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  • Prostitution, Primitivism, PerformativityThe Bare Life in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

When the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened its “Woman’s Building” in 1893, two sixty-foot long murals entitled Primitive Woman and Modern Woman flanked its main hall. These murals, considered two of the most significant public commissions for the time, traced woman’s advancement from her savage beginnings to her modern state.1 Bertha Palmer, famous wife of Chicago’s real-estate mogul Potter Palmer, commissioned the artwork, giving artists Mary MacMonnies and Mary Cassatt specific instructions for the murals’ content: “one panel should ‘show woman in her primitive condition as a bearer of burdens and doing drudgery [sic] either an Indian scene or a classic one.’ The other mural should serve ‘as a contrast [showing] woman in the position she occupies today’” (qtd. in Carr and Webster 53). In response, MacMonnies’s idealized portrait of the primitive woman showed her as a mother in the wilderness awaiting her male hunter’s return, while Cassatt’s work presented the modern woman tending to her intellectual needs by gathering fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Although the murals’ stylistic differences reflect “the contrariness of their assigned subjects, and helped to underscore the ostensible distance between Modern Woman and her ‘primitive’ sister” (Sund 462), in the 1890s the perceived distance seemed far less pronounced.

Prior to the late nineteenth century, discussions about the primitive revolved around romantic ideas about older, pre-industrial ways of life as antidotes to the problems of civilization. In Imagining the Primitive in Naturalist and Modernist Literature, Gina Rossetti claims, “While the primitive was conceived as a positive alternative to civilization it took on new resonance that signaled its marginalization” (4) in naturalist writings, such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand of the Potter as well as sociological studies of the time by Franklin Giddings and [End Page 41] Edward Ross. For Rossetti, conflicting characterization of the primitive actually defined the naturalist period: “Naturalism is not simply pessimistic determinism or a failed realist aesthetic. On the contrary, naturalism produces contradictory images about the primitive and the devolution of this particular character and all those who encounter him or her” (5). Rossetti’s argument echoes Marianna Torgovnick’s point that “primitive always implied ‘original,’ ‘pure,’ ‘simple’” in ways that encouraged either “commendation or the reverse” (19). Although not necessarily the focus of Rossetti or Torgovnick’s analysis, representations of the primitive frequently made reference to women, particularly the female body. By the late nineteenth century, certain naturalist texts exemplified this intersection of primitivism and female representation. As Jennifer L. Fleissner shows, primitivism resides “at the core of civilization’s most apparently exquisite achievement, domestic femininity—a connection made possible by the compulsion of excess in the self-creation of both” (86). Citing Frank Norris’s novel Vandover and the Brute and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Fleissner contrasts a “male primitivism”—where men could escape the trappings of civilization and domestic life by going into nature—to a female, or feminized, primitivism that conflates savagery and domesticity (84). Published just one year after the World’s Columbian Exposition, Otis Mason’s Woman’s Share in Primitive Culture includes a similar observation: “The savage woman is really the ancestress and prototype of the modern housewife” (qtd. in Trump 216).

Yet the opposite of the housewife also resembles the primitive. In his treatise Sex and Character Otto Weininger groups women “into one of two general types, the prostitute and the mother,” based on his “belie[f] that women were controlled by their sexual nature” (Pizer 123). In discussions of gender and the primitive, scholars have rarely provided sustained explorations of the character of the prostitute. In Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)—published the same year as the Exposition and Weininger’s treatise, respectively—the protagonists Maggie, Marija, and Ona attempt to transcend their “primitive” states by imitating middle-class identity2 but instead spiral down to a more primitive state—prostitution. Rather than see these women as controlled by their sexual nature, Crane and Sinclair emphasize a different kind of control: the city’s corrupting economic forces. Just as the protagonists attempt to climb the social ladder as respectable working women, performativity undergirds the prostitute-as-primitive and her function in these novels. As prostitutes, these women must dress the part and feign desire; they must, in other words, act. Rather than maintain performance through a reality/ [End Page 42] illusion divide, scholars such as J. L. Austin and Judith Butler have argued that perfomativity can actually enact reality. In Maggie and The Jungle, social climbing, displays of immigrant traditions, and descents into prostitution work together to reveal the real “savagery” hidden under the garbs of civilization.

Cast out of their families and larger communities because of their deviant sex work, Maggie, Marija, and Ona exemplify Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the “bare life” in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and the Bare Life. In ancient Roman law, the homo sacer was a criminal who, rather than being punished by ritual sacrifice, could be killed by anyone without that killing being considered murder. The homo sacer’s bare life represents an outcast existence outside the law and, therefore, beyond its protection. Among his examples, Agamben refers to concentration camp victims, comatose patients, and refugees. Left to die on the streets, Crane’s and Sinclair’s protagonists resemble the homo sacer who—in this case—does not necessarily point out the “sovereign power” of the other city characters but rather the façade covering up urban corruption.


