Norris had begun writing McTeague while a student at Harvard, but by the time of its publication seven years later, in 1899, the influence of French and Russian naturalism was well recognized in American literary communities. Yet no native novelist had yet created quite so grim and unyielding a representation as Norris did in this, his first major novel. McTeague is deeply indebted to the works of Zola, whose naturalistic-romantic vision of the complex nature of human relationships and the compelling forces which led men and women into destructive behavior patterns reflected and encouraged Norris’s own beliefs. Although Norris would continue to incorporate the techniques of naturalism into his fiction, McTeague stands as his purest experiment in the genre.
As Norris would later counsel in his essays on fiction, he focused in this novel on one area in one region of the United States: Polk Street in San Francisco. More specifically, the novel follows a particular period of time in the life of “Mac” McTeague, a dentist on Polk Street. McTeague’s initial mood of melancholy and nostalgia for the country life of his youth reflects the sense of loss that has come with the prosperity of his urban existence.
Like all naturalists, Norris did not assert that environment alone could be blamed for the present condition of humankind’s slow evolution, and it is the brute strength of McTeague that is most striking. This beastlike nature, which Norris believed was a hereditary feature of all people, lies beneath the surface of McTeague’s lumbering presence. When circumstances threaten to reveal that he had never received proper certification as a dentist, the facade of his personality is ruptured and the uncontrollable brute self emerges.
Although Norris believed that there had been no great American women novelists and that this phenomenon was attributable to...
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