McTeague presents a unique challenge to the critic. It is a gripping story of the relentless pressures of heredity and environment that distort the soul; it is also a melodrama with stereotyped characters, lurid action, and a creaking machinery of symbols that includes everything from dental equipment to snarling dogs. Despite its weaknesses, McTeague is exactly what Alfred Kazin has said it is: “The first great tragic portrait in America of an acquisitive society.” Frank Norris’s novel initiates the literary treatment of a theme that eventually informed significant American literary works such as Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949).
McTeague himself is a crude but well-meaning hulk of a man whose gentle temper suggests “the draft horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient.” His brutishness is under control as long as he can putter with his dentistry and sleep off his steam beer in the dental chair. Once he succumbs to the erotic impulse that his wife, Trina, generates in him, however, McTeague is sucked into a world of feelings that undermine the fragile self-control that his undisturbed life made possible. Once he and Trina marry, McTeague becomes vulnerable to her avarice and to Marcus’s jealousy and envy. These destructive emotions release the underlying primitiveness of McTeague’s character. When Marcus bites McTeague’s earlobe during the wrestling match at the family picnic, the gentle “draft horse” rises with “the hideous yelling of a hurt beast, the squealing of a wounded elephant. . . . It was something no longer human; it was rather an echo from the jungle.” For Norris, a human is fundamentally an animal; the human world is ruled by harsh laws of survival.
McTeague’s brutalization is tragic because the humanity he had achieved was so touching in its vulnerability. He is also strikingly innocent of avarice. Although the release of McTeague’s brutish animal quality results in two slayings, Norris suggests greater dehumanization in the mad greed of Trina’s counting her gold coins. McTeague becomes an animal, but Marcus and Trina defy nature in the hideousness of their moral and psychological deformity.
It is in this theme that the melodramatic elements of the novel undermine its power....
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