2.2), words we're pretty sure have never been said about a happy and vibrant person.
As soon as we do meet Maggie, it becomes clear that she doesn't have a whole lot to celebrate. She's a timid sack of nerves huddling in the corner—her mother is a raging alcoholic lunatic, and her dad's no better. We're told that Maggie has "none of the dirt of Rum Alley […] in her veins" (5.2), letting us know that she's not such a rat bag as the rest of the members of her family. Plus, she's pretty. But before you go thinking good looks and not being terrible are points in Maggie's favor, remember that this actually marks her as totally not cut out to hack it in this environment.
Perhaps because of this, if there's one thing we learn about Maggie from the get-go, it's that she wants to get the heck out of Dodge—and her job working in a collar and cuff factory just does not seem to be the ticket out. When we meet Maggie, she's a pristine waif living in the eye of the storm, and Crane makes no promises.
It's hard to blame Maggie for falling for Pete. From her limited perspective, he is valiant, dapper, masculine, and living a far better life than the one she's known. Literally all she has to hold onto is hope, and Pete's looking like a pretty good prospect in terms of the romantic hero thing. The performances Pete takes her to just confirm all of the knight-in-shining armor stuff that she wants to—has to—believe in:
[S]he wondered if the culture and refinement she had seen imitated […] by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory. (8.26)
Clearly, Maggie is a girl under the influence of a lot of romantic stories. Sadly, Pete's enthusiasm takes a nosedive pretty quickly, as indicated by the declining condition of each music hall he takes Maggie to—they start by watching family waltzes, but by the end are watching a strip tease. And bummer for Maggie, once Pete ditches her, no man will go near her. In that day and age, she's considered damaged goods.
One of the major questions here is whether Maggie is immoral. We know what her mother, the neighbors, Jimmie, and just about everyone else thinks: To put it nicely, running off with a man doesn't exactly make you marriage material. But does Crane expect us to hop up onto that high horse, too? Let's look at some clues. At one point, it occurs to Jimmie "that his sister would have been more firmly good had she better known why" (13.36). In other words, no one's ever taught Maggie how to behave "better" than she does—it wasn't part of her upbringing.
Plus, given how terrible her home life is and how few her options in general are, girl is in serious survival mode. Crane makes it crystal clear that there's very little hope for her in the first place, so the fact that she flings herself at the first ticket out she thinks she sees—no matter the morals of the time—seems pretty understandable. She doesn't want the rest of her life to follow the pattern it has so far.
But here's where there's a bit of a twist: Maggie dies. This comes some time after she's left to fend for herself on the streets after Pete dumps her and her mom refuses to let her in their tenement. So for all of her innocence and prettiness and earnestness, she is still arguably punished for her behavior—she may not understand the moral code of the novel, but it's still the death of her in the end.
Which leaves us with one question: Do you think Crane is saying that society and its morals unfairly hurt innocent people? Or do you think Crane is saying that innocence and poverty are no excuses for violating socially dictated morals? We'll let you mull this one over, Shmoopers. Feel free to argue either way.