“If We Don’t Have the Hardest Luck of Any Two People I Ever Heard of.” How Fate Dooms Frank Norris&#
Mac is burdened by his laziness. While environment contributes to Mac’s downfall, hereditary plays a significant part. Mac is simple-minded and lazy. The text suggests Mac gives up easily when frustrated such as when Trina gets him a job with Uncle Oelbermann. “However, it was a position that involved a certain amount of ciphering, and McTeague had been obliged to throw it up in two days” (239). Ciphering does not come easy to the dim-witted Mac so he abandons the job, troubled by the discomfort of thinking. A potential job with the police goes nowhere. “If McTeague had shown a certain energy in the matter the attempt might have been successful; but he was too stupid, or of late had become too listless to exert himself greatly…” (239). Any ambition Mac had is lost after he loses his dentistry practice. “McTeague had lost his ambition. He did not care to better his situation. All he wanted was a warm place to sleep and three good meals a day” (239). Already a creature of comfort, Mac looks for an easy path to the comfort he enjoyed as a dentist. Mac does not seek to go to dental school to earn his license when he is told he needs a college education. The text suggests Mac will work if it is easy but not if it is difficult as seen in his failure to work for Uncle Oelbermann but his willingness to work in a mine (a job that is familiar to him) when he is a fugitive.
Mac is also cursed by hereditary due to alcohol’s effect on him:
It was curious to note the effect of the alcohol upon the dentist. It did not make him drunk, it made him vicious. So far from being stupefied, he became, after the fourth glass, active, alert, quick-witted, even talkative; a certain wickedness stirred in him then; he was intractable, mean; and when he had drunk a l little more heavily than usual, he found a certain pleasure in annoying and exasperating Trina, even in abusing and hurting her (239).
Like his father, Mac becomes an angry and violent drunk. Mac becomes physically abusive with Trina and later kills her. Norris’ vivid description of Mac shows alcohol’s effect:
He was drunk; not with that drunkenness which is stupid, maudlin, wavering on its feet, but with that which is alert, unnaturally intelligent, vicious, perfectly steady, deadly wicked. Trina only had to look once at him, and in an instant, with some strange sixth sense, born of the occasion, knew what she had to expect (293).
Mac’s inability to handle liquor is another instance where Norris examines the role of nature in exploring Mac’s character and his downfall. While Mac isn’t happy with Trina’s miserliness, his anger and violence only emerges when he is drunk. It is arguable he would not have killed Trina if he was not drunk or predisposed to violence when drunk.
Not all of Mac’s animal qualities betray him. While Mac is dim-witted, he possesses a type of animal-like cunning that warns him when he is in danger. This helps him as a fugitive after he murders Trina, some sixth sense warning him it is time to move. Mac wonders, “There’s something. What is it? I wonder what it is” (306). As Mac continues his escape, his dim-witted nature causes him to venture into Death Valley, not realizing the danger of navigating the merciless desert to escape his pursuers. It is arguable Mac goes into the desert because it seems like the path of least resistance, another instance of his docility working against him.
Violence is a characteristic of naturalism found throughout McTeague whether it is Mac’s violence or someone else’s. The novel hints at Mac’s potential for violence when it discusses his father’s alcohol-fueled violence. There is the domestic violence that occurs not only between Mac and Trina but between Marie and Zerkow. There is the violence between Marcus and Mac. Marcus nearly stabs Mac early on in a bar. Later, Mac breaks arm after an angry Marcus bites through his ear. Violence progresses to its ultimate end when Mac murders Trina, then kills Marcus at the novel’s end.
McTeague follows naturalism’s style of showing things turning out badly for its characters. McTeague in a sense, has been fortunate in acquiring the ability to practice dentistry, despite his mental limitations. However, society is changing and a professional class of dentistry is rising, meaning McTeague’s dentistry career is tenuous as he has no degree. Norris contrasts the rise of the professional dentist when he describes the neighborhood’s new dentist, “…a young fellow just graduated from the college, a poser, a rider of bicycles, a man about town, who wore astonishing waistcoats and bet money on greyhound coursing” (21). The new dentist is loved by the neighborhood women and sophisticated, unlike the oafish Mac. Once he is exposed as having no license, he can no longer practice.
Environment plays a significant part in Mac’s downfall. The American frontier has closed and McTeague lives in a major city (San Francisco) where he cannot hide his lack of a dentistry license. McTeague practices dentistry in a poor section of San Francisco but he is not safe from the government’s regulatory scrutiny. Unlike romantic novels, nature is indifferent or hostile to its inhabitants. A quiet, pastoral scene at Schuetzen Park becomes violent when Mac and Marcus’ wrestling match spirals out of control. A quiet school is the scene of Trina’s murder and a group of young children later stumble upon the crime scene. Later, after murdering Trina, McTeague is betrayed by the environment when he ventures into the desert. Mac’s animal instincts lead him to what he thinks is escape but the desert environment proves deadly.
The novel explores the violent, competitive nature of the world. The conflict between McTeague and Marcus escalates through the book, reaching a deadly climax. Marcus’ regret over giving McTeague his blessing to court Trina plagues him throughout the novel once Trina wins the lottery. McTeague’s physical superiority over Marcus frustrates him, whether it is Mac winning the wrestling match and Marcus biting Mac’s ear, or Marcus betraying McTeague by informing the government that McTeague is not a licensed dentist. Marcus pursues his own ambition of becoming a cowboy but he can’t do so without first harming McTeague, when he informs the authorities that Mac is an unlicensed dentist. Later, when he has a chance to harm McTeague again, he pursues McTeague, presumably for murdering Trina but the text suggests otherwise. When Marcus pleads to be part of the posse hunting for McTeague he argues “She’s a cousin of mine, she is—she was—I thought once of—This thing’s a personal matter of mine—an’ that money he got away with, that five thousand, belongs to me by rights” (339). When Marcus finds McTeague, his first question is “What did you do with that money, with that five thousand dollars?” (342). Marcus seems more concerned with getting the money he believes should have been his and getting revenge on Mac for embarrassing him. This competitive nature proves to be Marcus’ undoing.
Like many naturalist novels, McTeague criticizes capitalism. Wealth is embodied in the gold Trina hoards but what good is it if it is not put to use? When Mac loses his dentistry practice and struggles to find other work, Trina moves her and Mac into smaller and smaller apartments, selling much of their property. However, Trina has $5000 plus a nest egg she hoards, refusing to spend it. It is arguable Norris uses this to show the futility of hoarding money rather than using it for good. Norris also questions the value of wealth over the enjoyment of work, as seen with Old Grannis selling his binding device. When asked why he binds books, Mr. Grannis’ reply, “ —I’m sure I can’t quite say; a little habit, you know; a diversion, a—a—it occupies one, you know. I don’t smoke; it takes the place of a pipe, perhaps” (28) suggests work is a necessary part of life, even for the elderly. When Mr. Grannis sells his binding machine, he finds his life has changed, arguably for the worse. He has made money from the sale but “The absence of his accustomed work seemed to leave something out of his life” (255). Norris does not seem to criticize wealth itself but he does seem critical of capitalism’s goal of amassing wealth for wealth’s sake. Norris’ examples of Trina and Mr. Grannis suggest it is best to have a healthy balance of work and financial security. Trina hoards her wealth while Grannis finds he no longer has work to do and his life is empty. By comparison, Uncle Oelbermann maintains a healthy balance of work and financial security. The blind pursuit of wealth through capitalism can lead to sadness (such as with Grannis) or death (such as with Trina and Maria).
Norris, Frank. McTeague. Signet, 2011.