The novella opens with Jimmie Johnson, a young boy from Rum Alley, brawling with the Irish children from Devil's Row. Jimmie is abandoned by his fellow Rum Alley comrades, but he bravely fights against Blue Billie. The fight is disrupted by the arrival of Pete, Jimmie's older friend. Furthermore, Jimmie's father comes and brutally scolds him for fighting.
Mr. Johnson takes Jimmie home, which is a dirty apartment located in a squalid neighborhood. "The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels" (Crane 4). They see Maggie and Tommie Johnson, Jimmie's siblings. Maggie also upbraids Jimmie for fighting.
When they arrive at home, Mary Johnson (Jimmie's mother) fights with Mr. Johnson. The household is in an uproar, and Tommie, an infant, is upset. Eventually, Mr. Johnson leaves the apartment in anger. Meanwhile, Maggie asks Jimmie about the fight. Then, Mary prepares dinner for the children. "The mother sat blinking at them. She delivered reproaches, swallowed potatoes and drank from a yellow-brown bottle" (Crane 6). When Maggie accidentally breaks her plate, her mother becomes extremely irate. Jimmie escapes the apartment and goes to the old woman who lives on another story in the building.
Jimmie and the old woman listen to the fight between Mary and Maggie. The old woman is a poor beggar who was once arrested for attempted robbery. She gives money to Jimmie and enlists him to purchase alcohol for her. On his way back, however, Jimmie encounters his father, who takes away the beer. Jimmie must creep past the old woman's apartment so that she is unaware of his presence, and he returns home.
At home, Mary is passed out on the floor; his father, too, is in a heavy sleep, presumably from alcohol. Maggie and Jimmie huddle together for solidarity through the night, frightened of their own parents.
The novella speeds past the rest of Jimmie's childhood, during which Tommie and the father both die. Jimmie grows into a rude and belligerent young man who works as a truck driver. "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" (Crane 10). He often fights with other truck drivers and becomes involved in physical altercations frequently.
The opening of the novella provides a clear image of the setting. Furthermore, Crane's imagery when describing the young boys' fight is very colorful. "In the yells of the whirling mob of Devil's Row children there were notes of joy like songs of triumphant savagery" (Crane 2). In this simile, the yells of the children are compared to musical songs.
Crane's description of the neighborhood where the Johnsons live also sets the tone for the novella. "Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the streets infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels" (Crane 4). The neighborhood is chaotic and dirty, the children neglected and unkempt. In the same passage, Crane gives the setting a life of its own: "from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter" (Crane 4).
Crane frequently uses hyperbole and other figures of speech in his descriptions. For example, Mr. Johnson is described as follows: "He glued his lips to the under edge and tilted his head. His hairy throat swelled until it seemed to grow near his chin" (Crane 8). The exaggerated description ("glued" and "swelled") provides vivid imagery. Likewise, Jimmie is made to seem like an animal or animal hunter when he "crawled upstairs with the caution of an invader of a panther den" (Crane 9).
The chapter describing Jimmie's growth into adulthood features a few similes. "He became immured like an African cow. In him grew a majestic contempt for those strings of street cars that followed him like intent bugs" (Crane 12). As a truck driver, Jimmie is well-known for inciting fights with other drivers and those he encounters on the streets of New York.
This is the backdrop for our introduction to the Johnson family. It is a dim, poor, violent setting where the people seem like animals. It is a fitting setting for a family like the Johnsons, with family members who drink alcohol or fight and where the children are afraid of their parents. Given the way that Jimmie grows up, we do not have much hope for Maggie in this environment either.
In the meantime, Maggie has grown into a very attractive young woman who is noticed by the neighbors. She begins to work in a cuff-making factory, but her mother descends deeper into her alcoholism. Jimmie, naturally, has become the so-called head of the family.
Pete visits Jimmie at the Johnson home one evening and attracts Maggie's attention. He strikes her as a sophisticated, attractive, and worldly man. She listens to him converse with Jimmie, and Pete inflates his stories to sound self-important. "As Jimmie and his friend exchanged tales descriptive of their prowess, Maggie leaned back in the shadow. Her eyes dwelt wonderingly and rather wistfully upon Pete's face" (Crane 15). She thus begins to develop a romantic interest in Pete.
Pete also notices Maggie, which again causes him to act more self-important so as to impress her. Maggie begins to feel unworthy of Pete and hopes to impress him by redecorating the Johnsons' humble home. Eventually, Pete visits the Johnsons and asks Maggie on a date. Maggie continues to maintain a glamorous image of Pete and his supposed lifestyle. When Pete comes to pick up Maggie for their date, however, her mother has completely destroyed the apartment in a drunken haze.
Pete takes Maggie to a hall where alcohol is served and music is played. "Maggie perceived that Pete brought forth all his elegance and all his knowledge of high-class customs for her benefit" (Crane 19). Though Pete is in actuality rather crude, Maggie is overwhelmed by her new environment and dazzled by his demeanor.
Maggie and Pete watch a number of performances in the hall, which include singers and dancers and a ventriloquist. Pete, however, is more interested in watching Maggie. She is suitably impressed by all of the events. Nonetheless, when Pete takes Maggie home, she refuses his request for a kiss good night, which greatly surprises him.
When Maggie comes of age, Jimmie tells her she must either "go teh hell or go teh work!" (Crane 13). In this instance, going to hell refers to entering prostitution. Maggie instead begins working at the cuff factory. Later, however, Maggie will indeed turn to prostitution, spurred on by Jimmie's lack of support in the face of their mother's wrath.
The lambrequin that Maggie constructs is a symbol of her attempt to better herself for Pete. As with Henry Johnson of "The Monster," Maggie too is concerned with outward appearances. She seeks to improve her own self-image by bettering her appearance, particularly her environment. This motivation is apparent when Maggie imagines that "Pete's elegant occupation brought him, no doubt, into contact with people who had money and manners" (Crane 17).
