Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965
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. Norris succeeds nevertheless in conveying the irony that the nonbrutes in an acquisitive society are more lethal than the brutes. McTeague comes from a nonurban world, and it is a testimony to his instincts for self-preservation that he flees back to the mountains after killing Trina. She, Marcus, and others in the novel are all shaped by the city and its acquisitive and artificial environment, and they are all annihilated violently to dramatize the hopelessness of their origins.
Perhaps Norris overdoes the pettiness and petit bourgeois traits of Trina’s family. He also may be accused of anti-Semitism in his portrayal of the character Zerkov. However, the shallowness of the characterizations serves a symbolic purpose. All of these people are what they are because their environment is a kind of hell, a swarming, competitive world. If Norris indulges in harsh stereotypes, it is because society produces them. “I never truckled. . . . I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me?” This was Norris’s literary creed, and he adhered to it relentlessly in other naturalist works of social criticism such as The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903).
Even in situations that unobservant readers might dismiss as sentimentalism, Norris preserves his sardonic and tough-minded view of the world. The budding love affair between old Mister Grannis and Miss Baker, which reads like a contrast to the deteriorating marriage of McTeague and Trina, is, in reality, a bitter comment on the frustrations of isolation in the congested city. These two old people have conducted their romance through the wall that separates their room for so long that their final coming together is a cruelly ironic comment on the life they have never lived.
The central symbol in McTeague is gold. Everyone craves it: Maria, the servant, is full of stories about the ancestral gold plate of her family. She captivates Zerkov with descriptions of it and steals gold fillings from McTeague’s dental parlor. Trina counts her gold coins into the night, deriving a fiercer erotic joy from this than from the bear hugs of her husband. Marcus covets Trina’s lottery winnings and finally brings about his own death in struggling over the gold with McTeague in the middle of Death Valley. Only McTeague is indifferent to the glitter of gold. For him, it is merely a tool of his trade. When he runs off with Trina’s money, he is motivated not by greed, as all critics of the novel agree, but by revenge.
Erich von Stroheim made a famous film version of McTeague and called it Greed. He is said to have followed McTeague page by page, “never missing a paragraph.” Any reader of McTeague will agree that Norris moves through his story with what Kenneth Rexroth has called “a relentless photographic veracity.” Scene after scene unfolds with a visual precision and crispness that leave an indelible impression on the mind and do much to dispel the reservations that the melodramatic action arouses. There is a relentless and powerful movement in these pictures. From the opening scenes describing McTeague on a Sunday in his cozy dental office slumbering or lazily playing his concertina, to the violent closing scene of the novel in which McTeague and Marcus are locked in a violent death struggle in the middle of the greatest wasteland in America, the reader is swept steadily along to increasingly arresting visual involvements. The eye wins over the mind. The environment is rendered with a revelatory concreteness that reveals its central power in the novel.