At its core, Maggie explores the intersections between class, gender, and identity in a New York City slum in the late nineteenth century.3 Setting his work in the Bowery, Crane channels the site’s difficult history into his discourse on “slums” as primitive, urban spaces. In the 1830s, the district was “packed to the point of bursting with cheap theaters, burlesque shows, dance halls, brothels, basement-level dives, and beer halls” (Dowling 48) only to teem with bloody battles between Protestant American nativist groups and recently arrived German and Irish Catholics during the 1850s and 1860s. Attempts to reform the district were never successful for long, and the city continued confining its deviance to the neighborhood. By 1890, the Bowery was again “infamous” for its prostitution, “alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, and crime” (Dowling 49). Thus, as a liminal space between the city’s respectable neighborhoods and its lower classes’ obscurity, the Bowery serves as a significant site of study for a woman’s rise and fall.

While reviewers in 1893 found the content of Maggie disturbing, with William Dean Howells complaining that it had too much of a “certain kind” of realism,4 later scholars deem it similar to other novels on the city’s under classes. Timothy Gilfoyle claims that it resembles most “literary ‘slumming’ missions” and that despite Crane’s pioneering work in an urban space, including his defense of a prostitute unjustly accused of solicitation, he ultimately draws rather stereotypical conclusions on prostitution [End Page 43] (270).5 Joseph Salemi alleges that even Maggie’s mysterious death by the city’s river proves “commonplace” since many prostitutes committed suicide there, and thus Crane capitalized on “the stereotypical resonances . . . a street girl at the river’s edge would evoke in his readers” (58). Robert Dowling similarly asserts that Maggie “is a story not of rebellion, but of ‘blank conformity to convention’” (51). For Dowling, Maggie, her brother Jimmie, and love interest Pete are disappearing relics of the Bowery working-class eclipsed by Victorian, middle-class ideals. While Crane inevitably relies on certain “slumming” tropes in order for his reader to vicariously tour the seedy underworld, he also subverts these conventions by using a narrative style that often implicitly compares the slums to the city’s more well-off districts.

Through her fashion-sense and theater-going, Maggie attempts to perform middle-class status but fails, leading to her public shaming and exodus from the community. Born into the slums, she unexpectedly “blossom[s] in a mud puddle” when she learns how to ascend the social ladder through her physical appearance (Crane 22). Her beauty, while out-of-place in the slums, functions as a commodity that she can leverage to climb the social ladder, much in the same way Jimmie and Pete use their white masculinity against newly arrived Irish immigrants. Like Crane’s other characters, Maggie uses fashion to imitate upper-class status. Such performativity often emerges through what William Dow terms “the theatricalization of reality” in which Crane casts certain characters as spectators who watch the story’s “scene” unfold without any attendant didacticism on the part of the narrator (56–57). However, Dow’s study, which unpacks Crane’s narrative techniques in the novel, also leaves unexamined the ways in which the narrator eventually strips Maggie of her fashionable attire and equates her identity-less existence to a primitive state.

The fight for identity and legitimacy begins at an early age, especially for children from the Bowery. The story opens with Jimmie’s fight, which sets the stage for what becomes an epic battle between who a person is and what he or she wants to be. For Jimmie, this conflict ends prematurely with his father’s arrival, effectively thwarting Jimmie’s adolescent attempt to re-make his street-urchin identity into one of mythic “soldier” (6). Maggie first appears as “a small ragged girl” dragging her baby brother (who will not survive long in the Bowery) down the street. The slum’s filth mediates Maggie’s identity as it does Jimmie’s. Dressed not in clothes, but in “tatters and grime,” she goes unseen because the “dirt disguise[s] her” (22). Physical appearance and dress—even tattered, filthy clothing—figure as defining characteristics of Maggie’s identity. Her body reflects its [End Page 44] environment and, unable to conceal the dirt, Maggie remains invisible to those around her, foreshadowing her eventual expulsion from the Bowery community and what little protection it offers.

Maggie, however, does not enter prostitution until after attempting to make a living as a factory worker. Not only does this work show her how performative class can be, it also leads to her ruin as an honorable woman. Maggie’s unexpected beauty lifts her out of the mud into visibility. Jimmie, her sole male “protector,” gives her a choice: “Yeh’ve edder got teh go teh hell or go teh work!” (22). By laying out the two options of prostitution or “honest” employment for his lower-class sister, Jimmie never considers marriage as a viable future. Due to her “feminine aversion of going to hell,” Maggie begins work in a collar and cuff factory in the city’s garment industry. Whereas Jimmie seems to contrast the dangers of “hell” on the streets to the less threatening environment of the factory, these kinds of jobs often proved as perilous as walking the streets. Women, in particular, risked sexual harassment and abuse at their foremen’s hands—as when in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), the protagonist, Carrie Meeber, loathes her work as a shop girl as a result of her male coworkers’ constant vulgar behavior toward her (38–39). However, Laura Hapke advises that a seemingly respectable factory job served an essential (albeit ironic) function for girls like Maggie: “the theme was rescue from prostitution” (21). Without factory work, many girls could not make money unless they entered into prostitution; yet these same jobs also left them open to predatory hiring practices and mistreatment by their employers. Ideally, factory work lifted these girls from the streets and prevented their return to poverty. Of course, a working girl’s meager wage proved hardly able to sustain her, let alone any family depending on her income, and it proved nowhere near enough to catapult her into the ideal of middle-class life.

