the 2nd Edition of the Norton Critical Edition of McTeague (1899)

McTeague

  • Author:  Frank Norris  (1870  –  1902)
  • Rank:  #50
  • Published:  1899
  • Publisher:  Doubleday & McClure
  • Pages:  340
  • First Line:  “It was Sunday, and according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon in the car conductors’ coffee joint on Polk Street.”
  • Last Line:  “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.”
  • ML Edition:  #60  (1918-1923); 1996 gold hardcover
  • Film Version:  1924  (****  –  dir. Erich von Stroheim)
  • First Read:  Spring, 1994

The Novel: “I told them the truth.  They liked it or they didn’t like it.  What had that to do with me?  I told them the truth.”  Those are the words of Frank Norris and though they don’t come from his novel McTeague but from his essay “The True Reward of the Novelist.”  But those were the words that Erich von Stroheim used to open his film version of McTeague called Greed.  Stroheim’s title summed up perfectly the novel and the quote summed up Norris and his writing.  Norris’ writing was the kind of naturalism that Dreiser was striving for and that Hardy was succeeding at – the successor position to Zola.  Sadly, his talent was cut down by peritonitis at age 32, but he is survived by his classic.

McTeague himself is a dentist in San Francisco.  He wasn’t always so successful – he came from the mining camps in central California, from an overworked mother, and an “irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute” of a father.  But life moves up: “The chance had come at last when the father died, corroded with alcohol, collapsing in a few hours.”  He is eventually able to study with a traveling dentist and escape the drudgery of the camps, eventually landing in San Francisco and settling into a routine, the magnificent description of which opens the novel, immediately establishing the world of McTeague.

But then one day, his friend Marcus asks McTeague if he will look at his cousin Trina, who has lost a tooth.  Marcus just wants to help out his cousin (whom he has has romantic feelings for) and his friend, but he manages to set in motion the events that will lead to the death of all three.  Once Trina is in the exam room, it is the beginning of the end for McTeague, a large brute of a man with little real control over himself: “It was not only her that he saw and felt, it was the woman, the whole sex, an entire new humanity, strange and alluring, that he seemed to have discovered.”

What seem like happy events that follow (the connection between Trina and McTeague that leads to marriage, combined with her winning $5000 in a lottery) quickly turns to tragedy.  The money becomes the downfall of their marriage as Trina becomes obsessed with getting more and more and McTeague would be happy enough if she could just let them use the money they have; yet in their tragedy is still a brighter hope in that it could have been worse, for in a parallel development is the ugly marriage between two of the supporting characters in the book which produces one of the more haunting sentences of any novel: “The child was a mere incident in their lives, a thing that had come undesired and had gone unregretted.”  Finally, the events overtake them – McTeague loses his ability to practice, Tina becomes so miserly that they live in rat-infested hovels and McTeague finally steals the money around and leaves her alone, with a horrible fight that ends up with him biting her so badly she must have fingers amputated in order to keep her hand.

Then we get to the tragic story that brought about the whole novel (inspired by a real life crime), where McTeague, desperate from the way Trina has treated him, brutally beats the life out of her: “Trina lay unconscious, just as she had fallen under the last of McTeague’s blows, her body twitching with an occasional hiccup that stirred the pool or blood in which she lay face downward.”  Norris does not allow us to see the moment where her body is discovered, but the horror lying just out of reach is enough.  Then we follow McTeague through his flight across the state, with magnificent descriptions of the harsh landscape: “The vast, moveless heat seemed to distill countless odors from the brush – odors of warm sap, of pine needles, and of tar weed, and above all the medicinal odor of witch hazel.”    His final flight takes him to one of the most brutal places on earth: Death Valley, where he has one final encounter with Marcus that leads to the bleak end: “All about him, vast, interminable, stretched the measureless leagues of Death Valley.”

Greed (1924): Erich von Stroheim’s brilliant film version of McTeague

The Film: Erich von Stroheim’s Greed was unlike anything ever made.  It was originally over 9 hours long, a complete film version of every page of the novel McTeague.  Luckily, von Stroheim was convinced that a 9 hour film was unfeasible and he cut it to half that length.  It was later edited again by Rex Ingram (director of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the original film version of Ben-Hur) down to a version of a little under four hours.  The studio then chopped it down to a little over 2 hours.  What we can see now is either the studio-edited version or a reconstructed version of the Ingram cut, with stills covering for the missing scenes.  The full 9 hour version is, of course, lost.

But what is left is enough to show us that this was the greatest film made in America during the Silent Era.  It takes the naturalism of Norris’ novel and brutally brings it to the big screen.  It perfectly captures, in the casting, the brutality of McTeague, the self-righteousness of Marcus and the mizerly decay of Trina.  It captures the mood and feel of San Francisco at the turn of the century.  And, if you watch the four hour cut, you can also see the gold in the film.  Von Stroheim actually emphasized the gold in the film, giving it a bright color to stand out against the rest of the film.  Even the bright gold sun in Death Valley towers over all the screen at the end of the film.

There is perhaps no film in which a novel is more perfectly brought to life.  There have been some better films made from better novels, but none that so perfectly capture the feel and mood of the novel.  There is always the sense of tragedy just out of reach.  When they first start moving towards each other romantically, the rains come in.  When they get together as a couple, then the money intrudes, always hanging above them.  Then, there is, of course, always gold, always the gold – the pieces of gold that Trina obsesses on, the gold tooth that McTeague pulls and then the gold that brings about those final scenes.

And then there is that final scene.  So few novels have the power that McTeague has in its final sentence.  But what is more impressive is how well von Stroheim captures the power of that final sentence – with the gold overpowering in the sky weighing him down.

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