(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Norris had begun writing McTeague while a student at Harvard, but by the time of its publication seven years later, in 1899, the influence of French and Russian naturalism was well recognized in American literary communities. Yet no native novelist had yet created quite so grim and unyielding a representation as Norris did in this, his first major novel. McTeague is deeply indebted to the works of Zola, whose naturalistic-romantic vision of the complex nature of human relationships and the compelling forces which led men and women into destructive behavior patterns reflected and encouraged Norris’s own beliefs. Although Norris would continue to incorporate the techniques of naturalism into his fiction, McTeague stands as his purest experiment in the genre.

As Norris would later counsel in his essays on fiction, he focused in this novel on one area in one region of the United States: Polk Street in San Francisco. More specifically, the novel follows a particular period of time in the life of “Mac” McTeague, a dentist on Polk Street. McTeague’s initial mood of melancholy and nostalgia for the country life of his youth reflects the sense of loss that has come with the prosperity of his urban existence.

Like all naturalists, Norris did not assert that environment alone could be blamed for the present condition of humankind’s slow evolution, and it is the brute strength of McTeague that is most striking. This beastlike nature, which Norris believed was a hereditary feature of all people, lies beneath the surface of McTeague’s lumbering presence. When circumstances threaten to reveal that he had never received proper certification as a dentist, the facade of his personality is ruptured and the uncontrollable brute self emerges.

Although Norris believed that there had been no great American women novelists and that this phenomenon was attributable to...

(The entire section is 783 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

McTeague, born in a small mining town, works with his unambitious father in the mines, yet his mother sees in her son a chance to realize her own dreams. The opportunity to send him away for a better education comes a few years after McTeague’s father dies. A traveling dentist is prevailed upon to take the boy as an apprentice.

McTeague learns something of dentistry, but he is not smart enough to understand much of it. When his mother dies and leaves him a small sum of money, he sets up his own practice in an office-bedroom in San Francisco. McTeague is easily satisfied. He has his concertina for amusement and enough money from his practice to keep him well supplied with beer.

In the flat above McTeague lives his friend Marcus Schouler. Marcus is in love with his cousin Trina Sieppe, whom he brings to McTeague for some dental work. While they are waiting for McTeague to finish with a patient, the cleaning woman sells Trina a lottery ticket.

McTeague immediately falls in love with Trina. Marcus, realizing his friend’s attachment, rather enjoys playing the martyr, setting aside his own love so that McTeague will feel free to court Trina. He invites the dentist to go with him to call on the Sieppe family. From that day on, McTeague is a steady visitor at the Sieppe home. To celebrate their engagement, McTeague takes Trina and her family to the theater. Afterward, they return to McTeague’s flat and find the building in an uproar. Trina’s lottery ticket has won five thousand dollars.

In preparation for their wedding, Trina is furnishing a flat across from McTeague’s office. She decides to invest her winnings and collect the monthly interest, but McTeague becomes disappointed, for he had hoped to spend the money on something lavish and exciting. Trina’s wishes, however, prevail. With that income and McTeague’s earnings, as well as the little that Trina earns from her hand-carved animals, the McTeagues can be assured of a comfortable life.

Marcus slowly changes in his attitude toward his friend and his cousin. One day, he accuses McTeague of stealing Trina’s affection for the sake of the five thousand dollars. In his fury, he strikes at his old friend with a knife. McTeague is not hurt, but his anger is thoroughly aroused.

In the early months after their wedding, McTeague and Trina are extremely happy. Trina is tactful in the changes she begins to make in her husband. Generally, she improves his manners and appearance. They both plan for the time when they can afford a home of their own. As a result of those plans, they have their first real quarrel. McTeague wants to rent a nearby house, but Trina objects to the high rent. Her thriftiness is slowly turning into miserliness. When McTeague, unknown to her, rents the house, she refuses to move or to contribute to the...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)