Shelby’s Midterm Paper

Old vs. New: The True Markers of Civilization


At first glance, Frank Norris’s McTeague only seems to confirm the rather bleak naturalist theory that humans cannot rise above their base instincts—that they are at the mercy of elements of their family background and the pressures of everyday life. Such a philosophy would seem to indicate that despite all efforts to be civilized, humans cannot escape the urges left over from centuries past. Yet upon further investigation, Norris’s outlook on this issue proves to be more complicated. In Norris’s conception of civilization, succumbing to such base behavior is a result of both living in and conforming to unnatural surroundings. The modern city life of San Francisco, considered by the mainstream to be the latest step in the progression of civilization and sophistication, is revealed in its artificiality to be the catalyst for uncivilized behavior. It is in the past iterations of San Francisco that its residents managed to distance themselves the most from their base tendencies, which have now returned in the modern city. As shown by the stages of reversion experienced by McTeague, Norris portrays the modern city as a step backward rather than forward in development, while the older, less sophisticated ways of life are truly the more civilized.

In describing the height of McTeague’s social advancement, Norris makes clear the artificiality of the dentist’s conforming to the ideas of respectability and status characteristic of modern San Francisco. As McTeague and Trina settle into the routine of married life, Trina gradually develops an influence over her husband when it comes to playing a proper role in society. It requires patient dedication on Trina’s part, and McTeague’s acceptability in her estimation is only achieved over the course of several steps. Not only is it a matter of dressing better, but putting a stop to “the habit of eating with his knife,” drinking “bottled beer in the place of steam beer” and knowing to “take off his hat” to the various women he encounters (150). As gaining this level of purportedly civilized mannerisms requires so much training and so many codes of conduct, it is evident that none of it is truly a natural state. Its artificiality is made even more clear when it comes to McTeague’s resulting state of mind. As a result of Trina’s influence, it is explained, McTeague develops his own “ambitions,” which are described as “very vague, very confused ideas of something better…for the most part borrowed from Trina” (151). That McTeague does not come up with these ambitions on his own indicates that they are unnatural in some way, only obtained by thorough inundation into modern city values. To make matters worse, the ambitions themselves are misguided and flawed. McTeague dreams of a house “with a grass plat in front and calla lilies,” and envisions having a son “whose name would be Daniel” (151). The specificity of these details is rather odd due to the fact that they lack an explanation. There is no reason given for the name Daniel, or why calla lilies in particular are the flower of choice. Without a basis for these desires, the need to strive for them at all is called into question, and McTeague’s enthusiasm for these possibilities comes across as absurd.

Norris further demonstrates the pointlessness of McTeague’s, and by extension the population of San Francisco’s, attempts to be civilized members of society in describing McTeague’s suffering when he is deprived of the quality food and clothing to which he has become accustomed as a result of his financial woes. McTeague’s petulant attitude, captured in his sulky declaration of “But I don’t like steam beer now” in response to Trina’s directive to buy a cheaper drink (225), is in direct contrast with the sophisticated image he is attempting to maintain. Lacking the means to adhere to the physical hallmarks of the social standards that Trina has trained him to uphold, McTeague has nothing to help him maintain his behavioral conduct. He has not advanced in personality, only developed a desire for objects that are now out of his reach. Such circumstances suggest that attempts at sophistication cause more harm than good, as now McTeague is aware of material items that he lacks. Yet despite his initial resistance to being forced back down to a lower level of social acceptability, the fact that he rather quickly reverts to his habits of passing the time in the car conductors’ joint and sleeping and smoking on Sunday illustrates that the tastes that Trina had trained him to favor never really had a firm hold on him to begin with. With so-called civilized conventions causing such consternation when they cannot be realized, and being so easily forgotten after a time, there seems to be no point in attempting to gain them in the first place.

