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Frank Norris' Mcteague's niche in American Literature has been characterized again and again as strictly Naturalist. The novel does well in this genre. Among other things, it is a scientific, representative, pessimistic study of the common people or lower and middle classes which ultimately ends in tragedy. It is not the purpose of this essay to dispute these qualifications; rather to question the genre itself.
The scientific novel is impossible for a variety of reasons. Practitioners of Naturalism, including Norris, attempted to create representative characters with inherited biological traits (traits which they have no control over), plant these characters in a meticulously defined setting, and produce/predict the resulting behavior. The naturalistic novel relies on the assumption that this behavior is, indeed, predictable. This assumption is, at the very least, questionable.
The Scientific Method, in its simplest form, is essentially made up of four basic elements. According to an on-line encyclopedia, they are as follows:
1. Characterization (Quantification, observation and measurement)
2. Hypothesis (An explanation of the Characterization)
3. Prediction (Logical deduction from the hypothesis
4. Experiment (Test of all of the above)
It is not the intent of this essay to investigate whether Dreiser, Zola, London or other Naturalists practiced these methods successfully within the context of the novel. It is clear however, that Norris did not. Mcteague may successfully incorporate the observatory and explanatory elements of the Scientific method as well as other nuances of the Naturalistic genre; however, his study is worthless without elements three and four.
It is these elements, moreover, the logical deduction from the hypothesis and the testing of the other elements to prove consistency which are practically impossible for a writer of fiction to accomplish. Character, setting and nearly ever aspect of a novel are not mere observations of the physical world but are created in the subjective mind of the author.
It must be conceded, then, that Naturalism, like most literary genres and movements is neither definitive nor rational. At most, it is an application of somewhat murky scientific values to fiction, and nothing more. If Norris' McTeague does not, then, produce a rational conclusion to hypotheses and experimentation in and scientific manner, what is the novel's function?
One significant consideration (in the attempt to answer this) may be the novel's adaptation into a silent film in 1924: Greed. The title alone is significant. It is not the story of Mcteague or even the story of San Francisco.
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The 'lost' film masterpiece is a dark study of the oppressive forces that decay and corrupt three people - a simple, uneducated former miner and dentist (McTeague) in turn of the century San Francisco, his miserly, vulgar and pathological wife (Trina), and their mutual friend and McTeague's ultimate nemesis (Marcus) - all are caught up by their squalid, debased passion, compulsion and greed for gold. The wife's fixation on money causes the dentist to lose everything - he kills her, becomes maddened with the same lust for gold, then takes flight only to find himself handcuffed to his dead pursuer in the fateful conclusion. The film is a morality tale about how the characters are dehumanized by the influence of money upon their lives. (Dirks)
Greed, in the novel, is not strictly attributed to these three characters. It is the fate of two other characters to also fall prey to this demon:
"Now, then, Maria," said Zerkow, his cracked, strained voice just rising above a whisper, hitching his chair closer to the table, "now, then, my girl, let's have it all over again. Tell us about the gold plate -- the service. Begin with, 'There were over a hundred pieces and every one of them gold.'" (204)
Zerkow, the stereotypical Jew, and Maria, the stereotypical Mexican are perhaps the most despicable characters in the novel. Norris describes Zerkow in this way:
It was impossible to look at Zerkow and not know instantly that greed--inordinate, insatiable greed--was the dominant passion of the man. He was the Man with the Rake, groping hourly in the muck-heap of the city for gold, for gold, for gold. It was his dream, his passion; at every instant he seemed to feel the generous solid weight of the crude fat metal in his palms. The glint of it was constantly in his eyes; the jangle of it sang forever in his ears as the jangling of cymbals." (37)
If this isn't proof enough, their marriage is in itself a testament to greed. Zerkow marries Maria because he believes there is some truth in the story she tells, referenced above. Among other things, their greed eventually leads to Maria's murder by Zerkow and his suicide. Along the way, Maria gives birth to a deformed baby, which may be the most gruesome scene of the novel.
In effect, all of the greedy characters are punished by Norris. Trina, who after winning the lottery becomes extremely stingy, is murdered by her husband McTeague. McTeague, having stolen Trina's winnings after the aforementioned act, is caught on the run by Marcus and eventually left in the desert to die. Marcus, chasing after Mcteague and the winnings, is murdered by McTeague. Finally, Maria is murdered by Zerkow, who, in turn, commits suicide.
If Norris had wanted to produce a scientific novel, it seems he would have excluded these retributive tendencies. As simplistic as it sounds, bad characters in the novel are punished. Furthermore, good characters are not. Two characters not motivated by greed in the novel are Old Grannis and Miss Baker. If nothing else, Grannis buys back the McTeagues' wedding picture at the auction. These two are finally rewarded with the fulfillment of their affections for each other.
There is no doubt that, in McTeague, Norris was trying his hand at Naturalism. He may have even succeeded according to some. However, the didactic theme in this work is inescapable and undeniable. However immoral the novel is, it is not amoral:
Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and his father's father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame? (27)
Dirks, Tim. "Greed (1924)." Greatest Films 1996-2005. 23 April. 2005 .
Norris, Frank. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. New York: Doubleday, Dovan & Company, 1928.
"Scientific Method." Wikipedia. 2005. 25 April. 2005. .