Themes, Symbols and Characters in ‘McTeague’ By Frank Norris
The novel Mcteague written by Frank Norris and published in 1899 is a bright example of realism and naturalism in literature. Norris states in his book that all people are driven by their instincts and external forces. The author focuses on the relationship between his novel and naturalism, contemporary American values and real life situations. He presents us brutal, cruel world, in which every person is interested only in his profit. People live driven by their instincts and care only about their own profit.
The conflict between moral values and primitive instincts is one of the main internal conflicts of the book and we can see it in several characters. McTeague, the protagonist of the book is a perfect example of this conflict. He suffers from evil, which he finds inside of him and finally he looses this fight with this evil.
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The book shows how ideas of social Darwinism work in practice. The author describes the situation of the society after the Civil war, when scared people were haunted by the ideas about survival and luxurious life. “The horrible biases that came from the idea of a "survival of the fittest" philosophy were rampant in the period following the Civil War as well as throughout the next eighty years. In America the social evolution and superior species concepts were employed to explain the oppression of the middle and lower classes by rich capitalists and racial segregating and violence” (Bannister 116). Norris explores all these ideas and how they find realization in practice in his novel. McTeague and his wife Trina are thrown away from their house and McTeague looses his job because they can not be strong enough to win the competition in the capitalist society.
The theme of interaction between the people of different social classes is also very important in the novel. Though the entire novel we can see how different characters are preoccupied with their social position and try to reach higher social level by any means. Both, Trina and McTeague originate from lower class and both eagerly try to overcome this “born evil” during their entire lives. Trina is born in a poor emigrant family and despite she becomes an owner of a big fortune, this does not change her belonging to low social class. As for McTeague, he also originates from poor working class, where his father was “for thirteen days of each fortnight… a steady, hard-working shift-boss of the mine. Every other Sunday he became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcoho.” (Norris 5). McTeague also makes an immense effort to stand above his origin and even manages to become a dentist, which is a sign of higher social belonging but finally society and his inner nature make all this effort vain. He has a profession of a dentist, but still behaves acts and thinks like he used to do in the past; following the way of life he was taught in his family.
He looses all and becomes the same person as he was born. “Neither Trina nor McTeague can actually raise themselves above the class in which they were born. Trina comes from the poor immigrant family, and she dies woman living in a hovel working as a scullery maid, even though she has more money than many wealthy business people of the day.” (Bower, 31)
McTeague’s ‘intelligent’ profession gives Trina hope that he will be able to get a higher social position and help her to achieve the same. She makes a mistake since she can not see an “animal in [a] man,” which makes a considerable part of his personality (Norris 21).
Greed and obsession with money is another important theme of the novel. The readers can see how money changes lives of the characters and destroys their personalities through the novel. Trina becomes greedy and haunted by the necessity to save money as soon as she wins the lottery. She can not overcome her born fear to die in poverty and finally ruins her life and looses everything, even her life. The author goes further than mere description of the effect greed has on the life of people. On the example of Trina and McTeague he shows how society creates such an environment, where people are driven by envy, fear, greed and competition. Norris does not put all the responsibility on his characters. He very vividly illustrates how society creates its members and the way they realize ideals of the society in their lives.
The novel is rich with symbolism. The author uses symbols as additional means to pass his message to the readers. The birds, which we meet often in the novel symbolize the main characters and often reflect their interaction. A cat, who tries to kill the birds, symbolizes Marcus, who tries to ruin their happiness. This takes place exactly when the letter, which ruins McTeague’s career, is read. The cage becomes a symbol of the trap the main characters find themselves put into. They can not cross strict boundaries and limitations put around them by the society. They are haunted by their instincts and finally become completely destroyed by these instincts and the environment. McTeague is left in the Death Valley in the end of the novel and the readers can very vividly see where his instincts and society have finally placed him. An ending of the novel becomes a very direct warning about the consequences of social Darwinism when applied in real life.
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336--Am. Lit. II Realism to Contemporary
Paper Topics #1
The following is a list of possible paper topics or suggestions that you might use as models for developing a paper topic of your own. Feel free to adopt one of these or to adapt one or even abandon the list altogether and suggest an alternative topic.
If you take the last option, it might be strategic to discuss your topic with me.This is not meant as a means of censuring topics but as a means for me to be helpful in any number of ways and to help you avoid any possible dead ends.Keep in mind that the paper should present your interaction with the text or texts.I am not looking for some composite paper developed from your reading of critical materials but a paper that presents your thoughts and ideas concerning the literary work or works.Certainly, you may use outside material to support your argument--but be sure that your paper presents your argument.
