The novel Mcteague written by Frank Norris and published in 1899 is a bright example of realism and naturalism in literature. Norris states in his book that all people are driven by their instincts and external forces. The author focuses on the relationship between his novel and naturalism, contemporary American values and real life situations. He presents us brutal, cruel world, in which every person is interested only in his profit. People live driven by their instincts and care only about their own profit.
The conflict between moral values and primitive instincts is one of the main internal conflicts of the book and we can see it in several characters. McTeague, the protagonist of the book is a perfect example of this conflict. He suffers from evil, which he finds inside of him and finally he looses this fight with this evil.
The book shows how ideas of social Darwinism work in practice. The author describes the situation of the society after the Civil war, when scared people were haunted by the ideas about survival and luxurious life. “The horrible biases that came from the idea of a “survival of the fittest” philosophy were rampant in the period following the Civil War as well as throughout the next eighty years. In America the social evolution and superior species concepts were employed to explain the oppression of the middle and lower classes by rich capitalists and racial segregating and violence” (Bannister 116). Norris explores all these ideas and how they find realization in practice in his novel. McTeague and his wife Trina are thrown away from their house and McTeague looses his job because they can not be strong enough to win the competition in the capitalist society.
The theme of interaction between the people of different social classes is also very important in the novel. Though the entire novel we can see how different characters are preoccupied with their social position and try to reach higher social level by any means. Both, Trina and McTeague originate from lower class and both eagerly try to overcome this “born evil” during their entire lives. Trina is born in a poor emigrant family and despite she becomes an owner of a big fortune, this does not change her belonging to low social class. As for McTeague, he also originates from poor working class, where his father was “for thirteen days of each fortnight… a steady, hard-working shift-boss of the mine. Every other Sunday he became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcoho.” (Norris 5). McTeague also makes an immense effort to stand above his origin and even manages to become a dentist, which is a sign of higher social belonging but finally society and his inner nature make all this effort vain. He has a profession of a dentist, but still behaves acts and thinks like he used to do in the past; following the way of life he was taught in his family.
He looses all and becomes the same person as he was born. “Neither Trina nor McTeague can actually raise themselves above the class in which they were born. Trina comes from the poor immigrant family, and she dies woman living in a hovel working as a scullery maid, even though she has more money than many wealthy business people of the day.” (Bower, 31)
McTeague’s ‘intelligent’ profession gives Trina hope that he will be able to get a higher social position and help her to achieve the same. She makes a mistake since she can not see an “animal in [a] man,” which makes a considerable part of his personality (Norris 21).
Greed and obsession with money is another important theme of the novel. The readers can see how money changes lives of the characters and destroys their personalities through the novel. Trina becomes greedy and haunted by the necessity to save money as soon as she wins the lottery. She can not overcome her born fear to die in poverty and finally ruins her life and looses everything, even her life. The author goes further than mere description of the effect greed has on the life of people. On the example of Trina and McTeague he shows how society creates such an environment, where people are driven by envy, fear, greed and competition. Norris does not put all the responsibility on his characters. He very vividly illustrates how society creates its members and the way they realize ideals of the society in their lives.
The novel is rich with symbolism. The author uses symbols as additional means to pass his message to the readers. The birds, which we meet often in the novel symbolize the main characters and often reflect their interaction. A cat, who tries to kill the birds, symbolizes Marcus, who tries to ruin their happiness. This takes place exactly when the letter, which ruins McTeague’s career, is read. The cage becomes a symbol of the trap the main characters find themselves put into. They can not cross strict boundaries and limitations put around them by the society. They are haunted by their instincts and finally become completely destroyed by these instincts and the environment. McTeague is left in the Death Valley in the end of the novel and the readers can very vividly see where his instincts and society have finally placed him. An ending of the novel becomes a very direct warning about the consequences of social Darwinism when applied in real life.