Nevertheless, textile work exposes Maggie to upper-class fashions and ultimately teaches her that social class, like clothes, is quite easily reproducible. This realization transforms her understanding of class dynamics based on the fact that the “worker and . . . poor were fundamentally different—a strange breed” (Pittenger 27). Engaged in the mass-production of cuffs and collars, Maggie witnesses how quickly a one-of-a-kind design can be copied. So the question becomes: if the expensive dress can be replicated through piecework, why not the woman who wears it? Nan Enstad explains that in this period “Many working women . . . dressed in flamboyant styles that far exceeded middle-class standards of ‘taste.’ They would fashion commodities into a complex signifying practice of creating themselves as ‘ladies’” (749). Thus, through her work, Maggie makes the [End Page 45] link between fashion, class, and identity. Her performance of class also shows up in her romantic interest in Jimmie’s friend Pete. She admires his appearance but fears that “Pete’s aristocratic person . . . might soil” from the “the broken furniture, grimey [sic] walls, and general . . . dirt of her home” (25). Struck most by his dress, Maggie relishes the seeming importance his outfit and mannerisms communicate:

His hair was curled down over his forehead in an oiled bang. His rather pugged nose seemed to revolt from contact with a bristling moustache. . . . His blue double-breasted coat, edged with black braid, buttoned close to a red puff tie, and his patent-leather shoes, looked like murder-fitted weapons. His mannerisms stamped him as a man who had a correct sense of superiority. . . . He waved his hands like a man of the world.


On their second meeting, she again notices the “fascinating innovations in his apparel” assuming that the man, like “his wardrobe[,] was prodigiously extensive” (28). Here, Maggie naively judges the quality of Pete’s character according to the quality of his clothes.

Like the fashionable clothes, the theater provides a space for lower, working classes to take part in leisure activities. At the theater where Maggie wears a “worn black dress,” the performances and Pete’s lofty airs dazzle her. The “[m]en with calloused hands . . . in garments that showed the wear of an endless trudge” (29–30) distinguish the Bowery crowd from the city’s Broadway theatre-goers. At these halls, workers enjoy “the phantasies of the aristocratic theatre-going public, at reduced rates” (32). Full of overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells all foreign to her, Maggie is enthralled not by the performance but by the “some half dozen skirts” worn by the dancer. She “wondered at the splendor of the costume and lost herself in calculations of the cost of the silks and laces” (32). Consumed by the costume’s worth, she fails to notice the meaning behind these performances, which many times require the dancer or singer to leave the stage and return to a raucous applause, each time wearing “less gown” (60) or, perhaps, fewer skirts. The expensive costumes, that give these performers their value in Maggie’s eyes disappear piece-by-piece, and with them, the female performers’ respectability. Yet Maggie does not recognize the significance of these undressing acts and instead wonders “if the culture and refinement she had seen imitated . . . by the heroine[s] on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory” (38). As a result, she fails to learn the lesson behind these “grotesqu[e]” (38) acts: gowns come off as quickly as they go on. [End Page 46]

After Pete introduces Maggie to life’s finery, she develops an intense loathing of her own shabby clothes.6 She begins evaluating herself in the calculating terms with which she once viewed the yards of silk and lace. She intently observes “the well-dressed women she met on the avenues. She envied elegance and soft palms. She craved those adornments . . . which she saw every day on the street, conceiving them to be allies of vast importance to women. . . . She began to see the bloom upon her cheeks as valuable” (35). Maggie commodifies her beauty. She resolutely believes that her clothes remain key to a middle-class identity that will make her Pete’s equal. When working girls adopt the mannerisms of upper-class ladyhood, the act becomes a process of consumption. Above all else, Maggie recognizes that the display of fashionable clothes becomes a physical display of privilege. In The Laws of Imitation, Gabriel Tarde outlines two motives for a woman imitating high-society fashions: either she longs to “raise herself a peg” or through a misguided sexual desire to please, she believes her attractiveness depends on “the adoption of some new style of dress or headgear” (212). Nan Enstad builds on Tarde’s work by observing that fashion for the working girl was about far more than performing class; it was about making meaning. Upper-class Americans taught working-class immigrants daily that “the clothes they made, laundered, or sewed were more important than they themselves were.” Thus, imitating the latest fashions workers produced daily in factories allowed an otherwise debased group to inflate their social capital by “claim[ing] a cultural franchise that they would otherwise lack” (751). Similar to Dreiser’s Carrie, who becomes determined to emulate high-society women’s dress and behavior,7 Maggie must first look the part—since fashion, not work, could move her from an invisible position to a visible one.

