Frank Norris Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In what respects is Frank Norris the most thoroughgoing American exponent of literary naturalism as developed by Emile Zola?

How appropriate is the San Francisco setting of McTeague?

What is naturalistic in Norris’s characterization of McTeague? In what ways is he a romantic character?

In the two completed volumes of his trilogy, does Norris oversimplify the relationship of “wheat” and “the machine”?

Does Norris carry out in his novels the responsibilities he outlines in “The Responsibilities of the Novelist”?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201270-Norris.jpg Frank Norris. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Frank Norris is best known for his novels Vandover and the Brute (1914), McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903), and three others. There have been film versions of Moran of the Lady Letty (1898; with Rudolph Valentino), The Pit (along with a play and a board game), and McTeague (Life’s Whirlpool in 1915 and Erich Von Stroheim’s famous Greed in 1924). His story “The Guest of Honour” has twice been adapted for the stage. Norris has also achieved a considerable reputation as a literary critic. Nearly all of his early criticism appeared during his tenure (1896-1898) on the San Francisco weekly, The Wave, where he also wrote news articles, theater and book reviews, interviews, football reports, editorials, features, translations, and short fiction. Earlier in his career he wrote several poems (including his first book, Yvernelle: A Tale of Feudal France, 1892), a play (the junior farce for 1892 at the University of California), stories, and essays.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Frank Norris was the first full-blown practitioner of Zolaesque naturalism in America. Like the nineteenth century French writerÉmile Zola, Norris often analyzed the effects of heredity, biological instincts, social and cultural influences, and the physical environment on individuals—a strategy that champions a less metaphysical and more scientific approach to looking at life. Although these naturalistic novels are usually considered to be Norris’s best writing, his reputation primarily grew during his lifetime because of his productivity and versatility (he wrote six novels and approximately three hundred essays, book reviews, short stories, literary pieces, interviews, and poems). When Norris made the economics of American agriculture the subject of his unfinished trilogy—The Octopus deals with the struggle between the wheat growers and the railroad owners, The Pit depicts speculators and the Chicago wheat exchange, and The Wolf (never written) was to focus on the dispersal of wheat in Europe—he contributed to the muckraking movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. The unfinished trilogy also helped establish the realistic tradition in twentieth century American fiction.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Frank Norris’s published work includes poems, short stories, essays, newspaper articles, novels, and literary criticism. Although he is best known today for his novels, Norris is also remembered for his popular short-story contributions to the San Francisco Wave and his insightful literary criticism, published in The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903) and The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris (1964).

Norris’s first published book, Yvernelle: A Tale of Feudal France (published in 1892 while Norris was still in college), was neither a short story nor a novel, but a medieval love poem written in the romantic verse style of Sir Walter Scott. Had it not been subsidized by Gertrude Norris (the author’s mother), the book would probably never have been published. Today it is notable only for the high price it brings in the rare book trade.

Norris’s success as a reporter was also minimal. His reports on the Boer War were published in the San Francisco Chronicle, but his later writings on the Spanish-American War were not published for some time afterward, and were never published by McClure’s Magazine, which originally sent him there.

Norris was successful, however, as a short-story writer. Much of his early work first appeared in the San Francisco Wave, a weekly newspaper featuring mostly local literary talent. The stories he wrote for the newspaper were later collected in three volumes: A Deal in Wheat, and Other Stories of the New and Old West(1903), The Third Circle (1909), and Frank Norris of “The Wave” (1931).

The majority of Norris’s writings were collected in a ten-volume Complete Edition, published by Doubleday, Doran in 1928. That same year, Doubleday also issued the Argonaut manuscript edition of Norris’s works. Identical in content with the Complete Edition, the Argonaut manuscript edition was finely bound and included a manuscript page from McTeague. In the late twentieth century, more Norris pieces were unearthed, including his Harvard student theses. His major works are still in print in both hardcover and inexpensive paperbound editions.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Called by many (including himself) “the boy Zola” because his style was so reminiscent of French novelist Émile Zola’s writings, Norris spearheaded the naturalistic movement in American literature. Although Norris’s contemporaries were, by and large, critical of his portrayal of the savage, seamy side of life, it is that very quality in his work that has helped to keep his fiction alive and readable. Even more than his challenge to the Victorian code of the beginning of the twentieth century, Norris’s capacity to portray corruption and its evil effects on human beings as well as his ability to make scenes and characters seem vibrant and real rank him high among twentieth century writers.

Norris never achieved the immense popularity of some of the other writers of his day, such as Jack London. He did not even live to see his most successful novel, The Pit, become a best seller. Indeed, it was not until publication of The Octopus that he was able to enjoy even a modest financial success. His readers were simply not able to accept his preoccupation with sordid realities, including his treatment of sex, which by Victorian standards was quite shocking. Because of his unsavory choice of subject matter, Norris was ignored by reviewers who understood only the elegant prose and fine writing of an earlier era. Today, Norris’s pioneering work in American naturalism is universally acknowledged.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boyd, Jennifer. Frank Norris Spatial Form and Narrative Time. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Chapters on all of Norris’s novels, with discussions of his pictorialism, his relationship to Zola and naturalism, and the structures of his longer fictional works. Includes notes and bibliography.

Dillingham, William. Frank Norris: Instinct and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. This study comprises a biographical sketch and a survey of Norris’s work. Dillingham argues that certain attitudes of the academicians, such as hard work and close observation, influenced Norris’s conception of painting and writing. Stresses naturalism. Includes an annotated bibliography.

Graham, Don. The Fiction of Frank Norris: The Aesthetic Context. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. This volume is one of the few studies concerning itself with the aesthetics of Norris’s work. Much attention is given to his four most literary novels—Vandover and the Brute, McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. Includes an excellent bibliography.

Graham, Don, comp. Critical Essays on Frank Norris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. A collection of reviews and essays aimed at presenting Norris as a vital and still undefined writer. Among the contributors are Norris’s contemporaries William Dean Howells, Willa...

(The entire section is 507 words.)