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Character Analysis of McTeague
Frank Norris s novel McTeague explores the decay of society in the early twentieth century. Set in San Francisco, a place where anything can happen where fact is often stranger than fiction (McElrath, Jr. 447), Norris explores themes of greed and naturalism, revealing the darker side of human psyche. What can be found most disturbing is the way that Norris portrays McTeague, in shocking detail, as nothing more than a brute animal at his core. Norris explores the greed and savage animalism that lurks inside McTeague.
McTeague is first portrayed as a gentle giant. The reader is introduced to McTeague as he sits in his dental parlor, smoking his cigar and drinking his steam beer. He is described as a tall, slowly moving man.
McTeague s mind was as his body, heavy, slow to act, sluggish. Yet there was nothing vicious about the man. Altogether he suggested the draft horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient (Norris 7).
Immediately one can visualize McTeague, a large lumbering mass, going about his daily activities in quiet solitude. The dental practice that McTeague runs provides him with a sound income, and in the first few chapters of the novel, he desires nothing more out of life than to practice what he loves. When he opened his Dental Parlors, he felt that his life was a success, that he could hope for nothing better (Norris 7).
Upon meeting Trina, his best friend Marcus s love interest who comes to him because of a broken tooth, his psyche begins to change and animalistic feelings begin to well up inside McTeague. The male, virile desire in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal. It was resistless, untrained, a thing not to be held in a leash an instant (Norris 25). Norris uses the animal imagery to describe the deterioration of McTeague s human qualities.
When McTeague tells Marcus of his intentions with Trina, there is a palpable tension between the two characters. Although at first they act like gentlemen, there is a silent rivalry between them.
Well, what are we going to do about it, Mac? he said.
I don know, answered McTeague in great distress. I don want anything to to come between us, Mark.
Well, say, Mac, he cried, striking the table with his fist, go ahead. I guess you you want her pretty bad. I ll pull out; yes, I will. I ll give her up to you, old man (Norris 48).
McTeague almost seems sincere in his attempt to rectify his friendship. Despite the fact that the two are deciding which one will have Trina, without her input on the matter, they feel that they are both noble men. The dentist treats his friend for an ulcerated tooth and refuses payment; the friend reciprocates by giving up his girl. This was nobility (Norris 48-9). After this encounter, the two men go back to their flat where a fight
between two dogs is about to occur. Norris uses foreshadowing at this point and more animal imagery to describe the silent rage growing inside Marcus. Suddenly the quarrel had exploded on either side of the fence. The dogs raged at each other, snarling and barking, frantic with hate (Norris 52). This scene is repeated throughout the novel when McTeague and Marcus meet, adding to the feelings of tension between the two.
After Trina and McTeague plan to be wed, she wins the lottery providing a catalyst for the further decay of their character. After winning the five thousand dollars, the passport to doom that brings on all the trouble, she begins to hoard the money and become stingy (Rexroth 345).
Just now, yielding to an impulse which often seized her, she drew out the matchbox and the chamois sack, and emptying the contents on the bed, counted them carefully She counted it and recounted it and made little piles of it an drubbed the gold pieces between the folds of her apron until they shone (Norris 164).
Norris devotes several chapters her miserliness, somewhat excessive with the pettiness and petit-bourgeois traits of Trina s Swiss family however if Norris indulges in harsh stereotypes, it is because society produces them (Brier 1310). McTeague contrasts Trina, always concerned with her excessive hoarding. If it were up to McTeague, they would live a comfortable life. After losing his business, he and Trina are forced to move.
Trina still refuses to draw upon their nest egg, and McTeague begins to show his distaste for their lifestyle. It was not mere economy with her
now Trina could have easily afforded better living quarters than the single whitewashed room at the top of the flat, but she made McTeague believe that it was impossible (Norris 212). During these turbulent days for the McTeague s, Marcus is racked with self-loathing over his missed opportunity. You fool, you fool, Marcus Schouler! If you d kept Trina you d have had that money. You might have had it yourself to throw five thousand dollars out the window God damn the luck! (Norris 103). On one occasion the hatred between the two leaves them in a physical situation. The two men are wrestling together and Norris uses animalism to show their loss of civility. There was a sudden flash of bright-red blood The brute in McTeague that lay so close to the surface leaped instantly to life, monstrous, not to be resisted (Norris 182). The character qualities begin to take a form all their own, and are governed by primitiveness. This is no longer civility, but rather brute animalism.
The laws of humanity no longer govern McTeague, and his abusive qualities foreshadow imminent doom. McTeague becomes obsessed with the greed that has overcome Trina and assaults her in order to get her to give him money.
The people about the house and the clerks at the provision store often remarked that Trina s fingertips were swollen and the nails
purple as though they had been shut in a door The fact of the matter was that McTeague, when he had been drinking, used to bite them, crunching and grinding them with his immense teeth Sometimes he extorted money from her by this means, but as often he did it for his own satisfaction (Norris 239).
At one point McTeague steals money from Trina and abandons her. McTeague spends the money in royal fashion, absolutely reckless of the morrow, feasting and drinking for the most part with companions he picked up heaven knows where (Norris 280). After spending his money and wandering the streets for days, he shows up at Trina s window begging for more money. When she doesn t give him any money, his hatred of Trina increased from day to day (Norris 282). Fueled by greed and the animal instinct inside of him, he sets out to make her pay. In a final act of fury McTeague kills his wife and steals her money.
Trina lay unconscious, just as she had fallen under the last of McTeague s blows, her body twitching with and occasional hiccup that stirred the pool of blood in which she lay face downward. Toward morning she died with a rapid series of hiccups that sounded like a piece of clockwork running down (Norris 290).
From this point, McTeague sets out to live alone on his new wealth, however he has one last encounter with Marcus Schouler. In the final chapter of the novel, McTeague is fleeing for Mexico through Death Valley. Marcus, who hears of the brutal murder of Trina, decides to avenge her death and take the money that he believes is rightfully his. The two meet in the unforgiving climate of Death Valley and have one last confrontation.
Suddenly the men grappled, and in another instant were rolling and struggling upon the hot, white ground McTeague did not know how he killed his enemy, but all at once Marcus grew still beneath his blows As McTeague rose to his feet, he felt a pull at his right wrist; something held it fast. Looking down, he saw that Marcus in that last struggle had found strength enough to handcuff their wrists together. Marcus was dead now; McTeague locked to the body. All about him, vast interminable, stretched the measureless leagues of Death Valley (Norris 340).
In this last scene, McTeague is left to die in the brutal conditions of Death Valley, a force that his primitiveness and greed cannot escape.
Norris develops the novel in a way that takes the reader through the mind of McTeague. The final effect is one of chilling realism. McTeague develops a greed and brute quality that can be realized in all of us. Norris magnifies the deconstructive traits that lurk inside of society and all of us and shows them too us, if we dare to look for them.
Brief, Peter. 1,300 Critical Evaluations of Selected Novels and Plays: McTeague. Vol. 3, McT-ROB. Salem Press, 1978.
McElrath Jr, Joseph. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism: McTeague. Vol. 24. Gale Research Company, 1987.
Norris, Frank. McTeague. USA: Signet Classic, 1964.
Rexroth, Kenneth. Afterword from McTeague. USA: New American Library, 1964.
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