McTeague by Frank Norris


I read about this novel a long time ago in one of Stephen King’s books, and I was intrigued, so I looked it up and read it. And then read it once more a couple of years later despite the fact that stories like this devastate me: stories that explore the idea that everything is predetermined and that there’s nothing you can do to change your life. Devastation aside, though, I’m deeply interested in these kind of stories, especially American stories set at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, such as the works of Theodore Dreiser or Edith Wharton.

The novel is about a son of a miner turned dentist – he’s McTeague (and he doesn’t seem to have a first name). McTeague – a clumsy, somewhat slow-witted man who’s always lived in an instinctive way, with little or no regard or sensibility for the more sophisticated aspects of life – learns the art of dentistry from a traveling dentist, then moves to San Francisco, where he opens a practice and leads a life that satisfies him entirely. He works during the week, has a big lunch and some beer on Sunday and then dozes off or goes for a walk with his single closer acquaintance, Marcus.

Then one day, Marcus brings his cousin, Trina, to McTeague’s office because she fell of a swing and broke a tooth. McTeague spends weeks administering a complex treatment to the lovely young girl, and in the meantime, he falls in love with her – or rather, his deeper instincts arise upon coming into close contact with a woman for the first time in his life. Marcus himself has his eyes on Trina, but seeing that his passion is nothing compared to that of McTeague’s, he graciously steps aside and McTeague and Trina get married. Things work fine, but after a while McTeague is forced to give up his practice and from that moment on, it’s all downhill for the couple, in every sense of the word (financial, moral, emotional, and so on).

In the novel every character is a victim of their upbringing, their inherited traits and the unfavorable circumstances brought upon them by chance or by the ill will of others. For example, Trina kindles desires and needs in McTeague that are somewhat more sophisticated than his pure animal instincts, but as soon as their fate takes a turn for the worse, McTeague immediately reverts to his animal-like state and he even becomes worse than he used to be before meeting Trina. And as regards Trina: she’s always had a propensity for hoarding and always used to be stingy, but as time goes by, she becomes ever more miserly and her only joy remains clinging to her shiny silver and gold dollars.

And yes: here no-one can do anything about the fate determined by their family background and their various characteristics because their self-awareness and their ability to assess their circumstances is almost non-existent, so they are all forced to drift the way life takes them, and even if they are aware of some of their unfortunate traits (for example, Trina knows that she’s stingy), they only say: “I know I’m like this but at least this is a good fault.”

By the way, McTeague is a dirty-naturalist novel, even though Norris tends to stop before the most horrible details, and “only” says, for example, that “what came after that was horror itself”. And I’m glad he stops there and never succumbs to the temptation to roll around in the filth in a possibly l’art pour l’art fashion – not because I wouldn’t be able to stand it but because I think it’s a sign of taste: to know where to stop – because not everything needs to be written down.

Still, this novel feels somewhat too obvious and spoon-feeding to me, as I’m reading it through my 21st-century eyes. The symbols (the most important of which is gold, in all its forms) are just all too obvious and they are mentioned on every second page, so there’s no way you can miss Norris’ point; and the key sentences about each character are also repeated multiple times to hammer the meaning home – all this repetition bothers me a bit but it doesn’t make the novel unreadable.

I mentioned Theodore Dreiser in the beginning, and there’s indeed a lot of similarities between Norris and Dreiser (as far as I know, they both liked the other’s work). Norris, however, is far less convoluted and far more readable than Dreiser. Norris even said something to the effect: “Who cares about elaborate style? We want life, not literature.” And his novel fits this description: it’s not over-wrought, it’s easy to read, it’s often slightly sarcastic and not exactly “literary”. Based on this single book (I haven’t read anything else by him) I believe Norris didn’t earn his place in literary history with his unparalleled delicacy of style but this – as opposed to his serious spoon-feeding habit – doesn’t bother me at all.

Besides the story of the unavoidable demise of the characters, this novel is also an excellent portrait of an era. So even though the story makes me mad and depressed, I’m still interested in it because I like to learn how people lived in America towards the end of the 19th century, and Norris depicts this powerfully.

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