Frank Norris Long Fiction Analysis
Frank Norris was one of a handful of writers at the turn of the century who applied the literary naturalism of Émile Zola to American subjects and themes. As a writer in this tradition, Norris treated his subject matter brutally but sincerely. His characters are but pawns, driven by outside forces over which they have no control. Devoid of souls, they are helpless creatures determined by their heredity and environment. In Norris’s most successful novels, these naturalistic ideas are employed with great faithfulness, and his depiction of human beings following a slow but inevitable course toward destruction has an enduring power.
Norris’s fiction underwent various stages of development. In McTeague and Vandover and the Brute, Norris focused his attentions on the naturalistic novel of character, where both McTeague and Vandover proceed slowly toward their inevitable destruction. In Norris’s next three novels—Moran of the Lady Letty, Blix, and A Man’s Woman—he bowed to social pressure: Moral values overwhelm deterministic forces in these inferior works. In Norris’s last two novels, The Octopus and The Pit, he again returned to naturalistic themes, but in a broader, more worldly sense, showing greater compassion and involvement with his characters. The progression from Vandover and the Brute, a highly dispassionate view of one man’s descent, to The Pit, which analyzes the social forces at work in the wheat industry, marks Norris’s own maturation as both a writer and a person, and his increasingly complex worldview.
Vandover and the Brute
Written while Norris was still in college, Vandover and the Brute is concerned with moral weakness. It is the story of a wealthy man who, unable to sustain his ambition to become an artist, descends to a bestial level. As a study of moral and physical disintegration, the novel follows a characteristically didactic naturalistic course. Vandover’s descent is governed by a series of chance events and hastened by his own flawed heredity. Because his position in society allows it, Vandover leads a life of pointless leisure. Unable to focus his desire to become an artist, he starts gambling, drinking, and leading a loose sexual life. A chance cut on his lip, followed by an unwanted kiss from Flossie (who by chance has contracted syphilis), passes a sexually transmitted disease to Vandover and eventually causes lycanthropy.
With the aid of Professor Le Conte’s classes in science, Norris was able to research the disease that plagued Vandover. His careful analysis led to Vandover’s realistic progression toward lycanthropy, which begins with the suicide of Ida Wade, one of the girls whom Vandover has seduced. Soon after Ida’s death, Vandover’s father dies, an event that seems to give Vandover direction, but the beast within him soon triumphs, the disease is allowed to run its course, and Vandover becomes a wretched, broken man. The novel concludes with Vandover cleaning the cheap houses Norris’s father built for the San Francisco working class, although in the novel, the houses belonged to Vandover.
McTeague was written soon after the completion of Vandover and the Brute; like Norris’s first book, it emphasizes themes of chance, disintegration, and heredity. The novel is a study of the temperaments of two characters: McTeague, a scoundrel born in a California mining town, and Trina Sieppe, a young working-class woman whose hoarding instincts eventually overcome her.
As the novel begins, McTeague is working with his father in the California mines. A traveling dentist arrives shortly after McTeague’s father dies, and the young boy is apprenticed to the dentist so that he might learn a trade. McTeague is not bright enough to learn much—the result of his heredity—but he eventually learns enough to survive, and when his mother dies, he sets up dental parlors in San Francisco. The rich descriptive detail with which Norris renders McTeague’s surroundings greatly contributes to the success of the novel.
McTeague is well satisfied with his existence: The earnings from his practice keep him supplied with a daily glass of steam beer and allow him enough leisure time to practice his concertina and socialize infrequently with his friends, among them Marcus Schouler, who lives in the flat above McTeague. Chance, however, intervenes in McTeague’s ordered existence when Marcus’s girlfriend, Trina, breaks a tooth, and Marcus brings her to McTeague for treatment. While they wait in the parlors, Trina buys a lottery ticket from the cleaning woman—a ticket that, later, will be worth five thousand dollars.
McTeague falls in love with Trina at first sight, and Marcus, rather than fighting for his girl, aids McTeague in courting her, even to the point of introducing him to Trina’s parents. The path paved, McTeague asks Trina to marry him, and, on the day the announcement is made public, Trina wins the money through the lottery. It is this chance event that sparks Trina’s inherited passion for hoarding, first evident on the day of the lottery payment when Trina, to McTeague’s dismay, decides not to spend her winnings on a nice apartment, but rather to save the money. This first clash of temperaments leads to others as McTeague and Trina continue toward their eventual disintegration.
At first, Trina and McTeague are happy; they move into a flat across from the dental parlors and live comfortably. McTeague’s ambitions to live in more spacious quarters, however, conflict with Trina’s thrifty attitudes. Marcus reenters their lives; embittered by McTeague’s good fortune, he attacks McTeague with a knife. This...
(The entire section is 2369 words.)