Norris, Frank. McTeague.
Summary: Main Plot Line
McTeague, Marcus Schouler & Trina Sieppe
Introducing McTeague: The novel is set in San Francisco, California, in poor quarters inhabited by the lower class with middle-class pretensions. The eponymous character is only known by his last name, McTeague. He is abound thirty, a large, heavy and strong man, slow, dull and inarticulate, but not vicious. A former miner, he learnt dentistry from a travelling dentist in the mines and started to practise in a cheap hired room on Polk Street. His only dream and ambition is to own a huge gilded tooth as a sign for his Dental Parlors.
Introducing Marcus & Trina: McTeague’s best and only friend is Marcus Schouler, an assistant in Old Grannis’s dog hospital. Marcus is going out with his cousin, Trina Sieppe, a girl about twenty. Trina comes from a German-Swiss family, she is the elder sister of August (‘Owgooste’) and boy twins. She is small, pretty, with pale complexion and a tiara of thick black hair. She is good-natured, straight-forward and spontaneous.
McTeague Meets Trina: Marcus introduces Trina to McTeague when she needs dental care. She undergoes a complicated operation which is performed over the period of several weeks. McTeague is enchanted by his young female patient:
‘This poor crude dentist of Polk Street, stupid, ignorant, vulgar, with his sham education and plebeian tastes, whose only relaxations were to eat, to drink steam beer, and to play upon his concertina, was living through his first romance, his first idyl.’ (p. 282)
McTeague prefers not to use ether because of the side effects but he does use it on Trina because he cannot bear to cause her pain. When she lies unconscious in the operating chair, he fails to resist the inherent beast in him and kisses her. When Trina regains consciousness, he proposes to her. She immediately refuses, acting on her instinctive fear of men.
Marcus Gives Up Trina: McTeague tells Marcus about his feelings for Trina. Marcus likes Trina but he likes other pretty girls as well Marcus realizes that McTeague loves Trina more than he does and gives her up for the sake of his friend. Feeling very grand about his sacrifice, Marcus even assists McTeague to win Trina. Following a family picnic at which both McTeague and Marcus join Trina and her family, McTeague replaces Marcus as Trina’s new young man.
Trina Yields to McTeague: McTeague starts seeing Trina regularly. She still keeps on refusing to marry him. Finally she gives up and lets McTeague kiss her. On her yielding, McTeague feels as if he valued her less for it. Trina herself does not know why she objects the marriage. She is confused about her feelings. She distantly thought she would marry Marcus one day but it was McTeague who awakened the woman in her:
‘But he had only to take her in his arms, to crush down her struggle with his enormous strength, to subdue her, conquer her by sheer brute force, and she gave up in an instant.’ (p. 325)
Trina Wins the Lottery: McTeague invites Trina to the theatre. Trina’s mother and ill-behaved brother August accompany them for the sake of ‘propriety’. The unrefined vaudeville show suits their simple taste and amuses them greatly. On their return, Trina learns that her lottery ticket won five thousand dollars. She had bought the ticket from Maria Macapa, a poor Mexican cleaner, only to get rid of her and avoid embarrassment. The same night Mrs Sieppe announces the engagement of her daughter and McTeague.
Trina Grows Mean: McTeague imagines spending the money quickly and in a lavish fashion. Trina insists on keeping it safe in a bank and drawing interests only:
‘She clung to this sum with a tenacity that was surprising; it had become for her a thing miraculous, a god-from-the-machine, suddenly descending upon the stage of her humble little life; she regarded it as something almost sacred and inviolable. Never, never should a penny of it be spent.’ (p. 372)
Finally Trina decides to invest in her rich Uncle Oelbermann’s toy shop under better conditions than a bank would offer. She starts earning extra money by carving Noah’s ark animals out of wood and selling them to the uncle’s shop. She puts all of her earnings aside:
‘Economy was her strong point. A good deal of peasant blood still ran undiluted in her veins, and she had all the instinct of a hardy and penurious mountain race –– the instinct which saves without any thought, without idea of consequence –– saving for the sake of saving, hoarding without knowing why.’ (p. 358)
Marcus Envies McTeague: Marcus loses his temper when he learns about Trina’s winning and condemns himself for having lost Trina and the money for mere friendship. He grows cold and even hostile to McTeague. Eventually he accuses McTeague of stealing the share of Trina’s money which should have been his own. He provokes a violent argument during which he nearly knifes his uncomprehending opponent. McTeague sets after Marcus in rage over his lost pipe that was broken in the fight. At his door he however finds a birthday present from Trina –– the giant gilded tooth which he has been longing for –– and his anger vanes.