Whereas the fashionably refined Carrie attains relationships with wealthy men and a theater career, Maggie fails in her attempts to mask her marginal identity with beautiful clothes. Her debut with Pete comes to an abrupt end when the better-dressed Nellie enters the scene. Nellie’s appearance in the novel includes a detailed inventory of her outfit. Maggie perceives that “[Nellie’s] black dress fitted her to perfection. Her linen collar and cuffs were spotless: . . . A hat of a prevailing fashion perched jauntily upon her dark hair” (62). While Maggie studies every inch of the woman, Nellie ignores her entirely, seeing through Maggie to “the wall beyond” (63). Now imprisoned in a love-triangle melodrama, Maggie feels inferior; her devastation only worsens when Pete brusquely rejects her the following day. Maggie’s sexual relationship with Pete and failure to imitate other middle-class women leave her a ruined woman. No longer respectable in [End Page 47] the eyes of society, she has nothing left to sell except her body. Pete’s vicious dismissal, followed by her family’s, causes Maggie to exit the novel’s stage and then return to it, like the Bowery dancer, stripped of every identifying marker and nearly unrecognizable.

By Chapter XVII, Maggie is nothing more than a nameless prostitute, and Crane’s narration shifts subtly to reflect the character’s change: “A girl of the painted cohorts of the city went along the street. She threw changing glances at men. . . . Crossing glittering avenues, she went into the throng emerging from the places of forgetfulness” (76). A forgotten woman, she moves invisibly through the city crowds of respectable people. Cesare Lombroso’s illuminating study of the female criminal, published in the same year as Maggie, proposed a physiognomy of criminal atavism centered on the belief that criminal traits could be inherited. Lombroso posited that exaggerated features (such as large hands) on women indicated their criminality and primitivism, but more importantly he maintained a link between the primitive woman and the prostitute: “Primitive woman was rarely a murderer, but she was always a prostitute” (148; emphasis mine). Seen in this way, prostitutes, like the primitive woman, pose a danger to civilized society because they threaten its morals with the power to corrupt men, since “feminine vice was of greater repugnance” to Protestant/Victorian ideals (Gandal 47). Thus, as a prostitute and primitive woman, Maggie, a “girl of the painted cohorts,” suffers more than Pete or Jimmie. The narrator undresses her metaphorically, contrasting her naked state to Pete and Jimmie’s dressed one, since they remain fully clothed in their middle-class garbs.

Initially, this contrast suggests that Pete and Jimmie have successfully fashioned their makeshift identities; unlike Maggie, they managed to remake their slum selves. Presumably, both men hold better jobs than their fathers. Pete works as a bartender, and Jimmie, as a truck driver. Their access to these occupations results from American nativism, a political movement circulating throughout heavily populated immigrant areas, particularly New York City and especially its Bowery district, during the mid-1800s. In response to a swell in Irish-Catholic immigration, xenophobic narratives lauded the nation’s first-sons—or its “Bowery Boys”—who were becoming more and more “white” every day as a result of the in-flux of the impoverished and non-white immigrant others. Nativists imagined a political community that conflated whiteness, masculinity, and for a time, Protestantism as the primary components of an inherited “American” identity. Of course, as with all imagined nationalist narratives, this one evolved over time to account for the massive influx of immigrants in [End Page 48] the late nineteenth century who seemingly endangered a distinct American identity and its traditions. Thus, a narrative that would exclude Irish men like Jimmie and Pete in the 1850s now welcomes them into its folds, where they aspire to middle-class occupations and lord their generation’s newfound “whiteness” over others, such as a Chinese man whom Jimmie assaults on the street (Crane 21).

Although Jimmie and Pete work to set themselves above other races and classes, Crane reveals how their treatment of Maggie undercuts this hierarchy by exposing their inherent savage natures. After Pete discards her for Nellie, Maggie returns home to attempt to reconcile with Jimmie and her mother. Jimmie, who has recently thrown off the poor, probably pregnant Hattie (his Maggie), remains unsympathetic to Maggie’s desperate position. He recoils from her, responding, “‘yer a hell of a t’ing, ain’ yeh?’ . . . Radiant virtue sat upon his brow . . . his repelling hands expressed horror of contamination” (69). Despite Jimmie’s high-browed performance of virtue, a sinister nature emerges with his indifference to Hattie and Maggie. As Maggie’s shaming continues, the tenants gather to watch: “Through the open doors curious eyes stared in. . . . Children ventured in . . . and ogled her, as if they formed the front row at a theatre. Women . . . whispered, nodding their heads with airs of profound philosophy” (69). Maggie’s private indiscretions with Pete are now made public by her mother who “paced to and fro, addressing the doorful of eyes, expounding like a glib showman at a museum” (69). While the children await a good show, the tenants participate in Maggie’s public shaming that will ultimately lead to her expulsion from the community.8 This dramatic scene concludes when Jimmie and his mother finally cast the girl out onto the street, aware of the life of prostitution that awaits her.9

In one desperate, final act, Maggie returns to Pete at his place of work, and the reader receives one last spectacular description of Pete’s dress revealing that his respectability,10 like Jimmie’s perceived virtue, remains intact, despite Pete’s role in Maggie’s demise: “Pete stood behind the bar. He was immaculate in white jacket . . . and his hair was plastered over his brow with infinite correctness.” From the moment he sees her, he gestures violently, impatiently crying, “Oh, my Gawd,” and “What deh hell do yeh wanna hang aroun’ here fer?” anxious to be rid of her, so he can return to the bar’s “atmosphere of respectability” (72). Shrinking from his verbal assault Maggie quietly asks, “But where kin I go?” before Pete responds: “Oh, go teh hell,” slamming the door and returning with relief “to his respectability” (73). In his crisp, white jacket, Pete’s “immaculate” Christlike spotlessness fades when he directs Maggie into the “hell” of prostitution. [End Page 49] While the narrator never metaphorically undresses Jimmie or Pete like he does Maggie, Crane destabilizes their masculine, civilized identities when their savage, primitive natures reveal their essential primitive selves.

