Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part Two

All this he had felt before; it was his old enemy, but now with this second attack began a new and even stranger sensation. In his distorted wits he fancied that he was in some manner changing, that he was becoming another man; worse than that, it seems to him that he was no longer human, that he was sinking, all in a moment, to the level of some dreadful beast. (203–204)

In the second half of Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute we painfully observe the steady decline of our hero until he is transformed into a proletariat. While we are led to feel sorrow for Vandover’s decline, it is important to remember that few of his contemporaries got to enjoy a young adulthood of comparable ease and pleasure. Thanks to the heavily mortgaged schemes of his father, Vandover lived a life of ease, pursuing his art, his education, and nurturing the “brute” through a life committed to cheap amusements. He never really needed to learn a craft that may have saved him (such as artisanal painting). As I argued in my last post, Vandover is not fully to blame for this. He was a product of his environment and we find it hard to blame him for seeking out comradeship and community in a world growing progressively more competitive and anti-humanist (social Darwinism is a hidden sub-text of the novel and in a strange way Vandover is the enemy of social Darwinism through his emotional generosity). To read Vandover as a hero does not take accepting much more than this, and acknowledging that his decline was really for all the right purposes, although made inevitable by his naivety.

The chain of events of Vandover’s decline began with the suicide of his girlfriend Ida, who he seduced and impregnated. This was devastating but not itself enough to lead to the triumph of “the brute.” Vandover follows this news with an overseas ocean voyage. The ship sank and Vandover was able to express self-sacrifice and solidarity. In fact, as I am suggesting, this was where his personal strengths lay. After returning home, his father died. He lost someone who was very important to him, more than he was willing to confess. This was also the start of his financial troubles. He learned from the lawyers that his father was not as well-financed as he thought. Having a career as a lawyer allowed him to life a comfortable life on top of his investments. Vandover is told that living just on those investments would require a drastic downgrading of his expectations. The properties were all heavily mortgaged. Still, with the rents and a significant bond, Vandover could enjoy a regular income. This, for a while, sustains his life and his art.

The next catastrophe came when Vandover was sued by Ida’s family for causing her suicide. This provided an opportunity for his lawyer friend, Geary, to take advantage of him. Vandover did not fully realize that he was being conned by both Ida’s family and the lawyer. He was simply too willing to believe the best in people. Geary knows the family will get little in court, but he figures a settlement may allow him to purchase Vandover’s properties cheaply. He talks Vandover into a scheme. Settle the lawsuit and raise the money by selling a large portion of his rentals to Geary (who has plans of his own to upgrade them). Vandover, personally devastated by the lawsuit, agrees just to make his troubles go away. This forces Vandover to painting as an artisan at a paint shop, something he dreads but it does allow him to make enough to survive.

It is all a steady decline from this point. Vandover begins gambling and loses the rest of his property and bonds (either by giving them away or losing them at games of chance). He loses his job at the print shop and by the final chapters he is homeless and penniless. He takes a job for Geary cleaning the properties that he once owned.

One easy reading of this is as a morality tale, in which Vandover finally is forced to pay for his life of cheap pleasures, waste, and sloth. I find this too simplistic, and ignores how sympathetic a character Vandover is. Rather than working as a warning, we are made to feel that given similar circumstances we would be as susceptible to “the brute” as Vandover was. Indeed, it is hard to identify what he really did wrong. His decline was carefully orchestrated by others, or emerged logically from his environment.

Another reading is that Vandover is living the process of proletarianization that accompanies maturing capitalism everywhere. He began the novel as a clear member of the bourgeoisie, but through a steady process of manipulation by people of greater legal talents, his wealth is usurped. Contributing to this reading is that Vandover does not simply become a drunken vagrant. Norris carefully moved Vandover step by step into the working class.

I guess you can’t give me any work that would be too dirty for me! I want to be honest, Mister Geary. I want to be honest; I’m down and I don’t mean not offense. Charlie, you and I were old chums once at Harvard. My God! To think I was a Harvard man once! Oh, I’m a goner now and I ain’t got a friend. When I was in the paint-shop they paid me well. I’ve been in a paint-shop lately painting the little pictures on the safes, little landscapes, you know, and lakes with mountains around them. I pulled down my twenty dollars and findings! (245—246)

Notice with me that Vandover is as horrified by his loss of companionship and the loss of his art as he is of the loss of his invested wealth.

