Frank Norris: “McTeague” (1899): Part Two

The second half of Frank Norris’ McTeague examines the rapid decline of the McTeague and Trina as a result of their increased obsession over five thousand dollars of lottery winnings. Trina, a miser, wants to hold onto that as an untouchable nest egg, while working hard to add to it. McTeague, desiring to enjoy a slightly better life hopes to use the money. Things change for the worse when Trina’s jealous cousin reports to the state of California that McTeague is practicing dentistry without a diploma. Eventually, he has to shut down his business. Trina’s unwillingness to touch the $5,000 leads to worsening conditions. They move into a series of more humble dwellings. McTeague begins abusing his wife, taking on the strange habit of violently biting her. He starts to drink and becomes less and less a part of Trina’s life. Trina, meanwhile, loses her fingers due to some type of chemical poisoning brought by her overwork on small Noah’s ark figurines, which forms her major income. She has to take a job as a dishwasher. She takes her $5,000 and converts it into gold and to actualize her fantastical wealth. McTeague returns to steal the money, killing her in the process. He escapes to desert and runs into Marcus and the two die in Death Valley, fighting over the money to their last breathes. It is all rather horrifying to watch and makes for a great novel. I have nothing to add to my initial analysis, except to say that I find it holds through the end of the novel. The fetishization of gold was actually institutionalized in American monetary policy and had real consequences in how people interacted with each other. While the $5,000 was a fair amount of money in those days, it was, not really that much. All the characters seem to make it something more than what it was (a way to make life just a little bit easier). In this sense, all of these characters are mentally ill in their relationship with money.

This decline is often heart wrenching to read. I argued last time that McTeague’s love for Trina was a fetish in its own way, but the evolution of his hatred for her is very real.

His rage loomed big within him. His hatred of Trina came back upon him like a returning surge. He saw her small, prim mouth, her narrow blue eyes, her black mane of hair, and uptilted chin, and hated her the more because of them. [Notice he still sees her like a doll.] Aha, he’d show her; he’d make her dane. He’d get that seven dollars from her, or he’d know the reason why. He went through his work that day, heaving and hauling at the ponderous pianos, handling them with the east of a lifting crane, impatient for the coming of evening, when he could be left to his own devices. (521)

His strange abuse of Trina even suggests his perception of Trina as little more than an ornament, becoming something he chews on when frustrated.

What thing I would like to dwell on is the unfortunate consequences of professionalization. Norris lives through a time when the line between professional and artisan was still not clear. The movement away from folk practitioners was clear by 1900. Midwives, as historians have well documented, were almost entirely eliminated by male physicians. McTeague was not a great dentist perhaps, but he was competent, having learned under an apprenticeship. Lacking book knowledge, he was nonetheless capable of doing his job. It is not clear that a diploma would have made him a better dentist. When the letters begin coming from the government, both McTeague and Trina are baffled that it is that big of a deal. (Norris continued to refer to McTeague as “the dentist” even after he was kicked out of the professional, suggesting he shared that point of view.) As McTeague puts it: “I ain’t going to quit for just a piece of paper.” (449)

It is quite clear to me that professionalization had played a role in class war in the last century and a half, consciously relocating economic and social power from one group of people to another. Whatever protections professionalization may have provided to the public (and that is almost always the justification) could be achieved in other ways. Professionalization also works to inflate the cost of certain services beyond reason (hundreds of dollars for a doctor’s visit antibiotic prescription for instance). Now I am not sure it is possible to go back to the wild west days when there was no official registration for professionals, but it is critical to move away from the fetish for the diploma and revive a respect for craft and good training.

Still from the film version "Greed"

Still from the film version “Greed”

So I will leave with that question. What will be the fate of the professions in anarcho-communism? They seem to be a product of industrial capitalism and have clearly been a tool of class warfare by the elite and the educated. There are many reservoirs of knowledge and talent that are not backed up by a degree. We actually see this every day, as artisans and skilled workers reveal practical understanding of complex systems that may be unknown to theoretical experts. Personally, I still cringe when people defend their position based on their academic credentials. (It seems to me to be a very arrogant appeal to authority.) Anyway, could McTeague be a dentist after the revolution?

Watch the movie version here.

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Frank Norris: “McTeague” (1899): Part One

The major theme of Frank Norris’ breakout novel McTeague is clearly fetishization. Primarily, it is the fetish for money and gold, which is given superhuman characteristics by almost all of the characters. At the same time we notice the fetish for people, particularly the dentist McTeague’s infatuation with his patient Trina. Other items are given a similar treatment, such as the diploma (which in the age of professionalization is lifted above talent, training, and experience) and the sign that McTeague desires to have in from of his “Dental Parlors.” All of the tragedy of the novel comes from giving these things almost divine significance. While we can label how Trina and McTeague come into money as greed, it is much beyond that. Money (and other things) really become idols.