Despite the proliferation of critical histories documenting nineteenth-century types (criminals, workers, the sick or insane), very few discuss the history of “normal,” middle-class men. According to Athena Devlin, “Leaving them out . . . perpetuates the idea that white men have always maintained the position of controlling representation as opposed to being . . . the subject of it and subject to it” (15). Certainly for Crane’s, and later Sinclair’s, primitive woman, the men she meets seemingly control and determine her representation. However, Crane’s masculine narrator carefully controls Maggie’s descent and “presentation” as a prostitute in order to use her primitive, depraved position to undercut the male performances of respectability by Jimmie and Pete. By the novella’s end, these men are anything but respectable, and their treatment of Maggie has exposed their brutal, primitive natures. Initially, the narrator dresses and then metaphorically undresses the female form in order to comment not only on the performance of these gender and class identities but to also foreshadow the impermanence of male American middle-class identity. Readers watch Maggie fall under the illusion that she can achieve respectability through fashion, while men like Pete and Jimmie delude themselves into believing they actually are respectable.

Throughout the novel, Crane shows how Maggie becomes primitive as she moves further away from her attempts to emulate middle-and upper-class identity. Her failed performance contributes to her eventual depravity as a woman of the streets; however, Crane ultimately demonstrates that this primitivism is not without its links to performativity. As a prostitute, her survival once again depends on her ability to act the part in order to attract clients. Furthermore, Crane shows how the members of Maggie’s community, who cast her as the primitive, are in fact the real savages.


Whereas Crane equates performativity to acting, or putting on a show, in The Jungle Sinclair shows how acting can actually be about maintaining and promoting one’s identity rather than advancing a façade. This fact is nowhere more evident than in the novel’s beginning, where a Lithuanian family leaves Europe to come to the U.S., literally leaving the wilderness (“Breclovicz, the Imperial Forest”) behind for Chicago’s city streets. Through a public parade and wedding feast, these immigrants put their customs and rituals on display in order to show that, even though they [End Page 50] lack the money to support such exuberant festivities, they can nonetheless pretend to have the “old world” in the new. Despite the difference of his themes from Crane’s, Sinclair similarly equates the city to a “jungle.” He compares the exploitation of animals and workers in Chicago’s packinghouses to the fate of the protagonists, Marija and Ona, whom men similarly take advantage of and then discard. Through the stockyards, a ruthless economic/class system deprives Marija and Ona of their humanity and turns them into exotic, sexualized prostitutes. Whereas their foreignness in the packinghouses and brothels separates them from other Chicagoans, the text’s other characters (e.g. bosses and madams) attempt to interpret these women’s downfall as a consequence of their old-world primitivism rather than the city’s own savagery.

According to Roderick Nash, Sinclair’s use of the city as a threatening, degenerative space relates to a shift in the early 1890s when city-dwellers began to venerate the solitary pioneer who faced the frontier’s wilderness head-on. At the same moment the wilderness or “country” held these restorative pastoral powers in the minds of people living in cities, urban spaces “acquired many of the repugnant connotations of wilderness” and “were frequently regarded with a hostility once reserved for wild forests” (520). For Sinclair, the stockyards serve as a perfect example that “[t]oo much civilization, not too little, seemed at the root of the nation’s difficulties” (520). Frequently dismissed as merely “muckraking,” The Jungle operates as a superb example of realist and naturalist poetics. Christopher Taylor provides a succinct summary of critical responses of The Jungle touching on the frequent complaints that Sinclair produced “lesser art” (166) in comparison to other realist and naturalists such as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. Yet Taylor’s attempt to neutralize these critics by reclassifying Sinclair’s flawed socialist experiment as a choice to “abandon determinism, following not the plot of decline but a plot of socialist rebirth” (168), is in itself a deeply flawed evaluation, since it eclipses the novel’s central female characters who decline (even to the point of death) with no hope of rebirth. Sinclair’s vivid descriptions of Packingtown, and the immigrant communities that live and work there, not only place his work within the Chicago novel subgenre, but also within larger naturalist discourses on determinism and primitivism at the turn of the twentieth century.

