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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

When analyzing Frank Norris's McTeague, one must consider numerous different literary aspects: theme, conflict, characterization, and tone/mood. All of these aspects come together to create the story itself and the message the author desires to deliver to the reader.

First, Norris's novel is naturalistic. This means that the novel possesses characteristics typical of the movement called naturalism. This movement, essentially begun by French author Emile Zola, examines the power of nature over all else (even mankind). Nature proves to be all-powerful and "uncaring" regarding mankind. What typically happens in a naturalistic novel is that nature (typically personified) wins over the challenges man presents it.

The themes within the novel illuminate naturalistic ideals. Naturalists believed that nature was the most powerful element in existence. Therefore, the naturalistic text illustrates that mankind bows to the power of nature. Therefore, the themes of naturalistic texts mirror this idea. For example, McTeague begins the story as a very simplistic man. As the story moves forward, McTeague begins to change. He believes himself to be far more than the primitive man in the opening of the novel. In the end, McTeague returns to his simplicity (masked by his animalistic need to simply survive). Outside of the theme of survival, McTeague illustrates the typical "American Dream" gone wrong. While the story does show the movement from poor to wealthy, it also depicts the tragic fall many face when in search of their dream. Also highlighted in this idea is the concept that wealth equals power. That being said, the novel completes the circle of failure when it illustrates that the fall from wealth also means the fall from power.

As for the conflict in the novel, both internal and external conflicts are present. Both McTeague (the protagonist, who is referred to as Mac) and Trina Sieppe (the woman who becomes his wife) face internal conflict. Neither is truly happy with where they are in life, and their unhappiness with what they have festers internally. Externally, both face the criticism of others (man versus man), the social ladder (man versus society), and nature (man versus nature).

As for characterizations, both Mac and Trina develop over the course of the novel. Neither character remains static (unchanging), making them both dynamic (changing). This adds to the relationships the reader may develop with the characters by allowing the reader to possess empathy or hatred for them (at different times throughout the text). The characterizations help to define and determine the mood and tone of the novel.

First, the tone of a novel comes from an author's feelings about a subject. These feelings are delivered mostly through the author's word choice and sentence length. For example, a short sentence tends to be read faster by a reader, giving the message intensity: "No one to love, none to caress, left all alone in this world's wilderness.” This sentence shows how Mac really feels about companionship and love. He is shaving and waiting for Trina to show up for their wedding. One could argue that the tone is evident in this ironic singsong. As a reader, the mood emerges. The mood is how a reader reacts to a character or the actions within a text. A reader could feel angry at Mac for singing this song as he is getting ready to marry Trina. It could also be that the reader understands the reality of nature's power and that nothing is left at the end of one's life.

Longer sentences tend to slow a reader down and make the reader think about what is being said. For example, the following sentence is...

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filled with different types of punctuation and polysyllabic words: “It belonged to the changeless order of things—the man desiring the woman only for what she withholds; the woman worshipping the man for that which she yields up to him." The pause forced by the em dash (—) forces the reader to pause. Also, the joining of the two independent clauses with a semicolon forces the sentence forward. Longer sentences like this also affect the tone and the mood. The tone illustrates the author's feelings on companionship and relationships. The idea of the "changeless order of things" is a truth in nature. As for the mood, the reader can decide if this ideology makes him or her feel that the character is hopelessly optimistic (change is certain to come) or hopelessly pessimistic (change will never come). Regardless, both of these feelings bring about a distinct feeling in the reader.


Critical Essays