McTeague’s return to his pre-city ways, like his return to his pre-marriage ways, reveals yet another level of artificiality in modern city life. While McTeague’s first reversion still left him in the city, just with a different level of social respectability, his second reversion takes him out of the city entirely. Soon, a more natural way of life becomes apparent. While McTeague’s reverting to steam beer and napping on Sundays is quick but painful, his return to Placer County and the ways of the mine is filled with sensations of contentment—he belongs in the mines even more than he belongs at Frenna’s. He actually looks forward to getting further away from the mainstream height of civilization, to returning to an older way of life. Its naturalness to him is apparent in how he barely has to think to get to his destination, very much in contrast to the extensive training he had to undergo to appreciate bottled beer and the importance of doffing one’s hat. For the first time McTeague seems to fit in to the way of life. There is even an element of sophistication in the way he engages the foreman in offering himself for hire, knowing all the subtleties of the encounter and the terms “chuck tender” and “Cousin Jack” (302). In contrast with the modern city’s discord, the Big Dipper mine operates with harmony and regularity, indicating that it contains more civilized behavior than the modern city could ever have. Meanwhile, just as he forgot his artificial tastes after his first reversion, “[w]ithin a week’s time [of working at the mine] it seemed to him as though he had never been away” (302-3)—a feat even more impressive than the first considering that he has been gone for more than a decade.

In evading the pursuit of the police, McTeague reverts to the oldest way of life for San Franciscans: prospecting. It proves to lend itself to even more harmony and civilized interaction than the mines. This is shown in the way in which the prospector Cribbens interacts with McTeague. While McTeague is content upon returning to the Placer County mines, he does not seem to strike up a friendship with the other miners. Working with Cribbens, however, McTeague experiences the purest friendship of the entire novel, indicating that only when completely removed from the city and adhering to the ways of the past can people work together. Cribbens and McTeague team up despite their differences—Cribbens puts a stop to their argument over how to find gold with the rather civilized observation that “pardners ought to work along different lines” (313). When McTeague and Cribbens finally do hit gold, there is a strong emphasis on the two men’s partnership, in contrast to the hostility that grows when Trina strikes it rich in her own way by winning the lottery. Cribbens uses a language of alliance throughout the scene. such as when he instructs McTeague to keep an eye out for any intruders, declaring that, “This yere’s our claim. I guess we got it this time, pardner” (319). There is no animosity about sharing the find, even though they found the gold using Cribbens’s “contact” method rather than McTeague’s unsystematic approach. Left to their own devices, away from the pressures of the city, the two men have the most successful interaction out of almost any pair of individuals in the novel.

In the final scene of the novel, Norris makes one final affirmation of the modern city’s unnatural influence that pushes people toward corrupted thought. Death Valley is as far removed from the city as is possible, its starkness a symbol of a time before people even populated the area. Yet when Marcus confronts McTeague in the middle of this vast nothingness, he brings with him the modern city priorities and sensibilities McTeague had left behind, demanding that McTeague hand over the five thousand dollars. The realities of the wilderness, however, cause Marcus and McTeague to put aside their differences in pursuit of the most basic of human needs —water. In this least sophisticated struggle, the problem of obtaining water, McTeague and Marcus participate in the most civil relationship there has been between them since McTeague asked Marcus to let him court Trina. Marcus begins to use a language of alliance that echoes Cribbens’s statements in the previous scene. As the mule runs off with the canteen of water, Marcus tells McTeague, “We’ve got to follow him” (344). This fellowship spreads to their misfortune as well—after the canteen is broken, Marcus asks, “What are we going to do now?” (346). Yet this reconciliation is short-lived. Nonsensically fighting to the death over five thousand dollars in the middle of an uninhabited desert, Marcus and McTeague exhibit the most uncivilized, basest display of violence, brought out by a final succumbing to the mentality of the modern city.

As McTeague reverts to past iterations of himself and San Francisco as a whole, his experiences demonstrate how the old ways of life, much simpler than the complex and artificial ways of the modern city, are more conducive to civilized and peaceful behavior due to having more natural elements. City values and practices require extensive training to appreciate, evidence that they are little more than constructs, not inherent markers of civilization. They force acceptance of certain desires that have no reasoning behind them, and they are much easier to lose than to gain. In contrast, escaping from the city allows for a much more straightforward approach to civilization, and appeals to the natural emotions in individuals. The old ways—mining and prospecting in particular, but also simply trying to stay alive when at the mercy of the desert elements— have a level of harmony and civilized cooperation that is not found in the city. Only when the unnatural tendencies of the modern city find their way into these older environments are the people in them put in jeopardy. As shown by McTeague’s final predicament, the pressures of this latest stage in modern civilization can overcome all human reason and bring out the most brutish actions.

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