Trina Becomes Mrs McTeague: McTeague and Trina are married in their newly hired rooms. McTeague and Marcus are formally reconciled, it is however not Marcus but Old Grannis who acts as McTeague’s best man. Immediately after the wedding supper, the Sieppes leave their original quarters on B Street to live in the south of the state where Mr Sieppe purchased an upholstery business. When left alone with her husband, Trina is seized by a sudden fit of fear of him but then she yields. McTeague is overjoyed with his new wife:
‘An immense joy seized upon him –– the joy of possession.’ (p. 390)
The McTeagues Settle: Trina briefly regrets her marriage when she realizes her husband’s lowliness, stupidity and brutishness but then she accepts her new role. She does not sink to his level, she tries to lift him to hers. At first she surprises McTeague with her sudden outbreaks of passion:
‘She loved McTeague now with a blind, unreasoning love that admitted of no doubt or hesitancy. […] She loved him because she had given herself to him freely, unreservedly; had merged her individuality into his; she was his, she belonged to him forever and forever.’ (p. 392)
Gradually Trina assumes ‘an equilibrium of calmness and placid quietude’ while McTeague relapses to ‘his wonted stolidity’ (p. 395). In their own way the couple is content with each other.
Trina Quarrels over Money: The Sieppes are not prospering in their new place. Mrs Sieppe asks Trina for fifty dollars in a letter but Trina is reluctant to sent them and never does so. Three years after their marriage the couple has their first serious quarrel. McTeague signs the papers to hire the house in which both he and Trina wished to live. Trina however thinks it too expensive and refuses to pay her half of the rent. She later resents her behaviour and realizes that she has grown ‘a regular little miser’ but her need to hoard money is stronger than herself (p. 411).
Marcus Fights McTeague: The McTeagues and a few friends arrange a picnic. They stage an improvised wrestling tournament in which McTeague stands against Marcus. Marcus bites into McTeague’s ear in the fight. This sets McTeague into such rage that he breaks Marcus’s arm. McTeague is forbidden to practise dentistry because he did not attend the college. Trina believes that it was Marcus who notified the City Hall about the fact. Marcus takes leave from Trina, he is heading to the south of the state to work at a farm and does not plan to return.
The McTeagues Decline: The McTeagues hire a single sordid room to live in. They sell all their possessions in an auction. McTeague insists on keeping his canary, concertina and gilded tooth. Trina cultivates avarice and keeps on hoarding her savings earned on the animal figures. The couple has frequent rows over money. Trina supervises all McTeague’s pocket money and economizes to the utmost degree. McTeague lapses to his old bachelor’s habits and Trina sinks with him.
McTeague Abuses Trina: McTeague works briefly with a company manufacturing dental instruments. When he loses the job and fails to find another one, he grows idle, sulky and irritated. He starts drinking and turns vicious and abusive towards his wife:
‘It [= alcohol] roused the man, or rather the brute in the man, and now not only roused it, but goaded it to evil.’ (p. 477)
McTeague’s cruelty to his wife gradually increases. He beats her and bites her fingertips painfully. Trina becomes intimate friends with Maria who is abused by her husband, too. Trina bears the mistreatment with strange patience:
‘They [= Trina’s emotions] reduced themselves at last to but two, her passion for her money and her perverted love for her husband when he was brutal.’ (p. 479)
McTeague Abandons Trina: Trina finds Maria dead, apparently murdered by her husband. Trina initiates moving to the squalid room where the Zerkows lived and where Maria was murdered, which is even cheaper than their former place. Trina’s formerly neat appearance and fastidious habits decline rapidly. McTeague sells his gilded tooth to a competing dentist for a split of the original price. He leaves one morning with his canary in the cage, ostensibly to sell it, but he does not return in the evening. Trina discovers that her savings of four hundred dollars are gone.