The novel opens on a wedding procession down Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s “back of the yards.” Devoted entirely to the veselija or wedding feast of Jurgis and Ona, the first chapter introduces Sinclair’s discursive strategy of description, performance, and spectatorship that will direct the novel. Marija, Ona’s cousin, serves as the “mistress of ceremonies” central [End Page 51] to the procession: “There had been a crowd following . . . owing to the exuberance of Marija. . . . The occasion rested heavily upon Marija’s broad shoulders—it was her task to see that all things went . . . after the best home traditions, and, flying wildly hither and thither, bowling every one out of the way . . . scolding and exhorting . . . with her tremendous voice” (5). While the veselija figures as central to immigrant identity, its visibility on a main Chicago street marks it as a public performance of these old-world identities. For the family, a proper veselija, essentially, preserves their humanity, despite its cost, since the difference between a wedding feast and a “roadside” marriage is similar to that which distinguishes respectable people from “a parcel of beggars!” Regardless of the expense, “[t]hey were not going to lose all caste, even if they had come to be unskilled laborers in Packingtown” (64). While Ona’s stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, acknowledges that stockyard work has turned the family into “unskilled laborers,” everyone knows that the veselija recaptures their old-world identities. In reality, the feast is a luxury none of its participants can afford but one they cannot live without:

It is very imprudent, it is tragic—but, ah, it is so beautiful! Bit by bit these poor people have given up everything else, but to this they cling with all the power of their souls—they cannot give up the veselija! To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat—and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going. The veselija has come down to them from a far-off time.


For immigrants struggling to maintain humanity in the stockyards, Sinclair privileges cultural traditions as invaluable.

Yet the packinghouses’ savage threats are never far from the celebration. The veselija’s “joy” and “abundance” conflict with the immigrants’ daily lives where joy remains scarce. While everyone starves in Packingtown, at the veselija “no one goes hungry” (7). Marija, along with the rest of the family, believed America held unimaginable wealth that they could never know in Lithuania. Like the family tree that hangs in a gilded frame on the saloon wall during the feast, Marija, Ona, and the others learn that America too is splintered “wood” made to look like “gold.” Through the narrator’s pointed descriptions of the wedding procession and feast, Sinclair contrasts reality and illusion so as to demonstrate how easily the latter can mask the former.

The extent to which the city conceals its savageries is made most apparent when Marija, Ona, and Jurgis tour the packinghouses before beginning work. According to the narrator, the companies believe these daily [End Page 52] tours are good for business, since the “visitors d[o] not see any more than the packers wan[t] them to” (35). The spectators watch from the gallery as a parade of hogs are lifted up, their throats slit, and then thrust into vats of boiling water. The narrator cannot help but to elicit pity for an anthropomorphized hog’s “businesslike” journey toward death: “It was porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics. And yet . . . the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs, they were so innocent . . . so very human in their protests” (36). According to the narrator, from the moment the trusting hog enters the plant, his “individuality . . . will . . . self-confidence . . . self-importance, and . . . sense of dignity” (37) no longer matter because he is now like all the other hogs, and one part of him will end up in “Durham’s Breakfast Bacon” and another in “Durham’s Potted Ham.” While some visitors cannot look away from the spectacle, others find the animals’ human-like suffering unbearable. Of course, no visitor can fathom the grotesque violence that goes on behind the scenes—where animal scraps, debris, and occasional human body parts make up “Brown’s Excelsior Sausages.” Whether intrigued or horrified, visitors’ reactions to visible atrocities do not affect the system, where the “slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory” (36). Of course, upon witnessing the visible slaughters, the spectators hopefully sense the savagery that happens just off-stage, beyond the tour.

The narrator’s anthropomorphic passage on the hogs inevitably parallels the naïveté with which the immigrant family enters Chicago. After witnessing Jurgis’s success at finding a job, Marija sets out with “her two brawny arms . . . to secure a place of her own (43). Her initial determination and fortitude are admirable. As she makes money, she deposits it all in the bank, believing that emulating middle-class investment practices will eventually improve her financial status (109). However, this initial display of willpower only makes Marija’s eventual descent into prostitution all the more tragic. In contrast to Marija’s vigor, Ona is frequently described as “young” and “small for her age, a mere child” (6). Wearing what the narrator calls a “conspicuously white” wedding dress, he subtly reminds us that “whiteness,” “cleanliness,” “innocence,” and all other connotative meanings of the term are, like Ona, out of place in Packingtown (6). Dressed in a color that shows the dirt surrounding it, Ona, like Maggie blooming in a mud puddle, appears as vulnerable to “soiling” as her white dress.

Like Maggie’s, Ona’s fragile identity leaves her defenseless against the corrupting external forces. Her forelady and another boss in the factory, [End Page 53] Connor, force her into prostitution by threatening hers and the family’s jobs. As an immigrant woman, stockyard work is not enough; she must participate in an economic system that wants her as a worker and a prostitute. Despite being Connor’s victim, she lies to Jurgis, and her combined “work” in the packinghouse and downtown brothel eventually lead to the entire family’s downfall. When he discovers Connor’s seduction of Ono, Jurgis attacks Connor and goes to prison; Marija is fired, blacklisted in Packingtown, and loses her arm from an infected cut; the family is homeless and starving, and Ona dies in childbirth. Once again, Sinclair demonstrates that the working conditions in the stockyards lead to capitalist exploitation by treating workers as animals—primitives—and therefore inhibiting a person’s ability to make life better, and in fact, the working conditions only serve to make life worse.

