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The main theme of Maggie is the determinism of social and economic forces on the lives of individuals. As a literary naturalist, Crane was interested in depicting the social ills of his time, showing that despite an individual’s best efforts, the forces of the society will overcome her and determine her fate. Here, Maggie’s childhood of abuse and poverty combined with her physical beauty ensure that Maggie ends up living a short, miserable life as a prostitute.
The minor theme of the novella is the affect of popular entertainment on the morality of poor people. Here, the targeted entertainment is the melodrama. For Crane, the morality of melodrama dominates the morality of his age. People prefer to attribute the destitution and suffering of thousands of people to personal moral failings instead of looking at the social and economic institutions which make their suffering predictable and inevitable.
The mood of the novella shifts between irony to pathos (high emotion). The irony comes about when Crane uses the mock heroic or mock melodramatic style. He imitates these styles with an ironic distance. So, for instance, Mrs. Johnson, one of the most violent characters in all of literature, pictures herself as the dejected and bereaved mother grieving her daughter’s death. The reader recognizes the disjunction between what really happened-- she threw her daughter out--and what she says happened--that she raised Maggie in a morally upright home. However, the pathos of the novel counteracts this ironic tone at significant points. The reader is brought to sympathy for Maggie and regards her death as a sickening tragedy. Crane seems to regard pathos with ironically raised eyebrows when it is used by people like Mrs. Johnson, while at the same time occasionally using it himself.