Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

As befits a classic naturalistic novel, the story told in McTeague asserts that the individual, rather than being the free creature described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in such essays as "Self Reliance" (1841), is conditioned by the ineluctable forces of heredity, environment, and chance, and moreover, is at every moment...

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As befits a classic naturalistic novel, the story told in McTeague asserts that the individual, rather than being the free creature described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in such essays as "Self Reliance" (1841), is conditioned by the ineluctable forces of heredity, environment, and chance, and moreover, is at every moment subject to physical and psychic deterioration. To give these themes dramatic form, Norris follows a pattern he took from the popular interpretations of evolutionary theory he had learned from LeConte and Lombroso. At the start of the novel Mc- Teague, a massive, mentally slow, and psychologically primitive man, has reached the apex of his individual development. The simple routine of his daily life is upset when "mysterious instincts" attract him to Trina, a girl from a thrifty Swiss peasant background. Their courtship and marriage awaken his natural brutality and her hereditary desire for saving, two of the subconscious forces governing their lives. Circumstance and fate then reinforce their atavism. By chance, Trina wins five thousand dollars in a lottery and McTeague loses his profession when his wife's ex-suitor, Marcus, reports that he is practicing dentistry without a license. Deprived of work, McTeague takes to drink, while Trina becomes obsessed by greed. Their socioeconomic decline is thus accompanied by a psychological degeneration until McTeague, having completed his descent to alcohol-induced criminality, murders Trina, takes her money, and goes back to the mining country from which he came. Shortly, following an animal-like instinct that someone is tracking him down, he flees to Death Valley, where Marcus finds him. The novel closes in the desert, with Mc- Teague handcuffed to Marcus's corpse.

Besides being a deterministic narrative, McTeague deals with some classic American themes and myths, all interpreted in the light of social Darwinism and presented with a certain turn-ofthe- century taste for the monstrous and the grotesque. For example, Mc- Teague's decline reverses the standard story of the "self-made man" while Trina's miserliness contradicts the traditional American belief in the importance of thrift as a means of rising in society. The pictures the novel offers of McTeague as a miner and of Marcus as a cowboy deflate two of the nation's most enduring myths of life on the frontier and overturn idealistic concepts about the promise of the West. Finally, the fact that Trina's avarice, McTeague's criminality, and Marcus's jealousy are all in large part triggered by the gold Trina wins in the lottery certainly can be interpreted as a condemnation of the rampant materialism of the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

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