Mcteague: A Story of San Francisco

by Frank Norris
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What are the most important internal/biological/instinctual forces that control McTeague’s behavior?

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Frank Norris was a major author in the naturalist movement. Naturalism claims that human beings have little to no free will and are controlled by factors outside of their control, such as biology, socioeconomic class, and animal instinct. In McTeague, the titular protagonist is largely controlled by his instincts, which are further aggravated when he loses his social standing as a middle-class dentist.

Firstly, the audience is told that McTeague is from a poor, dysfunctional family of Irish immigrants. His father was a violent alcoholic, and his mother made McTeague apprentice to a traveling dentist so he could escape his father's fate. In other words, McTeague's mother, like many immigrants coming to the United States in the nineteenth century, believes in the American dream, that with hard work her son will be able to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

While McTeague does become a middle-class dentist, it is implied in the text that he has inherited the sins of his primitive ancestors. The scene where he has the beautiful young Trina unconscious in his dentist's chair is a great example of this. McTeague is aroused by Trina's beauty and helplessness, and primal sexual sadism ("the animal in the man" and "evil instincts" as Norris terms them) so overwhelms him that he comes close to raping her in her sleep:

It was a crisis—a crisis that had arisen all in an instant; a crisis for which he was totally unprepared. Blindly, and without knowing why, McTeague fought against it, moved by an unreasoned instinct of resistance. Within him, a certain second self, another better McTeague rose with the brute; both were strong, with the huge crude strength of the man himself.

Norris is not suggesting that McTeague is intentionally seeking to commit a crime, but that these urges are deep-rooted in the human psyche and cannot be combed away by social conditioning.

By bringing up the "second self" that grapples with these primitive urges (what Freud would have called the superego fighting against the id), Norris is suggesting that the best man can do is try to fight because there is no hope of being cleansed of these desires. Even his urge to fight against his evil desires is described as instinctual rather than rational or moral. McTeague only brings those two factors into the equation after the struggle has already been initiated, once he realizes that hurting Trina would be a "sacrilege."

McTeague is ultimately able to regain control of himself, but this luck does not persist once he loses his dentistry practice. Forced into poverty, his mother's worst nightmare comes true, and McTeague becomes a violent drunk. If financial security and some level of class privilege saved McTeague from becoming a beast, then poverty pushes him back into a primitive state. Ultimately, McTeague is most controlled by his instinctual urges.

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