Frank Norris Short Fiction Analysis
Except for Jeanette Gilder, in her review of the posthumous collection The Third Circle, no one has been so bold as to prefer Frank Norris’s short fiction to his novels. In fact, a number of his critics seem to agree with Warren French, who, in a chapter of his Frank Norris (1962) entitled “Stubble,” decries the fact that the stories have been “undeservedly rescued from the obscurity of the periodicals in which they first appeared.” Most believe that Norris wrote the stories as potboilers or, in the case of the stories published in The Wave, as apprentice pieces (this despite the fact that drafts of Vandover and the Brute and McTeague had already been written) and that their value lies solely in whatever light they shed on his longer fiction. It is true that in his literary essays of 1901 and 1902 Norris did equate the short story with money and the novel with truth; moreover, in distinguishing between literature as construction and the more important literature as exploration, he did cite short-story writers Edgar Allan Poe, Frank R. Stockton, and Rudyard Kipling as examples of the former and novelists Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot as examples of the latter. Norris also contended (in May, 1902) that the continued increase in the publication of short fiction in American magazines, particularly the new low-priced magazines such as McClure’s, would result in a decrease in the public’s demand for short-story collections and ultimately would cause the short story to degenerate to the level of magazine ephemera.
During his The Wave period, however—that is to say, during the time prior to his success as a novelist—Norris showed a much greater interest in the possibilities of short fiction. In May, 1897, he wrote that San Francisco is a true story city, where “things can happen”; although it is, he claimed, not yet settled enough for the purposes of the novelist, the city abounds with material for the writer of short stories. A few months earlier, in “The Decline of the Magazine Short Story,” he had lamented the “absolutely stupid,” “deadly dull” fiction published in the major American magazines. Echoing Hjalmar Boyesen’s remarks concerning the “Iron Madonna,” he charged that “It is the ‘young girl’ and the family center table that determine the standard of the American short story.” Seeking to challenge this standard, Norris adopted various stylistic elements of those writers, such as Kipling, whom he distinguished from the writers of “safe” fiction. His failure to find a publisher for a collection of these stories does, to some extent, reflect upon their quality (and, as Norris suggests in his semiautobiographical novel Blix, 1899, their being commercially out of fashion); but his persistence during late 1897 and 1898 in trying to secure the collection’s publication reflects his more-than-passing interest in these writings.
“The Third Circle”
One of the best of his The Wave pieces is “The Third Circle.” Norris’s use of a Chinatown setting in this story and of San Francisco and California locales for nearly all of the fiction of this period evidences the realist method of direct observation. He was less in the tradition of the nostalgic local colorists than of Stephen Crane investigating New York’s demimonde and even more of Kipling and Davis depicting settings that were both primitive and foreign to their readers. Basically, the story is a study in limited perception; in it Norris attempts to expose his readers to what he liked to call (in The Octopus) the “larger view.” The first half of the story concerns an engaged couple from the East and their “lark” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. First they “discover” a quaint Chinese restaurant and then invite to their table a Chinese fortune-teller who turns out to be a Kanakan tattooist. Miss Harriet Ten Eyck thinks it would be “awfully queer and original” to have a tattoo, but her fiancé, young Hillegas, reminds her that their “lark” is one thing and the society in which they move quite another: “Let him do it on your finger, then. You never could wear an evening dress if it was on your arm.” Once the tattoo is completed—“a grotesque little insect, as much butterfly as anything else”—Hillegas goes off to find their waiter, leaving Harriet alone. Instead of the waiter he finds a Chinese silk merchant to whom he at first speaks condescendingly. Much to his surprise, this “Chinaman” is articulate and cultured. “Here was a side of Chinese life he had not seen, nor even suspected.” There is another side as well, as Hillegas discovers when he returns to find his fiancé gone: “He never saw her again. No white man ever did.” This is that part of Chinatown Norris terms “the third circle,” the part “no one ever hears of.”
The second half of the story is set in the late 1890’s, twenty years after Miss Ten Eyck’s disappearance into white slavery. Here the narrator is no longer simply the teller of the tale, as in the first half, but a participant as well. Like the hapless Eastern couple, he too makes a foray into Chinatown’s third circle, but unlike them he has a guide, a “bum” and opium addict “who calls himself Manning.” To a degree, the rest of the story follows a predictable course. The narrator tells Manning the story the reader has just read. Manning adds several details and mentions that there is a white slave, Sadie, who works in the opium joint he frequents who might know something further about Miss Ten Eyck. The debased Sadie, an alcoholic and opium addict, without the least desire to escape either her degradation or her addiction, is Harriet Ten Eyck, as the reader figures out long before Norris’s rather unsurprising surprise ending: “She thrust out her left hand, and I saw a butterfly tattooed on her little finger.”
Despite its unsatisfactory ending, the story does succeed as a study in perception, if not as a tale of suspense. As Norris (by way of...
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