Student Question

What narrative purpose does the recurring image of the canary serve in the novel?

Expert Answers

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The symbolism of McTeague's canary has been hotly debated by literary critics and scholars for many years. There is no one definitive answer to this question, but there are a number of interesting interpretations you might like to consider.

Some critics have argued that the canary represents McTeague's better self (such as it is). Still others have suggested that the presence of the canary represents the significant role that order and routine play in his daily life.

An additional interpretation holds that the canary symbolizes the inescapable power of nature. The action of the story consists for the most part of McTeague and other characters in the story trying to change their lives. Yet ultimately they come to grief, thwarted by the forces of nature. (One thinks of the final, dramatic image of McTeague, stranded in the searing heat of Death Valley with just Marcus's corpse for company.)

In common with many works of naturalistic fiction, McTeague treats its characters almost like guinea-pigs in a scientific experiment. Or to use a different simile, they are like microbes in a petri dish, keenly observed from a distance by the reader.

In either case, the characters, in time-honored naturalistic fashion, are more object than human, every bit as much a part of the world as rocks, trees, fish, and, of course, canaries. The presence of the canary, a humble bird, acts as a reminder that humans too are part of nature, and should not try to escape from it.

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