Book Review of McTeague,
by Frank Norris
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/17/09
Readers might not know a whole lot about Frank Norris due to his short life (1870-1902), but he is part of that school of modern style writers that include Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane. Annoying purple prose still lingering from the days of the Victorian Era? You will not find that here. Unfortunately, Norris died at the age of 32 due to a ruptured appendix. McTeague is probably the most well known of his works (published in 1899), even though a number of additional titles were published after his death. Now after having read McTeague, I can say that his loss is a greater tragedy for literature—for who knows what additional masterpieces might have awaited him?
McTeague is certainly an excellent novel, written by a writer with a keen ear for dialogue and also memorable description. The story involves a repugnant dentist named McTeague who is large sized, a bit dense, and clunky in his movements. He seems to be a bit of a boob, and readers will come to detest him when he takes advantage of one of his young female clients—Trina, while she is under anesthesia.
People were appalled by this scene when the novel was first published, and I can’t tell you enough how fresh the prose reads, and how ahead of his time Norris was. Oddly, Trina eventually becomes his wife, even though McTeague’s friend Marcus has expressed an interest in her. How it works is this: McTeague performs a surgery on Marcus’ tooth and in return, refuses payment. Marcus, on the other hand, agrees to “give up” Trina for the sake of that favor.
“What a fine thing was this friendship between men! The dentist treats his friend for an ulcerated tooth and refuses payment; the friend reciprocates by giving up his girl. This was nobility…. nothing could ever estrange them. Now it was for life or death.”
This ‘life or death’ statement carries much import, for we see it appear later on in the novel. McTeague eventually marries Trina, though neither member really loves the other. He seems to only admire her for her looks and feminine qualities and she only admires him because he is physically large and will protect her. Yet before they marry, Trina ends up winning $5,000 from a lottery, of which she stores in the bank as a means of earning interest. Though her love of money becomes an obsession—she refuses to contribute to any large amount for their wedding, always claiming they “can’t afford it.” She hoards cash whenever she can, and will spend the least amount possible, even at the risk of their marital health and happiness.
Then, it is discovered that McTeague never in fact attended dental school, and he is forced to resign from his position. Without his income, the couple must survive on her meager wages (her job consists of painting little ‘Noah’s Ark’ toy animals, which eventually leads to paint poisoning and the removal of her fingers) as well as the interest earned each month by her $5,000. Trina refuses to touch it, and refuses to move into a more comfortable home, and instead the couple moves into what McTeague calls a “rat hole,” all so she can cling to her cash.
As the narrative progresses, your feelings towards McTeague change. You begin to feel sorry for him, when his wife won’t even give him a nickel for cab fare, and he is forced to walk in the cold rain. Or when he asks her to go to the market to purchase some meat for them, she only buys the cheapest, poorest quality available—pocketing the rest of the change. She is a bit a nut, no doubt, for she’s willing to live in squalor yet she’ll spend hours polishing her gold pieces, even putting the change into her mouth to taste it, to even getting into bed naked and sleeping with her coins, just so she can feel them press against her body.
Eventually, McTeague leaves her, yet manages to steal $400 that she’s been hiding in the house. Once she learns her money is gone, she finds she cannot physically be without it, and so she eventually withdraws all her cash from the bank ($5,000 of it) just so she can physically have it in her possession. Her love for money is an obsession—she loves the thing itself, not what the money can buy. McTeague is forced to sell a number of his personal possessions, for example, just so she can have more money in hand.
When McTeague returns one night, she refuses to offer him any food, despite his telling her that he is starving. Claiming not to have any money, he later learns from the bank that she withdrew the $5,000 and had it in her possession during that time. Unwilling was she to even spare him a dime, his rage grows till he eventually attacks and kills her. But by this time, Trina is such a sick, miserly bitch that you are actually rooting for him to kill her. And he does it quickly and violently. Grabbing her cash, he flees to the desert.
Once out west, he attempts to make some sort of life for himself. Norris has excellent descriptions of the dry desert, and I can see a bit of influence he had upon Steinbeck when he wrote his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath.
“A tremendous, immeasurable Life pushed steadily heavenward without a sound, without a motion. At turns of the road, on the higher points, cańons disclosed themselves far away, gigantic grooves in the landscape, deep blue in the distance, opening one into another, ocean-deep, silent, huge, and suggestive of colossal primeval forces held in reserve.”
The description is matter of fact, without a shred of sentiment, yet the words carry a synergy and music to them. Norris has several pages of long-sentenced description as this, which is lovely to read. Eventually, word of the murder escapes the city and Marcus comes to learn there is a reward offered for McTeague’s finding. Setting out, Marcus is able to find him amid this vastness, and indeed it becomes ‘life or death.’ The two men battle it out, though realizing their situation—they are in the middle of the desert, and without water, one does not go very far. Ultimately, McTeague is able to kill Marcus, though it is Marcus who gets the last word—so to speak, when Marcus manages to handcuff himself to McTeague before he is killed. Oops.
The last image is that of the small canary McTeague brought along with him—the one item that Trina was not able to pawn. One cannot deny the metaphor this “half-dead canary chattering feebly in its little guilt prison” provides. Though one has to wonder if McTeague himself really feels any guilt for his poor life choices, just regret. His actions, continually propelled by selfishness, only lead to his demise. Selfishness in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, if served for a greater and higher good. Though selfishness that is not served for any greater or higher good merely resorts to greed. And McTeague reveals the type of personal doom one can face on account of greed. Not just greed applied to mere money alone, but one’s egoism and personal insecurity.
While it can be argued that Norris’ flawed characters are a bit extreme, he writes them very well and creates realistic exchanges that transcend the mere idea that this is just a book about “selfish people in a bad marriage.” Despite their oddness, Norris makes it so you can believe people like this would exist, and such is the sign of an excellent writer. Now go seek him out.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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