Ona and Marija are deprived of their humanity and their ability to work “jobs,” which then leaves them unable to provide for their basic needs, so that they (like the hogs on the conveyor belt) have no other direction to go but down. The city’s savage economic system forces these women into the primitive state of living only to satisfy bodily needs (food and shelter). Pushed out of jobs for “decent” women, they are left with no other choice but indecent jobs (i.e., prostitution). The city figuratively slaughters Marija and Ona, only their destruction happens behind a carefully constructed veil. Like several city “natives,” Connor—Ona’s seducer—relies on the perception of immigrants as “others” so that he can conceal his brutal role in Ona’s fall into prostitution, while at the same time implicating the immigrants as responsible for their own downfall. At Jurgis’s trial, the judge, “whose calendar was crowded, and whose automobile was ordered for a certain hour,” briefly listens to Jurgis’s explanation before interrupting him, asking for Connor’s account. Exuding superiority over the foreigner, Connor states, “Not a particle [is true], your Honor . . . they tell some such tale every time you have to discharge a woman,” to which the judge responds, “Yes, I know. . . . I hear it often enough” (162; emphasis mine). Connor, identified as “the boss,” labels “they,” or all working immigrants, as dishonest. The judge’s quick agreement with the boss illustrates that powerful city figures, who consider themselves Chicago “natives,” join forces in perceiving all immigrants as inherently immoral and degenerate.

Following Ona’s death and Jurgis’s flight from the city, Marija goes to work in a brothel, the only remaining place a woman in her position can make enough money to support a family. Marija’s descent into prostitution closely parallels certain tropes in Crane’s Maggie. For one, a year passes before Marija reappears, and when she does, like Maggie she is stripped of her identity, and her perspective has changed. No longer the vibrant Marija [End Page 54] but the shadowy “Lithuanian Mary” (283), she tells Jurgis how ignorant they once were, now realizing that a respectable life is impossible in this city and that “when people are starving . . . and they have anything with a price, they ought to sell it” (277). Marija, like the packers, sees the business behind the corrupt system and loses her identity when forcibly labeled in a way that defines her otherness. “Lithuanian Mary” becomes a “foreign” marker of Marija’s erotic, primitive state in the service of a Chicago-based male clientele. The Chicago city-dwellers believe that they can “maintain” their respectability because the “Lithuanian” woman is the prostitute, even though she was once just “woman,” and it is the city that turned her into the prostitute-as-primitive.

As the title suggests, The Jungle explores the thinly veiled savagery enacted by city characters who participate in the downfall of two female characters. Marija and Ona’s initial spectacle of old-world traditions reveals their immigrant origins, which are important not only to them but also to native Chicagoans who treat them as ethnic others. Corrupt packinghouse bosses and cruel madams mask their savagery by displacing it onto the immigrants as an essential quality of their identity. Beginning as factory workers and ending as prostitutes, Marija and Ona resemble the animals in the wasteland of the stockyards: victims of civilization’s corruption. Like the hogs, they can be killed but not murdered—a precarious position that mirrors the “bare life” of Agamben’s homo sacer.


In Maggie and The Jungle, the protagonists are ostracized from their New York and Chicago communities. As prostitutes violating the laws of decency and respectability, Maggie, Marija, and Ona are set outside the law. Their lower-class status and ethnic otherness mark them as beyond the law’s protection. Their ultimate descent into a primitive state as prostitutes correlates to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the sacred outcast in his theory of the homo sacer: “The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred life—that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed—is the life that has been captured in this sphere” (83). In Agamben’s argument, sovereign power creates sacred or “bare life” by transcending the law in order to classify killing as neither homicide nor sacrifice. Later on, he connects the precarious position of the bare life to the primitive by opposing the former to mere biological, reproductive existence: “at issue is not simply fera bestia and natural life but rather a zone of indistinction between the human and the animal” (106). Much like the animals executed dispassionately in Sinclair’s [End Page 55] packinghouses, the homo sacer can have its life taken without recourse to the legal system because it lacks inalienable human rights.

In the novels, prostitutes exemplify Agamben’s naked or bare life, since they not only shed clothing but also lose their identifying markers and wind up left to be killed on the streets. The distinction between civilized native and immigrant other in The Jungle produces bare life as animal life when Marija and Ona find themselves metaphorically fed into the slaughterhouse machine that consumes and then disposes of its workers. Likewise, Maggie’s exclusion from the community demonstrates her eroticized, de-individualized body subordinate to male fantasy. Wandering aimlessly through the city streets, Maggie “stopped once and asked aloud a question of herself: ‘Who?’” (73). Her final spoken word in the novella asks a question of identity. Whether she asks the question of herself following her exile (who am I?), or perhaps asks it of “who” Pete (or even Jimmie) really are following their vicious dismissal, the question marks identity as questionable, and ultimately, mutable. So, when the nameless “girl of the painted cohort” appears, she is and is not Maggie; the girl has no voice, name, or other markers of civilization. Men talk to her, but she never responds with words, instead communicating compliance with her body—“She threw changing glances . . . giving smiling invitations” (76)—in much the same way that Torgovnick describes primitivism’s acquiescence: “The primitive does what we ask it to do. Voiceless, it lets us speak for it” (9). The unnamed and voiceless painted woman wandering the streets at the end of Maggie has on some level accepted that her fate rests in the hands of her clients. When a “huge fat man in torn and greasy garments” approaches Maggie near the river, she resigns herself to death, knowing that her life will be lost without any legal consequences (77). Existing outside the law, she does not expect its protection.