Length: 4-5 pages (This is only an approximation, let the actual topic be the determining factor.)
1. Using The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and perhaps a short story or two write an essay examining in detail Twain's view of man.You may be very specific and choose one aspect of this view if you wish.You might also want to examine other stories in his late work that we haven't read if you find that helpful.Be sure to examine new material and offer insights beyond those presented in class.
2. If you have noted similarities between's Twain's work and another author you've read in you period courses, you might compare the treatment of similar topic or theme. For example, compare and contrast Twain's "The War Prayer" with William Dean Howell's "Editha" and show how both portray typical American sentiments about war, duty, religion, etc. You might check out Jim Zwick's excellent on-line resources concerning American Anti-Imperialism.
3. Analyze the use and function of humor in any of Twain's works.You can use the short stories we've read, or Huck Finn, or another of Twain's works.Examine carefully the kinds of humor, the techniques Twain employs, and show how all of these function in the text and contribute to your understanding of the work.
4. Comment on Twain's attacks on other writers, most notably James Fenimore Cooper. He once claimed that the prose of Jane Austen was "entirely impossible. It seems a great pity they allowed her to die a natural death." What are Twain's critical standards and prejudices and can his own charges by levelled against him? See, for example, Sidney Krause's Mark Twain as Critic.
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been lauded as the Great American Novel.Do you agree with such an assessment?Why or why not?This debate has raged for decades. You might wish to consult the following critical articles for discussions on both sides of this issue.The first list from a previous generation and the later suggestions are more recent assessments.As you can see this has always been a contentious debate.
Lane, Lauriat."Why Huckleberry Finn Is a Great World Novel." College English, 17 (October, 1955), 1-5.
Marx, Leo."Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn."American Scholar, XXII (Autumn, 1953), 423-
O'Connor, William Van."Why Huckleberry Finn Is Not the Great American Novel."College English, 17
(October, 1955), 6-10.
Trilling, Lionel."The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn."From the introduction to Twain'sThe Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn. New York: Rinehart Edition, 1948.
See also the articles in our critical edition by Jane Smiley and Toni Morrison for a more contemporary debate about the novel.
6.Twain’s novel Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned in places too numerous to count and for more reasons than I care to list here..Read some outside research and enter into this debate.You may want to read the opinions of African-American authors such as David Bradley and Toni Morrison for some perspective.
7. Social criticism is an important element in American Literary Realism and Naturalism.Examine this theme in relation to any of the stories we've read this semester.You might also look ahead to some of the stories that we will be reading in the first half of the course.For example, we may see Howell’s character Editha not as an individual but as a type.What reasons might a literary realist have for attempting to portray social types as individualized characters?Who is he trying to show, what is he trying to say? You might also consider looking at another story by one of the authors we are reading.
8. Many have criticized Norris' ending to McTeague as being overly melodramatic. William Dean Howells was among these. Read his essay "Frank Norris" originally published in the North American Review, 175, December 1902, 769-778. Read Norris' response in his letter to Howells (March 1899 (?)). This and other of Norris' letters can be found in Letters of Frank Norris edited by Franklin Walker, San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1956. Where do you stand in this debate?
9. Enter the discussion. Discuss the significance and appropriateness of the ending of McTeague.The scene has been criticized by many including Donald Pizer in The Novels of Frank Norris, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966.The desert scenes have been praised by others. See: Dahlberg, Edward. "Stephen Crane: American Genius." In The Leafless American.Ed. by Harold Billings. Sausalito, Ca.:RogerBeacham, 1967. 58-61. Dillingham, William B. Frank Norris Instinct and Art. Lincoln, Ne.: U. of Nebraska Press, 1969.Graham, Don. The Fiction of Frank Norris. Columbia, Mo.: U. of Missouri Press, 1978.
10. Locate Norris's allusions to animals and animal-like behavior in the novel.Analyze what he is trying to say about human nature, human motivation and character.Or take a look at sexual dominance and surrender or some other theme or motif you find interesting.
11. Read Jack London’s “The Law of Life” and discuss the deterministic concepts that story presents.What elements of London’s naturalism are evident in the short story.Or do something similar with Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.”
12.Examine the writings of some of the “local color” writers, or regional realists, during the last half of the twentieth century and find a topic of interest.For example, Bret Harte has often been called the “father of all local color western stories” and would make for an interesting comparison to Twain as a frontier writer.Compare and contrast the two.Or examine changing social mores in a story like Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The New-England Nun.”Show how the movement between conventional Victorian morality clashs with more modern views.
13.Suggest a topic of your own and discuss it with me.