Trina Misses her Savings: On finding her treasure missing, Trina suffers a breakdown. She has incurred blood poisoning due to the contact of her maimed fingers with the poisonous paint that she used for her wooden animals. She must have two fingers and the thumb of her right hand amputated. She is forced to abandon carving and starts working as a cleaning woman in a kindergarten. She misses her treasure and begins withdrawing her lottery money little by little until she eventually withdraws the whole sum. She ceases to love McTeague, not because of her crippled hand but because of the loss of her savings. She passionately loves her money; once she even sleeps on it, enjoying the feel of the metal on the whole length of her body.
McTeague Murders Trina: McTeague spends Trina’s savings on feasting and drinking. Uncle Oelbermann gives him Trina’s address along with the information that Trina has withdrawn all her lottery money. McTeague begs Trina for help because he is penniless and has nowhere to go. Trina refuses, though she feels sorry for it afterwards. McTeague’s hatred for Trina grows. He gets a job as a mover and so he accidentally comes over his concertina which Trina sold when he had left her. He does not have money enough to buy the instrument back. He revisits Trina and demands all of her money. Despite his warning, Trina refuses. McTeague beats her to death.
McTeague Returns to Mining: McTeague collects Trina’s money, packs his canary and his concertina and goes to the mountains where he used to work as a miner. He has himself employed under the name Burlington in the Big Dipper mine. He labours hard and finds contentment in doing so. His work is likened to a distorted kind of dentistry and he himself is likened to the mountains. One night however, a strange sixth sense warns him against danger and following his intuition, he escapes immediately.
McTeague Starts Prospecting: McTeague plans to run away to Mexico. Still in California, he meets a man named Cribbens who offers him to become partners in gold seeking. McTeague, now using the name Carter, travels with him to the Panamint Range where they start prospecting. They hit gold and stake the site as their own. Cribbens is very excited and is ready to shoot anyone who would threaten his finding. The two think themselves now millionaires. In the night McTeague senses danger again. He is unwilling to leave the gold mine behind but finally he packs his canary and Cribben’s rifle and sets off on the back of his mule.
McTeague Crosses the Desert: McTeague decides to cross Death Valley because Cribbens told him there were excellent prospects of gold at Gold Mountain on the other side. Cribbens did not want to go there himself only because he did not dare to cross the desert. The journey across the desert is extremely demanding, McTeague is tortured by heat, thirst and exhaustion. He does not know that he is being pursued by Marcus. Marcus worked at a cattle ranch in Panamint Valley where he accidentally learned about a man with a canary cage who is hunted for murder. When Marcus realized that it is McTeague, he joined the posse that followed him.
McTeague Confronts Marcus: The posse makes a circuit round the desert to avoid crossing it and to come up on McTeague on the other side. Marcus is the only to follow McTeague’s trail through the desert. Marcus strains the horse so much that it collapses and Marcus continues on foot. He has no more water left. When he finds McTeague, he first asks for the money and then for water. Both is on the saddle of McTeague’s mule. The beast starts running away when Marcus approaches it. For a while the two men pursue it together but Marcus realizes the uselessness of their effort and shoots it. It falls on its side and bursts the water canteen. The men then start fighting over the money. McTeague kills his opponent but Marcus manages to handcuff their wrists together before he dies. The novel concludes:
‘Marcus was dead now; McTeague was locked to the body. All about him, vast, interminable, stretched the measureless leagues of Death Valley.
