McTeague, a novel written at the turn of the century by Frank Norris, is a classic
example of naturalist writing. This novel is written with the harsh realities that were this
time period. There are many themes that occur in naturalism. Some of them that appear in
this novel are greed, lust, strife, as well as Darwinism and animal imagery. All of these
themes help Norris describe with vivid detail his tragic account of human degradation.
One of the forces that drives many characters such is Zerkow, Trina, and
McTeague is greed. Zerkow is an old man who has gold fever. All he ever thinks of is
where he can get some more gold from. When he hear Maria telling her story of the gold
bowls and dinner service he is immediately interested. On page 38 it reads “It was
impossible to look at Zerkow and not know instantly that greed-inordinate, insatiable greed
-was the dominate passion of the man.” This shows us that greed is what turns this guys
wheels He ends up marrying her only with the hope that she might be able to locate these
missing riches. When she is unable to find the gold he becomes mad at her and slits her
throat before killing himself. It is possible that he put so much of himself into his greed
that when he could not quell it with the gold he felt his life was not worth living. Trina
shows how greedy she is when she wins the 5,000 in the lottery. She will not spend any
money where it is needed, and because of this the couples standards of living decline.
Although Trina and Zerkows’ greed for riches was almost identical, Zerkow is vied as a
lost soul, yet Trina is viewed as a proper young lady. This is one of the things that leads to
her death and the downfall of McTeague. McTeague shows that he is greedy also after
Trina wins the money. He wants to control the money as if it belongs to him. In a way
greed also drives Marcus who feels like Trina’s money should be his.
Another force that fuels a characters fire is lust. This can be greatly seen in
McTeague. From the minute Trina sat down in his dentist chair McTeague felt like he
wanted her, like he MUST have her. this can be seen on page 25. ” The male, virile desire
in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal. It was restless, untrained, a
thing not to be held in leash an instant.” This lust is what drove McTeague in the early part
of this novel. Another important scene that shows us the development of McTeagues’ lust
for Trina is in the rail yard where he proposes to her, kisses her violently, then says “I’ve
got her!” Another character driven by lust is Zerkow. He does not lust for a person, he
lusts for the gold and riches that Maria has told him about.
Another thing that drives these characters is strife. Strife is a vigorous or bitter
conflict, discord or antagonism. This can be mainly seen in Marcus. After Trina wins the
lottery he begins to have internal and external strife. He is very mad at himself because he
gave up courting Trina for McTeague, and now she has $5,000. He feels in a way that this
money should somehow be his money. He also began to fight with McTeague at every
given opportunity and feels and extreme rivalry towards his former friend.
One thing can be seen in almost every character over and over again throughout
the book. This is animal imagery. This is seen mostly in McTeague. While he has Trina
etherized in his chair, on page 27 it reads “Suddenly the animal in the man stirred and
woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and
clamoring.” This gives us an insight to what was brought out in McTeague by seeing
Trina, a young and beautiful women. It also shows us many of the primal instincts that
dwell in the oaf of a dentist. This can also be seen when McTeague was trying to get Trina
to kiss him in the rail yard when she wont “Suddenly he took her in his enormous arms,
crushing down her struggle with his immense strength.” This does not sound like the work
of a human man. This sounds like it could be the work of a beast of burden, or some other
massive creature. In fact throughout this novel McTeague is refered to many times as an
ox (“McTeague crashed down upon him like the collapse of a felled ox.”) and in one case
even as a hungry swine (“McTeague ate for the sake of eating, without choice; everything
within reach of his hands found its way into his enormous mouth.”) All of these images
give us a better understanding into the mind of McTeague. They help us to see how he
thinks, and they help us interpret what he feels.
All of themes in McTeague, Social Darwinism stands out the most. This can be
seen in all parts of the novel, and especially in the closing sequence. The whole flow of the
events can be interpreted using natural selection. All of the relationships seem to follow
the same pattern. The first half of the story shows how the different characters came
together. It shows how Marcus and McTeague become friends, how Trina and McTeague,
Maria and Zerkow tie the knot. Now is when we really start to see natural selection.
Zerkow killed Maria, then he killed himself. McTeague kills Trina, then Marcus hunts
down McTeague to avenge Trina. The fight in the desert, and McTeague ends up killing
him, then dying himself, possibly of dehydration or starvation. This shows a clear pattern
of the survival of the strongest. In the end the only thing that remains is the desert, the
strongest of all the elements in this mix.
In conclusion Norris uses all of the above elements to paint a picture of what the
world was like during this time. He gives us in great detail events that could have possibly
occurred during this time. He used all of the above elements to try and show us
realistically what the world was like.
Jason Resputini, “The McTeague page,” Http://www.merkan.com/Jason/McTeague, Revised August 29, 1995 ed.: 1.
Thomas k. Dean, “The Flight of McTeagues song bird.” Literature/Film Quarterly volume 18, Number 2 (1990): 20.
Richard D. Alexander, Darwinism and Human Afairs (New York, NY: Random House, 1979) 213.