Maggie's romantic notions of Pete are another example of unfortunate misconceptions in Crane's works. The combination of Maggie's inexperience and Pete's posturing (in conversations with Jimmie) leads to this misconception of Pete as glamorous. In actuality, he is simply a lowlife bartender who does not truly love her. Her misconception, however, causes Maggie to trust him enough to leave her home to live with him, thus sealing her fate as "ruined." This fatal decision leads to her demise into prostitution, then death.
In an example of dramatic irony, Maggie is greatly impressed by the show to which Pete takes her. However, the reader can perceive through Crane's descriptions that the show is in fact quite crass and gaudy. The men leer at the female performers; one performer "made his face into fantastic grimaces until he looked like a pictured devil on a Japanese kite" (Crane 21). Nonetheless, Maggie is lost in her misconception of Pete and imagines she is at a very sophisticated and high-class show.
As Maggie continues to see Pete, she becomes anxious about her own attire and presentation, perceiving herself to be unworthy of someone as sophisticated as Pete. "[S]he thought Pete to be a very fastidious person concerning the appearance of women" (Crane 22). Furthermore, Maggie wishes she had a friend in whom she could confide her feelings for Pete. "Swaggering Pete loomed like a golden sun to Maggie" (Crane 22). Her home life, in contrast, remains miserable, as Mary is continually drunk and Jimmie is not always home.
Pete takes Maggie on various dates in New York City. She is most impressed by the plays and becomes wholly engrossed in the stories depicted on stage. "She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and wicked" (Crane 24).
One day, some children wait for Mary to exit a saloon, when they harass her for money. Mary, as predicted, is extremely drunk and belligerent. She shouts at the children, then noisily makes her way home. A neighbor, Mary Murphy, slams her door in Mary Johnson's face, and the latter begins to scream and kick at the closed door. Jimmie arrives home and takes his mother home.
Jimmie and his mother fight because she resists his attempts to bring her inside. The neighbors watch the spectacle, and finally Maggie exits their home. She sees the ruckus, and Jimmie takes the opportunity to force their mother inside. The fight continues, and the apartment is completely wrecked.
Suddenly, Pete appears and surveys the damage. He tells Maggie to come with him. Mary curses Maggie and goads her into leaving permanently. In fact, Mary verbally evicts Maggie from their home, so Maggie leaves with Pete.
The next night, Jimmie becomes angry as he ponders Maggie's situation with Pete. The old woman in the apartment building confirms with Jimmie that Maggie's virtue has been "ruined" by Pete, as she was witnessed arriving home at a very late hour and asking whether Pete loves her. Jimmie returns home and tells his mother about Maggie's plight. The home is still ruined, and Mary is astounded by the news. Jimmie and Mary commiserate about Maggie's shame.
Jimmie decides to take action by fighting Pete for destroying his sister's reputation. Outside their door, he hears the neighbors gossiping about Maggie and her moral character. Then, Jimmie meets a friend, Billie, and enlists his assistance in finding and beating Pete.
Pete is a bartender, so Jimmie and Billie go to his bar. Only one other patron is there, a quiet stranger who senses trouble and distances himself from the three young men. Jimmie and Pete exchange heated words, then launch into a full-scale brawl. In the melee, the quiet stranger exits the bar, but he ends up sprawled on the street.
Bystanders from outside hear the brawl with its sounds of broken glass and fighting, and they see the quiet stranger on the street. The brawl gains more attention until a policeman interrupts the three men. Jimmie sees the policeman in time to make his escape. However, Pete and Billie are arrested, and Jimmie chooses not to help.
The dramatic irony surrounding Maggie's perception of Pete continues and deepens. "Swaggering Pete loomed like a golden sun to Maggie" (Crane 22), which is a good example of a Crane simile. Maggie is greatly impressed by all of the places Pete brings her for dates. However, Pete is "racking his brains for amusement" (Crane 22-23). The reader understands that Pete really is uncultured and uneducated. Maggie, however, remains ignorantly dazzled by her false image of him.
The end of Chapter 8 features an interesting description of Maggie's interest in watching plays with Pete. Maggie is described as enjoying dramatic plays in which the audience closely follows the action: the audience "encouraged the struggling hero with cries, and jeered the villain.... When anybody died in the pale-green snow storms, the gallery mourned" (Crane 24). Within the novella itself, likewise, Crane employs a "gallery" watching the drama of the Johnsons—namely, their neighbors. At the same time, we are the gallery watching the story play out as well. While we might be rooting for Maggie, however, the neighbors only encourage Mary Johnson, who is the antithesis of the struggling hero. (They do mourn Maggie at the end of the novella, but not yet.)
Finally, the mention of these plays attended by Maggie is ironic because "the last act was a triumph for the hero, poor and of the masses, the representative of the audience, over the villain and the rich man" (Crane 24). This is poetic justice; the hero triumphs. Unfortunately, in the novella, the heroine’s fate is the opposite: Maggie will die in obscurity. She does not enjoy any triumph, and the cause of her death is unknown. In fact, the rich go on their way as usual, and the villains—Pete and her family—remain alive; rich men have neglected to save her from her sad end.
The apartment serves as a symbol of Maggie's internal turmoil. When she leaves on her first date with Pete, Maggie "was waiting for him in the midst of a floor strewn with wreckage" (Crane 18). When Maggie makes her fateful decision to leave with Pete permanently, the apartment is again nearly destroyed by a brawl between Jimmie and their mother. Thus, the apartment is not only the squalid environment that drives Maggie toward Pete, but it also represents her internal break with her family, particularly her mother, who repeatedly tells her to "go teh hell" (Crane 27).