“If We Don’t Have the Hardest Luck of Any Two People I Ever Heard of.” How Fate Dooms Frank Norris&#
Frank Norris' novel McTeague exemplifies naturalism with its examination of character through a slice of life storytelling technique, and its exploration of naturalist themes such as life’s unpredictability, the negative impact of capitalism, and the absence of God in personal events. Norris investigates the shifting winds of fate as his title character works to better his life, rising from life as a miner to the professional class of dentistry. However, in a series of misfortunes, McTeague finds his life unravel as if a hidden force is pushing him to his destruction. Although McTeague’s animal instincts are strong in self-preservation, he is helpless against changing societal forces such as the rise of the professional class. Author Frank Norris, a naturalist, uses McTeague to examine the role of environment and heredity in shaping the characters’ fates. McTeague also explores life’s unpredictability, a central theme of naturalism. In the end, hereditary and environmental factors play roles in McTeague’s failure to realize the American dream but it is life’s unpredictability that ultimately dooms him. McTeague cannot deal with life’s unpredictable changes when they force him to think or step out of his comfort zone.
Frank Norris is a naturalist writer as seen with McTeague’s storytelling techniques and elements. Naturalism is seen as a successor to realism (which attempts to showcase everyday life in America). Like realist writers, naturalist writers use a slice of life approach in storytelling (heavy on details of day-to-day life) to express and explore a disillusionment with progressivism. Naturalism typically offers no promise of improvement for characters and things tend to go from bad to worse. Writers from the naturalist school seek to uncover their characters’ motivation, comparing elements of nature and nurture. Unlike romanticism, naturalism depicts nature as indifferent and often hostile (compared to romanticism where nature reflects emotion). Other elements of naturalism include life as a competition, predetermined fate, the irrelevance of God and religion, and many references to city life including a critique of capitalism, technology, and industrialism. All of these elements are seen in McTeague’s downfall.
One of the features of naturalism is that things tend to end on a bad note. Norris illustrates this theme with the rise and fall of his title character. McTeague (“Mac”) has a successful dentistry practice, marries the woman he desires, and learns she has won a lottery. Things seem hopeful but their good times have reached their apex by chapter nine following their marriage. Soon, life’s unpredictability intervenes, throwing the dim-witted Mac’s life out of control, with his dim-witted, lazy nature and his environment worsening things. The text illustrates how Mac is able to cope with change when it is positive (such as his escape from working the mines to working in dentistry) but not when it is negative (such as when he loses his ability to practice dentistry or tries to find a new career). When troubles arise, Mac finds his life deteriorating.
McTeague’s opening paragraph shows author Frank Norris’ naturalist writing style. Naturalism is known for its slice of life approach, a writing style heavy on the details of day-to-day life. This is seen in the book’s first chapter where Norris describes a typical Sunday dinner for the title character, “It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee-joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar” (1). This detailed description shows the mundane life McTeague lives, dining at a simple “coffee-joint” on a meal that like Mac, is bland and simple. Norris uses details such as “thick gray soup” and “heavy, underdone meat” to reinforce Mac’s comfort with food that nourishes bur does not seem savory. Norris uncovers Mac’s affinity for simple comforts with his description of Mac’s love of steam beer, “On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna’s saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. It was his habit to leave the pitcher there on his way to dinner” (1). McTeague drinks steam beer, a cheap beer reflective of his simple tastes and his drinking habits. Shortly after, Norris summarizes McTeague’s life, “McTeague looked forward to these Sunday afternoons as a period of relaxation and enjoyment. He invariably spent them in the same fashion. These were his only pleasures—to eat, to smoke, to sleep, and to play upon his concertina” (1-2). Norris’ detail-heavy prose not only shows Mac’s lifestyle and habits but establishes he is a creature of habit who does not like change. He eats the same food and drinks the same drink, day after day.
Naturalist writing examines the role of nurture and nature in developing a character. With Charles Darwin’s analysis of natural selection, writers explored what role environment had and what role heredity played in a character’s development. Norris’ description of McTeague, like many of the novel’s characters, compares him to an animal. “McTeague’s mind was as his body, heavy, slow to act, sluggish. Yet there was nothing vicious about the man. Altogether he suggested the draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (3). Norris establishes that McTeague is dim-witted and set in his ways. This ultimately leads to his destruction when he cannot cope with scenarios outside his comfort zone. Life’s unpredictability, a commonly examined theme in naturalist writing, will throw unexpected events at Mac that the dim-witted man cannot handle, ultimately leading to his downfall.
It is important to note the novel’s other animal metaphors as it is an important part of naturalism. Mac is compared with a horse but at one point he is described as a bull when his lust for an unconscious Trina overwhelms him, “The fury in him was as the fury of a young bull in the heat of high summer” (24). This passage foreshadows Mac’s bestial anger later on when he attacks Marcus (albeit in self-defense). Maria refers to herself as a flying squirrel, an apt description given her habit of taking and stealing small items for herself (such as when she asks everyone in the apartment for “junk” or when she steals gold from Mac’s dental parlor in chapter seven). Maria’s covetous companion (and future husband) Zerkow is likened to a cat, “He had the thin, eager, cat-like lips of the covetous; eyes that had grown keen as those of a lynx” (34). This fits Zerkow as like a cat, he patiently waits for his prey. In this case, his prey is the gold treasure he believes Maria has squirreled away. McTeague suggests these characters’ animal nature gets the better of them, leading to their downfall whether it is Mac’s docility preventing him from finding work or Zerkow’s greed causing him to murder Maria when he cannot have the treasure she has boasted of.
Mac’s docility is seen in his ability to do things only if they are easy and comfortable. McTeague becomes a dentist but it is through mimicry rather than education. “He had learnt it after a fashion, mostly by watching the charlatan operate. He had read many of the necessary books, but he was too hopelessly stupid to get much benefit from them” (2). The text suggests McTeague’s mother pushes him towards learning to be a dentist rather than any ambition on his part. Later. McTeague is able to open his own practice when his mother dies, leaving him money. As far as McTeague is concerned, he has reached his life goal. “When he opened his ‘Dental Parlors,’ he felt that his life was a success, that he could hope for nothing better” (3). However, McTeague’s animal lusts will give him a new goal-the hand of Trina. Mac wins Trina by overpowering her with his repeated presence and bear-like strength. McTeague benefits from circumstances when good things fall into his lap (such as wedding Trina), but he is also a victim of circumstances when things go badly and he cannot cope (such as losing his job). Again, unpredictable events confound Mac when they are negative due to his docility.
Norris, Frank. McTeague. Signet, 2011.