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The arrival of Jake's wife and son some three years after him, rather than being a happy occasion, represents to Jake the diminishing of the exciting, new life he has tried to build for himself in New York. After the arrival of his wife, Jake "thought himself a martyr, an innocent exile from a world to which he belonged by right and he frequently felt the sobs of self-pity mounting to his throat" (Cahan 93-94). Like Maggie, Jake works in a sweatshop making clothes, and like Maggie, he uses his time working to day dream about other things. However, where Maggie thinks of Pete while he is working as a means of escape from the drudgery of her factory job, Jake actually enjoys his job, because it represents such a stark contrast to his life on a farm in Russia.
Thus, Jake's thoughts while working are not of escape from his job, but rather from his wife, because "for several minutes at a time, while kicking his treadle, he would see, reddening before him, Gitl's bandana kerchief and her prominent gums, or hear an un-American piece of Yiddish pronounced with Gitl's peculiar lisp" (Cahan 94). Jake seemingly loathes his wife because she is a "greenhorn," and serves to keep him attached to everything he has attempted to escape by moving to America and changing his name (Cahan 94). Jake's anger at his wife stems from the fundamental differences between his former rural life in Russia and his experience in the United States, and the difficulties which arise from these almost catastrophically different experiences may actually be traced back to Jake's poverty and his work in the sweatshop.
While Jake's shame and anger regarding his wife may at first glance appear to constitute a separate issue from the poverty faced by immigrants and other poor people in New York during the 1890s, in actuality it serves to demonstrate the difficulties immigrants faced when attempting to make it financially, because oftentimes the industrialized economy of their new homes was fundamentally different from their lives in their former homes. In Russia, Jake married young and lived with his wife and son on the same farm as his parents, likely not interacting with that many different people. When he comes to New York, though, Jake is thrown into an entirely different economic and social structure, and in order to make enough money he is forced to work in a factory, which means close interaction with a wide variety of people. In his previous life Jake's labor and familial experience blended seamlessly, but in his new life, where he has become "a vehicle of labor," working in a sweatshop that serves to rupture his connection to his family and suture his attentions onto new relationships (Haenni 514).
Both Jake and Maggie's problems ultimately stem from their socioeconomic class, but their problems take on a different flavor due to the fact that Jake is an immigrant and Maggie is a woman. Jake's desire is not so much to escape poverty directly, but rather, his attempts to integrate into American society and the problems he had with his wife are ultimately the result of the fact that he must work in a sweatshop, where he finds a new identity "formed within the spectacle and performance of modern urbanity and mass culture," and identity that seemingly cannot be integrated into his preexisting life as Yekl (Haenni 516). Maggie, on the other hand, wants nothing but to escape the poverty of her life, and she sees Pete as the way out, as he represents a freedom from both the drabness of tenement life and the outdated moral standards which threaten to keep her from enjoyment and escape. However, as a woman, she is held to a different standard than men, and thus she fails to escape in the same way that Pete does (even if he gets robbed in the end). Taken together, the two stories demonstrate the nexus of poverty, immigrant identity, and the status of women, because Jake seeks to escape his status as an immigrant but is hindered due to his poverty, whereas Maggie attempts to escape her poverty but is hindered due to her status as a woman.
In Yekl and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, Abraham Cahan and Stephen Crane attempt to show the difficulties experienced by minorities living in New York City during the 1890s, whether they be immigrants or women. Cahan's story follows Jake, who is transformed by his work in a sweatshop and the new modes of economic and social interaction, as he attempts to shed his existence as an immigrant. Crane's story follows Maggie as she seeks to escape the drudgery and poverty of her life into the flashy, exciting world embodied by her love interest, Pete. In this way, both stories are excellent examples of the way literature can reveal the intricacies of experience to wider audience, imbuing otherwise neglected individuals and groups with a humanity not usually granted them. This is particularly true during the Industrial Revolution, when, for the most part, the hordes of factory workers were regarded as nothing more than the organic elements of a larger capitalist machine. By narrating the difficulties faced by immigrants and women during this time period, Cahan and Crane imbue their stories with an inherent level of social activism which serves to elevate the stories of Jake and Maggie and inform and educate the reader, both historical and contemporary, about the important social issues facing immigrants and women during the 1890s and today.
Cahan, Ambraham. Yekl. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1896.
Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1896.
Huntsperger, David. "Populist Crane: A Reconsideration of Melodrama in Maggie." Texas
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