These characters’ families shame them because they fear prostitution might harm their own reputations11 and then exile them in order to assuage their own guilt by distancing themselves from the fall of Maggie, Marija, and Ona. As scapegoats, the protagonists reflect what their communities most fear about themselves. In The Scapegoat, René Girard reminds us that “Despite what is said around us persecutors are never obsessed by difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference” (22). Rather than difference, the scapegoat’s sameness to the community leads to its expulsion. Paradoxically, these novels’ prostitutes show the extent to which they are part of their communities by being banished from them. Whereas Agamben describes the homo sacer and sovereign power as relatively dependent upon each other (e.g., the former can only exist because [End Page 56] latter also exists), he does not necessarily recognize the fact that one can turn into the other. When characterized as a scapegoated prostitute, for example, the homo sacer also defines the community that expels her for faults it also possesses; in other words, the sovereign—in this case the community—actually becomes another embodiment of the homo sacer. As the discussion of primitivism in Maggie and The Jungle shows, the exiled women and their communities both take on identities related to the primitive. Through their performances of class, these prostitutes uncover the city’s corruption often enacted by characters and in places thought respectable, or at least more respectable than the women themselves. Stripped of their own identities, Maggie, Marija, and Ona manage to expose urban savagery. Whereas the community displays its sovereign power over the female characters, the narrator takes on the role of sovereign over the community by strategically employing the fluidity of primitivism in order to rebuke the predatory practices that take place in these urban jungles.

Concurrent with Crane’s novel and more than a decade before Sinclair’s, Chicago’s premier woman Bertha Palmer envisioned how the primitive woman’s body had shaped the modern woman’s mind. These writers’ versions of the prostitute-as-primitive certainly do not appear in the 1893 Woman’s Building murals that Palmer commissioned. In fact, their depictions challenge Palmer’s vision by coupling discourses on primitivism with naturalism’s deterministic frame so as to expand what it means to be primitive and civilized. Both Crane and Sinclair rely on performativity in plots about prostitutes who—as in the case of Maggie—imitate middleand upper-class identity or—as in the case of Marija and Ona—enact old-world traditions. Through such performances, these narratives illustrate both ends of the primitivist spectrum, displaying women who, through their primitive positions, reveal civilization’s savagery. Agamben’s theory of the bare life helps to explain the precarious position of the prostitutes in these naturalist novels. Characterized as non-civilized others, they help to stabilize their surrounding communities’ sense of respectability and, at the same time, expose that respectability as just another act.

Jordan L. Von Cannon
Louisiana State University
Jordan L. Von Cannon

Jordan L. Von Cannon is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. Her dissertation, “Idling Women: The Domestic Bildungsroman and the American City, 1830–1900,” explores urban narratives of female non-development. Her work has also appeared in Persuasions, and she has served as a writer and senior advisor for esq’s “Year in Conferences” feature.


1. The Chicago World’s Fair offered visitors the opportunity to tour the sights, exhibits and living inhabitants of the White City. Rather ironically, the Woman’s Building was erected “on the border between the genteelly inspirational official White City and the basely exotic Midway Plaisance. Thus women and savages, their mental abilities often linked . . . were geographic neighbors at the White City” (Trump 216). [End Page 57]

2. For a discussion of imitation as social form, see Tarde: “Every social resemblance precedes from that initial act of imitation of which it was the subject” (43).

3. See Riis, who positions the foreigner/immigrant at the heart of the late-nineteenth century New York City slums.

4. For more on Crane’s uneven relationship with Howells, see Gullason (390–91).

5. For a good discussion of Crane’s “slum” reporting and defense of prostitution, see Sorrentino (135–36).

6. Similarly, on more than one occasion, Dreiser’s Carrie spends money she does not have on expensive things. For example, she dislikes borrowing her sister’s “worn and faded” umbrella to walk to work because it “trouble[s]” her “vanity” (39).

7. On occasion Carrie observes the dress, speech, and behavior of Chicago’s society women and attempts to model herself after these respectable women (73).

8. Girard points out that “All rituals tend to be transformed into theatrical performance in which the actors play their parts with all the more exuberance for having played them so many times before” (169). Maggie’s ritual sacrifice scene proves no different.

9. Interestingly, whereas Jimmie and his mother throw Maggie into the street, Dreiser’s Carrie enjoys standing in the doorway of her sister’s city home, much to the chagrin of her brother-in-law, Sven Hanson, who fears that passersby might take her for a prostitute (37).

10. Sorrentino claims that throughout Maggie “characters mask their hypocrisy with the appearance of respectability” (108).

11. In other naturalist texts, such as Norris’s Vandover and the Brute, prostitutes embody contagion. For example, Norris’s prostitute character Flossie kisses the well-respected Haight without invitation. Despite the fact that he has only been introduced to her through his less reputable friends, Haight contracts syphilis from the encounter.


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