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McTeague by Frank Norris

McTeague (1899)

by Frank Norris

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Authors:Frank Norris
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McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)


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There was such a waste of life presented here. At many moments I wanted to speak omnisciently to the community and direct that somebody intervene to help the characters, but it would have already been too late. There was a point early in the presentation of each character in which another path could have been chosen, but an early choice led inevitably to a journey down the path of personal doom. Some of these choices were made even before the novel began. What makes these early choices so important is that characters have no safety net. It is not just the impact of a single choice, but the impact of a single choice in the social context in which the most basic human need to be loved and understood is not met. Characters are not capable of full introspection and Norris does not directly address this but instead shows their internal lives from external description of their appearance and behavior.

A fundamental point of this book is that people make choices within the limits of their human understanding, and that there are times and places in which the world is very hostile. Individuals do not have the support they need to make better choices when things go wrong. Instead, the world sort of falls apart for the individual, they can't see a way out, and the larger world is too wrapped up in its own day to day affairs to see or care that someone is individually suffering.

This sort of brutal realism is difficult, but people continue to live in this construct now. It is easy to say that individuals have free will in their personal actions, but how free is the will of someone who is truly not capable of seeing a larger view of his or her actions? How can we blame the individual who not only is stuck in the reality of a systemically brutal world but also has had no one who can help to cause greater understanding? This highlights the need for connecting individuals in some meaningful way to other individuals who can actually assist, through familial, religious, or educational guidance. There has to be some realistic way to expand what is possible for individuals to make better choices and when we choose to ignore the need for this there are societal consequences.

This book constructs a world with similarities to those presented in Sister Carrie (Dreiser) and Burmese Days (Orwell). As is consistent with its genre, it presents the flaws and prejudices of its time and requires an eye for context. It has a lot to offer for an interested reader. ( )
  karmiel | Aug 8, 2015 |
McTeague runs away from the world and into Death Valley:

"The day was magnificent. From horizon to horizon was one vast span of blue, whitening as it dipped earthward. Miles upon miles to the east and southeast the desert unrolled itself, white, naked, inhospitable, palpitating and shimmering under the sun, unbroken by so much as a rock or cactus stump. In the distance it assumed all manner of faint colors, pink, purple, and pale orange. To the west rose the Panamint Range, sparsely sprinkled with gray sagebrush; here the earths and sands were yellow, ochr, and rich, deep red, the hollows and canyons picked out with intense blue shadows. It seemed strange that such barrenness could exhibit this radiance of color, but nothing could have been more beautiful than the deep red of the higher bluffs and ridges, seamed with purple shadows, standing sharply out against the pale-blue whiteness of the horizon.
“By nine o’clock the sun stood high in the sky. The heat was intense; the atmosphere was thick and heavy with it. McTeague gasped for breath and wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead, his cheeks, and his neck. Every inch and pore of his skin was tingling and pricking under the merciless lash of the sun’s rays.
“‘If it gets much hotter,’ he muttered, with a long breath, ‘if it gets much hotter, I - I don’ know -‘ He wagged his head and wiped the sweat from his eyelids, where it was running like tears.
“The sun rose higher; hour by hour, as the dentist tramped steadily on, the heat increased. The baked dry sand crackled into innumerable tiny flakes under his feet. The twigs of the sagebrush snapped like brittle pipe stems as he pushed through them. It grew hotter. At eleven the earth was like the surface of a furnace; the air, as McTeague breathed it in, was hot to his lips and the roof of his mouth. The sun was a disk of molten brass swimming in the burnt-out blue of the sky….
“The heat grew steadily fiercer; all distant objects were visibly shimmering and palpitating under it. At noon a mirage appeared on the hills to the northwest. McTeague halted the mule, and drank from the tepid water in the canteen .… As soon as he ceased his tramp and the noise of his crunching, grinding footsteps died away, the silence, vast, illimitable, enfolded him like an immeasurable tide. From all that gigantic landscape, that colossal reach of baking sand, there arose not a single sound. Not a twig rattled, not an insect hummed, not a bird or beast invaded that huge solitude with call or cry. Everything as far as the eye could reach, to north, to south, to east, and west, lay inert, absolutely quiet and moveless under the remorseless scourge of the noon sun. The very shadows shrank away, hiding under sage-bushes, retreating to the farthest nooks and crevices in the canyons of the hills. All the world was one gigantic blinding glare, silent, motionless….” pp. 212-213
  Mary_Overton | Jan 3, 2014 |
This was a book read for school. I've had classes where I have read some amazing books, but this wasn't one of them.