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As the novel opens, we meet McTeague, a rather dull dentist. He entered the craft by working with an artisan dentist before professionalization became that important (this becomes crucial later on in the story). He runs a small dentist office and makes enough to support his life. McTeague, despite calling himself “doctor,” is really of the working class. He practices his craft like a craftsman. The books on his shelves are really for show. His best friend is named Marcus and they share beers every week. Marcus is the limit of McTeague’s social circle. Things change when Marcus brings his cousin Trina (who he is courting) to have a couple teeth fixed. McTeague, enamored with the elegant beauty of Trina, makes a bold decision to fix her mouth rather than simply pull two teeth. It leads to a series of visits. Eventaully, McTeague falls in love with Trina and begins courting her. Marcus agrees to step aside for his friend. Eventually, McTeague and Trina agree to marry. Before the marriage, Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery. (I put this into a historical currency converter—using 1890—and found a purchasing power of $120,000 in current U.S. dollars.) This is a nice nest egg, but not really what one could retire on. In those days of high interest rates, it did mean the couple could save the money and enjoy a steady and modest income from the interest. Marcus, of course, regrets immediately his choice not to pursue Trina himself.

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The money becomes the main frustration in their marriage. Trina refuses to spend any of the original $5,000, even to furnish an apartment. She is meanwhile working on making small animals for Noah’s Ark displays and is carefully saving in unknown amount of money (she always claims poverty but it is at least a few hundred dollars more squirreled away). McTeague this remains the sole breadwinner. Their income supplemented by interest from the $5,000. Spending any money becomes a battle in the household. Furthermore, Marcus is constantly resentful of what he sees as the loss of $5,000 that he could have won through courting Trina himself.

Here is a sample of Trina’s rhetoric, after McTeague made a payment on a new apartment in hopes of moving and upgrading their life.

You’ve got to pay the first month’s rent, anyhow—to forfeit it. Oh, you are so stupid! There’s thirty-five dollars just thrown away. I shan’t go into that house; we won’t move a foot out of here. I’ve changed my mind about it, and there’s water in the basement besides. Thirty-five dollars just thrown out the window. Oh , you are the thick-wittedest man that I ever knew. Do you think we’re millionaires? Oh, to think of losing thirty-five dollars like that.” (407)

At the mid-point in the novel, McTeague and Marcus’ friendship is shattered by jealousy over the money, reflected in a picnic wrestling match turned violent.

The money, the $5,000, is basically imaginary in that it is not being used. McTeague does not understand why it is not being used to make their life easier or more comfortable. For Trina, preserving that money is paramount. At one point, when she breaks down and loans McTeague some money she does it with silver (not gold) coins from what she was saving. The nest-egg cannot be touched. From Norris’ perspective, this is clearly an irrational activity. It parallels a second, similar story. McTeague’s neighbor Maria Macapa tells stories about how she was rich in her youth, suggesting that she still has some golden plates. Another neighbor, Zerkow, always wants to hear the stories about the gold dishes and has a similar longing for them as Marcus has for Trina’s $5,000. In practice, however, the gold plates and the $5,000 are equally as real. Both exists as imaginary depositories of wealth and have immense psychological power over those who imagine it.

McTeague is not blameless, although it is easy to see Trina as the worst miser. McTeague has his own fetishes, particularly for Trina herself, who he treats like a pretty doll. “He saw her as he had seen her the day that Marcus had introduced them: saw her pale, round face; her narrow, half-open eyes, blue like the eyes of a baby; her tiny, pale ears, suggestive of anaemia; the freckles across the bridge of her nose; her pale lips; the tiara of royal black hair; and, above all, the delicious poise of the head, tipped back as through by the weight of all that hair—the poise that thrust out her chin a little, with the movement that was so confiding, so innocent, so nearly infantile. (318)

From the film version called "Greed."

From the film version called “Greed.”

Another important element of the story is the alienation between McTeague and Trina. McTeague seems happy (when not fighting about money) to have his doll. We get a closer glimpse at Trina’s feelings of horror about committing her life to who she learns is a stranger. McTeague, for his part, never made an effort to understand Trina. We as readers do not learn she is a miser until well into the story. “She could not love him. It has all been a dreadful mistake, and now it was irrevocable; she was bound to this man for life. If it was as bad as this now, only three weeks after her marriage, how would it be in the years to come? Year after year, month after month, hour after hour, she was to see this same face, with its salient jaw, was to feel the touch of this enormous red hand, was to hear the heavy, elephantine tread of those huge feet.” (393–394) Of course, we should question as social system that gives women few options accept marriage. Here is the foundation of the critique of modern marriage. If we cannot really know each other due to the liquid status of the world, how can we pretend to understand a spouse? Trina makes due by creating yet another fetish. She constantly demands that McTeague express his undying love for her. His “love” so expressed becomes like the money in the bank. It is something she can rely on but is immaterial.

 

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.