"If We Don't Have the Hardest Luck of any Two People I ever Heard of." How Fate Dooms McTeague. Page One of Two
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.
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 hereditary 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.
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 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.