Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Polk Street

*Polk Street. Service street in the heart of San Francisco, which was California’s largest and most prosperous city during the period in which this novel is set. Most of the novel takes place around the turn of the twentieth century, and much of the action centers around a specific neighborhood. On the one hand, the Polk Street passages reveal the naturalist’s attempts to document reality by incorporating numerous details concerning place, occupations, and customs. The sheer weight of data was believed to create a total, objective rendering of the subject. On the other hand, Polk Street operates a demimonde, a microcosm of something larger, and the narrator often refers to it as the “little world of Polk Street.”

Gazing out his window early in the novel, McTeague beholds the spectacle of Polk Street, which is described as an “accommodation” street, a place where people journey to do their marketing or seek other services. As McTeague watches the parade of life, the narrator notes that few of the passersby actually live on Polk Street, and those that do stand in bold relief to the sophistication of the visiting shoppers. Frequent references are made to the “great avenue” (Van Ness) a block away, which at that time was home to some of the city’s elite. Thus the descriptions of Polk Street accentuate the social class distinctions which are so significant to an understanding of the novel and its vision of a changing California.

While the street bristles with activity, McTeague’s boardinghouse stands in mute contrast. On the surface it is a quiet retreat to which the hapless dentist repairs after his brief forays to a nearby café. The building itself is another mirror of the social stratification found on the street. Those with the greatest financial means occupy the top floor, while McTeague, who both lives and works in his dental parlor, resides roughly in the middle of building. On the bottom floor is a squalid hovel where a ragman eventually murders his delusional lover.


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McTeague Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Campbell, Donna M. “Frank Norris’ ‘Drama of a Broken Teacup’: The Old Grannis-Miss Baker Plot in McTeague.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 26, no. 1 (Fall, 1993): 40-49. Argues that this subplot illustrates the difficulties involved in the intersection of three styles of late nineteenth century writing: realism, naturalism, and women’s local color fiction.

Dawson, Hugh J. “McTeague as Ethnic Stereotype.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 20, no. 1 (Fall, 1987): 34-44. Discusses the relation of the title character to stereotypes of the Irish. Briefly mentions use of other ethnic stereotypes in the characters of Zerkow, the Sieppes, and Maria Macapa.

Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of the Missouri Press, 1988. Discounts naturalism as the organizing principle of the novel. Instead, argues that fear of loss is the common ground. Shows how various characters struggle to protect themselves from loss through strategies such as habit and obsession.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. Frank Norris Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent starting point for students of Norris. The chapter on McTeague discusses Émile Zola and naturalism, Victorian sexuality, and the structure and themes of the novel.

Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Claims Norris’ themes are inseparable form the leading controversy of the time: religion versus science. The chapter on McTeague traces the influence of Zola and naturalism, explicates the gold symbolism in the novel, and analyzes the structure, characters, and setting.