I didn't hate it or anything, and I found it interesting. The main characters all felt very real and flawed (in some cases VERY flawed). The story follows the life and marriage, and downfall of a couple in San Francisco. Seriously, McTeague and his wife are horribly matched and basically sprint towards a harrowing, fiery ending.

There is some good social and political commentary to be found here and most of the side characters are also really interesting. ( )
  Sarah_Buckley | Jan 3, 2014 |
The tale is a bracing immersion in the language and material culture of turn of the 20th C. San Francisco. I would normally have trouble understanding how much of a windfall Trina Sieppe's 5,000$ would be in current dollars, but Norris' close attention to the acquisition and selling off of possessions kept me well up on the value of a dollar at the time.
The whole thing is sort of Zola in America, and maybe a touch of Hermann Broch in mood. Heck--it's a weird little book, and Jack London always seems just out of frame, only to come into full view at the end. Setting is as much foreground as the characters and story that begins in a world of melodeons, steel portraits and lace curtains, only to end in Landscape; the kind that is itself and crushes people, which I guess is a relief after watching people crush people.
In America, there was a lot of landscape between a melodeon on the west coast and a melodeon on the east coast. I alway enjoy that distance in American literature and love best those books which brood as this distance moves west and gets filled up. ( )
  dmarsh451 | Apr 2, 2013 |
This classic novel by Frank Norris is a rather complex one to review. I read it for research purposes, as I'm writing a novel set in 1906 in San Francisco, and McTeague takes place there in 1900. In that regard, it was an invaluable resource on the details of the day--what people did for fun, what they drank (steam beer!), the structure of a full-day picnic outing, the racial demographics on a common street, etc. The book is also highly readable. It's smooth and very straightforward, much more so than Norris's The Octopus which I read last year.

The back cover description notes this is a work of "American realism," and the introduction by Kevin Starr goes into greater detail on that subject. This book was highly controversial when it was released. At heart, it's a story revolving around the American dream and its corruption by greed. The main characters are the dentist, McTeague, and his wife, Trina. By "realism," it means the characters are mostly unlikeable, and are designed to be so. From the start, McTeague is described as rather dense, a big man with few brains. In the course of the book, he becomes a depressed, abusive drunk. The scenes of domestic abuse are disturbing even by today's standards, as McTeague bites his wife's fingers to the point of infection and amputation, even as he steals her horde of money and abandons her.

Gold is really the theme of the book. McTeague in his younger days mined in the Sierras, and in middle age is a non-licensed dentist in San Francisco. He yearns for a massive gold tooth for his sign. His fiancee, Trina, wins $5,000 in a lottery jackpot, and is a complete miser about the winnings. Trina is really a likeable character until she becomes more twisted as the book goes on and her frugality turns to avarice. By the end, she's lost many of her fingers, is abandoned by her lout of a husband, and lives in abject poverty, but finally pulls all of her gold coins from the bank and strips down naked to sleep with her money pressed to her skin.

Many of the other residents described on Polk Street are also obsessed with money, including the stereotypical Jew obsessed with finding gold. The book is very much a product of its time period, and even includes a reference to a stove shining like a Negro's skin. Starr's introduction notes, though, that the biggest controversy when the book came out wasn't the horrid abuses committed by McTeague, but a small scene towards the beginning where a little boy wets his pants in public. This was regarded as so outrageous that it was removed in later editions, though the Penguin Classics version stays with the original text.

So on one hand, the book was very useful for my purposes, and on the other it's filled with foul characters and period racism that makes me wince. It's not a book I ever want to read again--and I'm relieved to be done with it! It will stay on my shelf for period references only. ( )
1 vote ladycato | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Frank Norrisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brooks, Van WyckIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors' coffee-joint on Polk Street.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0451528913, Mass Market Paperback)

The novelist Frank Norris is almost forgotten today, but in books like "McTeague," published in 1899, he paved the way for a whole generation of American writers--a generation that included Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and, less directly, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. McTeague is a dentist saddled with a grasping wife, and the book chronicles his rise and fall in awkward but powerful prose. This type of social realism, so contrary to the uplifting entertainment of the day (and to Mark Twain's more fanciful, comic novels), provided turn-of-the-century America a disturbing mirror in which to view itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:28 -0400)

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Inspired by an actual crime that was sensationalized in the San Francisco papers, this novel tells the story of charlatan dentist McTeague and his wife Trina, and their spiralling descent into moral corruption. Norris is often considered to be the "American Zola," and this passionate tale of greed, degeneration, and death is one of the most purely naturalistic American novels of the nineteenth century. It is also one of the first major works of literature set in California, and it provided the story for Erich von Stroheim's classic of the silent screen, Greed. - Publisher.… (more)

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