Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502
Frank Norris's McTeague is an American naturalistic novel. The novel follows the protagonist McTeague, called Mac. Over the course of the novel, Mac tries to change his circumstances in life. The novel points out, in true naturalistic form, that man is not really in control of life. In fact, nature...
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- Critical Essays
Frank Norris's McTeague is an American naturalistic novel. The novel follows the protagonist McTeague, called Mac. Over the course of the novel, Mac tries to change his circumstances in life. The novel points out, in true naturalistic form, that man is not really in control of life. In fact, nature is in control.
This idea is illuminated by the characters of Mac, Trina, and Marcus. All three characters find that no matter what they do to try and change their personal circumstances, the nature of life and the world around them always wins.
A summary of the novel is as follows:
McTeague is a man set in his ways. He eats at the same time and the same thing pretty much every day. His dull life leaves him craving more, although he is unaware of this in the beginning. It is not until Trina comes in complaining of tooth pain that Mac realizes he needs more in his life. Eventually, Mac and Trina marry.
Trina has always wanted to be part of a higher class than her "current" place. In marrying Mac, she believes that his position as a dentist will allow her to move into a more respected social circle. It is not until she wins the lottery, a sum of five thousand dollars, that she begins to truly feel successful. Although she did not "earn" the money, she feels as though it has given her a real sense of security. Unfortunately, the money will come to be her downfall.
Mac and Trina argue repeatedly about money. Since they are married, Mac feels as though they should share the money to support their family and expenses. Trina disagrees, claiming that the money is hers alone.
The three main characters in the novel all undergo major changes. Marcus, a friend of Mac, changes as he seeks to better his own personal circumstances, much like Mac and Trina. He successfully moves up the social ladder because of his determination. Unfortunately for Marcus, his failure to realize that one can only do so much to escape societal constraints ultimately becomes his downfall.
In the end, everything each of the characters has done leads to one place only: death. The naturalistic nature of the novel proves true again; man cannot overcome the nature of the world around them. All three die as a direct result of failing to accept what they have and obstinately seeking out more. Trina dies at the hands of her husband when she refuses to give him the lottery winnings. Marcus dies after being shot by Mac for trying to take the money Mac took from Trina. Mac dies, handcuffed to Marcus' dead body, in the middle of Death Valley (where he went to strike it rich prospecting for gold). Essentially, a summary of the novel refers to the idea that mankind will never be able to surpass the limitations established by nature. Nature has a plan for all of mankind: death. It is only nature that will continue to survive.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164
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 payment of the first month’s rent, which signing of the lease entails.
Some days later, they have a picnic, to which Marcus also is invited. Outwardly, he and McTeague appear to have settled their differences, but jealousy still rankles in Marcus. Wrestling matches are held, and Marcus and the dentist win their respective bouts. It now remains for the two winners to compete. Marcus is thrown by McTeague, no match for the dentist’s brute strength. Furious, Marcus demands another match. In that match, Marcus suddenly leans forward and bites off the lobe of the dentist’s ear. McTeague breaks Marcus’s arm in his anger.
Marcus soon leaves San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, an order from city hall disbars McTeague from his practice because he lacks college training; Marcus had informed the authorities. Trina and McTeague move from their flat to a tiny room on the top floor of the building, for the loss of McTeague’s practice has made Trina more thrifty than ever. McTeague finds a job making dental supplies. Trina devotes almost every waking moment to her animal carvings. She allows herself and the room to become slovenly, she begrudges every penny they spend, and when McTeague loses his job, she insists that they move to even cheaper lodgings. McTeague begins to drink, and drinking makes him vicious. When he is drunk, he pinches or bites Trina until she gives him money for more whiskey.
The new room into which they move is filthy and cramped. McTeague grows more and more surly. One morning, he goes fishing but fails to return home. That night, while Trina is searching the streets for him, he breaks into her trunk and steals her hoarded savings. After his disappearance, Trina learns that the paint she uses on her animals has infected her hand. The fingers of her right hand are amputated.
Trina takes a job as a scrubwoman, and the money she earns, together with the interest from her five thousand dollars, is sufficient to support her. Now that the hoard of money that she had saved is gone, she misses the thrill of counting over the coins, and so she withdraws the whole of her five thousand dollars from the bank and hides the coins in her room. One evening, there is a tap on her window. McTeague is standing outside, hungry and without a place to sleep. Trina angrily refuses to let him in. A few evenings later, drunk and vicious, he breaks into a room she is cleaning. When she refuses to give him any money, he beats her until she falls unconscious. She dies early the next morning.
McTeague takes her money and returns to the mines, where he falls in with another prospector. McTeague, however, is haunted by the thought that he is being followed. One night, he leaves his companion and starts south across Death Valley. The next day, as he is resting, he is suddenly accosted by a man with a gun. The man is Marcus.
A posse had been searching for McTeague ever since Trina’s body had been found, and as soon as Marcus hears about the murder, he volunteers for the manhunt. While the two men stand facing each other in the desert, McTeague’s mule runs away, carrying a canteen bag of water on its back. Marcus empties his gun to kill the animal, but its dead body falls on the canteen bag, and the water is lost. The five thousand dollars is also lashed to the back of the mule. As McTeague unfastens it, Marcus seizes him. In the struggle, McTeague kills his enemy with his bare hands. Yet, as he slips to the ground, Marcus manages to snap one handcuff to McTeague’s wrist and the other to his own. McTeague looks stupidly around, at the hills about a hundred miles away, and at the dead body to which he is helplessly chained. He is trapped in the parching inferno of the desert that stretches away on every side.