Places: McTeague

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1899

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1890’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Polk Street

*Polk McTeagueStreet. Service street in the heart of San Francisco, which was California’s largest and most prosperous city during the period in which this novel is set. Most of the novel takes place around the turn of the twentieth century, and much of the action centers around a specific neighborhood. On the one hand, the Polk Street passages reveal the naturalist’s attempts to document reality by incorporating numerous details concerning place, occupations, and customs. The sheer weight of data was believed to create a total, objective rendering of the subject. On the other hand, Polk Street operates a demimonde, a microcosm of something larger, and the narrator often refers to it as the “little world of Polk Street.”

Gazing out his window early in the novel, McTeague beholds the spectacle of Polk Street, which is described as an “accommodation” street, a place where people journey to do their marketing or seek other services. As McTeague watches the parade of life, the narrator notes that few of the passersby actually live on Polk Street, and those that do stand in bold relief to the sophistication of the visiting shoppers. Frequent references are made to the “great avenue” (Van Ness) a block away, which at that time was home to some of the city’s elite. Thus the descriptions of Polk Street accentuate the social class distinctions which are so significant to an understanding of the novel and its vision of a changing California.

While the street bristles with activity, McTeague’s boardinghouse stands in mute contrast. On the surface it is a quiet retreat to which the hapless dentist repairs after his brief forays to a nearby café. The building itself is another mirror of the social stratification found on the street. Those with the greatest financial means occupy the top floor, while McTeague, who both lives and works in his dental parlor, resides roughly in the middle of building. On the bottom floor is a squalid hovel where a ragman eventually murders his delusional lover.

Once stripped of his job and at loose ends, McTeague begins to journey about the city, visiting a construction site for a mansion being built on Van Ness and marveling at its size and intricacy. On other days he enjoys hiking the full width of the city to arrive eventually at the Cliff House, the Presidio, and a beach displaying “the full sweep of the Pacific.” There, the dentist lingers and for once feels at ease in a surrounding that for the most part has overwhelmed him. He begins to return to an earlier condition–that of a rough, simple boy from the mines who had been hurled into the complexities of urban life. The wild freedom of the Pacific becomes metaphoric of the wild freedom to which McTeague will return after murdering his wife.

*Sierra foothills

*Sierra foothills. California’s gold country. Once McTeague kills Trina and loses any hope of assimilating back into urban life, he returns to the only life that seems natural and instinctive, that of mining in the hills of California. The contrast between the urban and rural McTeague is striking and ironic. The man who could not find a seat in a theater can invariably discover the best trails through the mountains. An unlucky dentist transforms himself into the luckiest of miners, and the strength and coarseness which appear perverted in the city become fitting attributes for a creature in the wilderness. It would seem that McTeague has finally found his place, but an encounter with the Native American, Big Jim, who solicits charity from the miner, signals McTeague’s fate. McTeague, like Big Jim, is an immense, solitary, obsolete figure who will also be swallowed into the white blur of the desert. Big Jim stands as an anachronism signaling the end of the frontier and the possibilities for rural rejuvenation and rehabilitation one finds in so much American literature.

*Death Valley

*Death Valley. Arid, low-altitude region of southeastern California that is the state’s hottest and least hospitable area. When his urban past in the figure of his former friend and now bounty-hunter, Marcus Schouler, catches up with him, McTeague flees, racing across the California desert in a desperate attempt at escape. Often criticized as extraneous, the death in the desert episode is integral to the plot and the novel’s themes. On the one hand, the movement from city to desert concludes the tension between interior, restrictive space and open, free space that defines many of the city episodes.

More important, though, the scene concludes a narrative pattern dominating all action: As McTeague moves steadily backward, the atavism inherent in his genes is given physical expression. These changes in setting thus represent not only a decline in personal fortune but also, more significant, McTeague’s deterioration to a final beastly state. Ultimately, his fate in Death Valley is also foreshadowed in the lines of one of the songs he often sings, “No one to love, none to caress,/ Left all alone in this world’s wilderness.”

BibliographyCampbell, Donna M. “Frank Norris’ ‘Drama of a Broken Teacup’: The Old Grannis-Miss Baker Plot in McTeague.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 26, no. 1 (Fall, 1993): 40-49. Argues that this subplot illustrates the difficulties involved in the intersection of three styles of late nineteenth century writing: realism, naturalism, and women’s local color fiction.Dawson, Hugh J. “McTeague as Ethnic Stereotype.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 20, no. 1 (Fall, 1987): 34-44. Discusses the relation of the title character to stereotypes of the Irish. Briefly mentions use of other ethnic stereotypes in the characters of Zerkow, the Sieppes, and Maria Macapa. Hochman, Barbara. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. Columbia: University of the Missouri Press, 1988. Discounts naturalism as the organizing principle of the novel. Instead, argues that fear of loss is the common ground. Shows how various characters struggle to protect themselves from loss through strategies such as habit and obsession.McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. Frank Norris Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent starting point for students of Norris. The chapter on McTeague discusses Émile Zola and naturalism, Victorian sexuality, and the structure and themes of the novel.Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Frank Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Claims Norris’ themes are inseparable form the leading controversy of the time: religion versus science. The chapter on McTeague traces the influence of Zola and naturalism, explicates the gold symbolism in the novel, and analyzes the structure, characters, and setting.
Categories: Places