‘McTeague remained stupidly looking around him, now at the distant horizon, now at the ground, now at the half-dead canary chittering feebly in its little gilt prison.’ (p. 572)
Old Grannis & Miss Baker
Old Grannis and Miss Baker, both in their sixties, live in the same house on Polk Street as McTeague. They are known to cherish tender feelings to each other. They are however too shy and too burdened by a sense of propriety so that they never as much as say good morning to each other when they meet on the stairs. They regularly ‘keep company’ in their own way, that is Old Grannis spends his afternoon binding pamphlets while Miss Baker sits down to a cup of tea at the same time on the opposite side of the thin partition which divides their rooms. They exchange casual remarks for the first time at McTeague’s wedding. They are united only when Old Grannis sells his binding apparatus and Miss Baker knocks on his door, offering him some tea to drink together.
Maria Macapa & Zerkoff
Maria Macapa, a Mexican girl, serves as a cleaner in the house on Polk Street. She collects old things which she further sells to Zerkow’s junk shop. She regularly steals McTeague’s gold fillings and presses the tenants to give away even their good things. Her peculiarity is her story of the gold service counting a hundred pieces which her family supposedly once owned in Central America. The only person to believe her tale and to enjoy listening to it over and over is Zerkow:
‘On the lower steps of that cheap flat, the Mexican woman and the red-haired Polish Jew mused long over that vanished, half-mythical gold plate.’ (p. 308)
Zerkow is a Polish Jew in his sixties whose dominant passion is greed. He experiences almost orgasmic pleasure when Maria delivers him her eloquent description of the gold plates. After McTeague’s wedding, news spread that Maria and old Zerkow are to be married:
‘They’re a pair for you, aren’t they? Both crazy over a lot of gold dishes that never existed.’ (p. 414)
A year later Maria gives birth to a sickly child who dies after two weeks. Since then Maria cannot recall any gold service and denies having ever talked about such thing. Zerkow comes to believe that Maria actually owns the plates and hides them. He starts beating her and follows her every step in hope to find the hiding place of the plates. Though Maria was convinced that she was not in danger of life, Trina finds her murdered. Zerkow is later found drowned with a sack full of old tin dishes.
Naturalism: The novel is written in the vein of naturalism. It is dense with descriptive detail (a step-by-step description of a dental operation, a minute record of a character’s daily routine), it frankly presents drastic portrayals of physical brutality and mental distortion. The tone of the third-person narrator is for most of the time coolly detached, the narrator records the tragic fates of the characters without commenting on them. It is suggested that none of the characters alone is to blame for their undoing, it seems rather as if they simply blindly followed what was determined to be their destiny. The characters did not choose their lives and considering the circumstances, they could hardly have ended up differently.
Greed: Greed (also the name of the 1924 film version of the novel) is obviously the besetting vice which connects all of the major characters, however diverse they otherwise are. The simple-minded McTeague desires money almost instinctively, his unarticulated longing finds expression in his dream of having a giant gilded tooth, for him apparently a symbol of well-being. The more refined Trina experiences an unusual form of corruption by money, she deliberately chooses to live in destitution despite her being a rich woman after winning the lottery. Maria’s fantastic tale about the gold plate once owned by her family may help her in her struggle with the painful actualities of poverty. Zerkow, significantly a greedy Jewish entrepreneur, chooses to believe Maria’s unlikely story perhaps because it gives him hope. Greed proves to be literary a fatal vice for all of the characters above.
Digressions: The gloominess of the novel’s characters and the bleakness of its setting is occasionally relieved by slightly humorous strokes, especially at the beginning of the novel (the comically militant character of Mr Sieppe, the amusement of Marcus and McTeague consisting in putting a billiard ball in their mouths). The normally neutral narrator also at one moment slips to an ironic commentary and a witty satire on low-brow taste when he describes the night at the vaudeville. Another kind of digression and probably the only hopeful moments in the novel are provided by the touching platonic romance of the elderly couple.
AuthorNorris, Frank. (1870 - 1902).
Full TitleMcTeague. A Story of San Francisco.
First PublishedNY: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899.
Norris, Frank. McTeague. 1899. Frank Norris. Novels and Essays. New York: The Library of America, 1986.