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Thoreau vs.

Crane Comparison Essay

Mira Diamond-Berman

CAP Honors English 9

Green Group

Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

contradict on their views of self-reliance and fate, but agree on their views of philanthropy.

Henry David Thoreau writes as an Transcendentalist who values nature. In his first chapter of

Walden--Economy, he reminiscences on the two years and two months he spends alone at Walden

Pond as a way to explain the problems of society and the ideals of not focusing on materialism.

Stephen Crane writes as a true Naturalist who connects one’s environment to his or her character.

He exposes the harsh realities of the poor’s life in New York City.

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, and Stephen Crane, in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,

contrast on their views of self-reliance. Henry David Thoreau experiments with self-reliance by

living in the woods alone: “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived

alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore

of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands

only” (7). Thoreau lives economically and comfortably at Walden Pond for two years and two

months. He makes the point that one should not rely on another because then it may not end as

one expected. He gives an example about a man trying to sell a basket: “Thinking that when he

had made the basket he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy

them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to

buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be

worth his while to buy” (19). The man will not make money without depending on the other

man, so Thoreau gathered that self-reliance is best. The character Maggie in Maggie: A Girl of

the Streets can not be independent. When her boyfriend, Pete, and her mother abandon her Crane

writes that, “She was apparently bewildered and could not find speech. Finally she asked in a

low voice: ‘But where kin I go?’… He slammed the door furiously and returned, with an air of
relief, to his respectability. Maggie went away” (86). Maggie is forced into self-sufficiency when

her mother kicks her out and she has to find a place to live. Crane describes Maggie getting

kicked of her mother’s house, “ ‘Go the hell wid him, damn yeh, an’ a good riddance. Go the hell

an’ see how yeh likes it.’ Maggie gazed long at her mother. ‘ Go teh hell now, an’ see how yeh

likes it. Git out. I won’t have such as yehs in me house! Get out d’yeh hear! Damn yeh, git

out!’… She went” (65). Maggie’s only choice is to be independent. Thoreau sees self-reliance as

one’s desire and choice, but Stephen Crane shows the negative impact when someone is forced to

be independent.

Thoreau and Crane also have opposing views on fate. Thoreau thinks, “What man thinks

of himself, that it is which determines or rather indicates, his fate” (10). Thoreau asserts that one

can choose the course of their life through self-determination. He gathers that intense physical

labor rob’s one’s life of happiness and that one has a choice to not take the harsh path of labor.

He explains labor as if one has the choice not to have labor take over his or her life,“But men

labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a

seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed as it says in an old book, laying up

treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life

as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before” (9). Thoreau believes that one can

choose one’s destiny. In contrast, Stephen Crane’s view is that one has no control over his or her

fate because Maggie’s only choice is to go to work, “ ‘Mag, I’ll tell yeh dis! See? Yeh’ve edder

got teh go teh work or go teh work!” (49). Maggie must go to work but she will still remain poor.

Stephen Crane states that Jimmie is destined to end up just like his father: “Jimmie grew large

enough to take the vague position of head of the family. As incumbent of that office, he stumbled

up-stairs late at night as his father had done before him. He reeled about the room, swearing at
his relations, or went to sleep on the floor”(50). Jimmie has no choice of his life path because he

will end up as a drunkard like his father. Henry David Thoreau considers that fate is one’s

choice,but Stephen Crane looks at fate as already decided and non negotiable.

Henry David Thoreau and Stephen Crane disagree on self-reliance and fate; however,

they share views on philanthropy. They both understand that philanthropy is self-benefitting and

that one is only a philanthropist to repent for his or her sins. Thoreau points out that a “slave

breeder” will donate money to make up of the guilt of owning slaves: “There are a thousand

hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be the one bestows

the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to

produce that misery which he strives to vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the

proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest” (62). According to Thoreau,

philanthropists are self-benefitting and “overrated” since they only do philanthropic acts to feel

better about themselves. Thoreau states that no philanthropic acts are selfless, “Philanthropy is

almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated;

and it is our selfishness which overrates it” (63). Crane would agree with Thoreau that

philanthropists are self-serving. Crane’s example of philanthropists only being self-benefiting is

a man not being philanthropic to the girl because he cares more about what others think of him

rather than the well being of the girl. Crane recalls, “but as the girl timidly accosted him, he gave

a convulsive movement” to “save his respectability by a vigorous side-step” because “he did not

risk it to save a soul”(87). The man would not be philanthropic and help the girl because he

would rather save his respectability than assist the girl in need. The priest tells the importance of

the church to the hungry people while they were waiting in line for the soup, so the priest

benefits from helping the poor. Crane shows that the priest is only giving food to the poor
because he wants the people to listen to his ideals on the church. Crane says, “He clad his soul in

armor by means of happening hilariously in at a mission church were a man composed his

sermons of ‘yous’. While they waited at the stove, he told his hearers just where he calculated

they stood with the Lord. Many of the sinners were impatient over the picture depth of their

degradation. They were waiting for the soup-tickets” (46). Thoreau and Crane both agree that

philanthropists are selfish.

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, and Stephen Crane, in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,

contrast in their beliefs on self-reliance and fate; however, they share views on philanthropists.

Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist, thinks that one choses to be self-reliant, and has a

choice of how to live. Stephen Crane, a Naturalist, believes that one does not have a choice and

is forced into independence, and one’s destiny comes from his or her family background and

environment, and can not be changed. Overall, Thoreau believes that one has choices on how to

live his or her life, but Crane argues that one does not have choices. They both agree that

philanthropists are selfish and that there are no selfless philanthropic acts; philanthropists are all

Works Cited

Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Edited by Kevin J. Hayes, Boston, Bedford/St.

Martin's, 1999.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York City, Barnes and Noble
Classics, 2003.