Next, I will look at McTeague, which is in some ways the inverse story, where a working class person comes across wealth, leading to very different character arcs. Importantly these two novels were written simultaneously in 1894 and 1895.

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4 responses to “Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part Two

  1. This is a very valuable reading and I love that you put things in their socio-economic context. It really elucidated the novel for me. I’d just like to make a few comments of my own.

    It reads somewhat ambiguously, but I’d argue that – at least by modern standards – Vandover date rapes Ida (much as Alec rapes Tess)…

    “Vandover put his arm about her neck and drew her toward him, and as she sank down upon him, smiling and complaisant, her hair tumbling upon her shoulders and her head and throat bent back, he leaned his cheek against hers, speaking in a low voice.

    “No—no,” she murmured, smiling; “never—ah, if I hadn’t come—no, Van—please—” And then with a long breath she abandoned herself.

    About midnight he left her at the door of her house on Golden Gate Avenue. On their way home Ida had grown more serious than he had ever known her to be. Now she began to cry softly to herself. “Oh, Van,” she said, putting her head down upon his shoulder, “oh, I am so sorry. You don’t think any less of me, do you? Oh, Van, you must be true to me now!”

    It is perhaps a hard call to make – certainly compared to the sexual abuse in ‘McTeague’, which consists of McTeague forcing himself upon Trina and is tied into physical abuse, culminating in murder.

    Ida’s first ‘no—no’ seems playing enough, combined with her smiling, but, it seems hard to read ‘no, Van–please–‘ in the same way, which reads as sincere and even fearful or pleading, to my eyes. Vandover’s a very entitled young man who used to being refused.

    Also, I think the implication is not only that he gets Ida pregnant, but that Van may also have given her syphilis (although this would have been unknown to her). He certainly shows a lot of the symptoms himself later in the novel – a knackered nervous system; spasms; foggy, muddled thinking…

    It seems poor Dolly also contracted syphilis from Flossie.

    Still, this is all subjective. It’s tricky to know for sure when you have late Victorian sensibilities masking everything, even with a determinedly naturalistic and ‘gritty’ writer!

    • I have not problem with this reading. You are probably right in seeing it as a date rape. In fact, thanks for doing the close reading I neglect as I rush through these texts.

      I did pick up on the syphilis later even through I did not mention it. Would Ida have known so quickly? When is syphilis symptomatic?

      Thanks for reading my blog.

      • I don’t think Ida would have known… I mean, she might have suspected. But I do think that her suicide is triggered by more than just her pregnancy. She’s essentially been coerced by Vandover and placed in a very vulnerable position and then cast off. Because the novel is so closely aligned with Vandover’s viewpoint )even as we are afforded ironic distance from him) we don’t get much of a sense of Ida’s inner-life.

        Interestingly, Vandover does start to mentally grope towards some understanding of the gravity of his action…

        “Now, it was a wave of an immense pity for the dead girl that overcame him, and he saw himself as another person, destroying what she most cherished for the sake of gratifying an unclean passion.

        Now, it was a terror for himself. What would they do to him? His part in the affair was sure to be found out. He tried to think what the punishment for such crime would be; but would he not be considered a murderer as well?”

        I think the ‘as well’ being in addition to ‘such crime’ is quite telling, but neither Vandover nor Norris can quite bring themselves to us the word ‘rape’.

        This is partly why Vandover is unable to save himself, I think. He’s unable to face up to the ‘brute’ in himself. As soon as he starts to fathom the horror of his behaviour and the death that it caused, his mind recoils and he distracts himself with drinking, sex and comfort. One of my favourite and most telling sentences in the whole novel is:

        “Conscience, remorse, repentance, all these had been keen enough at first, but he had so persistently kicked against the pricks that little by little he had ceased to feel them at all.”

        P.S. Syphilis starts with sores/ rashes (the cut on poor Dolly’s lip may be a guarded illusion, though I think the implication is that the disease was passed through saliva-to-wound contact) and only later (say, a decade) starts presenting with neurological symptoms, such as those Vandover exhibits later in the book.

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