Until Only the Animal Remains: Amputation in McTeague
Frank Norris’ novel McTeague revolves around the doomed central relationship between Trina and McTeague, from their initial attraction to their deaths. Both Trina and McTeague are preoccupied with size; McTeague is originally attracted to Trina’s small, feminine features, and she to his big, manly frame. Trina and McTeague’s concern with size manifests itself in their respective catchphrases, repeated often throughout the novel: Trina entreats her husband to “Love me big” (p. 107) and McTeague defiantly asserts that, “You can’t make small of me” (p. 114). Yet despite their shared desire to be “big,” or for “big” love, Trina and McTeague make each other small. Their toxic relationship makes them lose family, friends, homes, jobs, teeth, and even fingers; their marriage is a story of repeated metaphorical, emotional, and physical amputation. Norris uses the loss of body parts—particularly the loss of teeth, hands, and fingers—to represent Trina and McTeague’s psychological descent into brute, animal instinct. These physical and emotional amputations whittle away at Trina and McTeague’s humanity until only animal remains.
Trina and McTeague’s entire relationship begins with the physical removal of a body part: Trina’s dead tooth. When she comes to McTeague to fix her broken tooth, he discovers that the bicuspid next to it is “loose, discolored, and evidently dead. ‘…It’s what’s called necrosis. It don’t often happen. It’ll have to come out sure’” (p. 19). The necrosis is an inauspicious start to their love. Trina stubbornly refuses to have the dead tooth removed, but McTeague finally persuades her. The extraction of the tooth and the subsequent dental work changes McTeague. He begins carrying Trina’s dead tooth around with him: “Often he took it out and held it in the palm of his immense, horny hand, seized with some strange elephantine sentiment, wagging his head at it, heaving tremendous sighs” (p. 22). He has stolen a tiny part of her body, and takes great pleasure in seeing it in his “immense” hand—in holding and possessing it. McTeague’s sighs are “tremendous” and his feelings “elephantine,” large and clumsy. He is indeed “lov[ing Trina] big” (p. 107) here, but, like a large animal—an elephant—he has no comprehension of his own feelings. He cannot intellectually grasp why Trina is so fascinating to him, yet he can physically grasp her tooth. His hands understand more than he does.
Indeed, McTeague’s fingers possess a primitive and emotional intelligence that he himself lacks. His strong hands are “the hands of the old-time car-boy” (p. 3), a relic of his former life in Placer County. His fingers remember six songs on the concertina, and playing those songs from his childhood is one of the few ways McTeague knows to make himself happy. He can also pull teeth using only his fingers, a skill that sets him apart from other dentists; he has “the manual dexterity that one sometimes sees in stupid persons” (p. 14). In fact, he first falls in love with Trina through his hands: “While at his work McTeague was every minute obliged to bend closely over her; his hands touched her face, her cheeks, her adorable little chin; her lips pressed against his fingers…his flesh pricked and tingled with it” (p. 22). McTeague’s attraction to Trina happens almost entirely through his sense of touch; he is not attracted to her on first sight. He can only begin to love her once his hands and fingers have gotten to know her through the dental surgery. Interestingly, this initial surgery is the physical inverse of what their relationship becomes. By the end of their marriage, instead of McTeague’s fingers in Trina’s mouth, Trina’s fingers are in McTeague’s mouth—and rather than anesthetizing Trina so she feels no pain, McTeague deliberately bites the fingers that will hurt her most.
McTeague’s loss of his dental practice is a metaphorical amputation; when his practice is taken away, so is a large part of his identity. As Miss Baker laments to Trina after McTeague loses his parlor: “‘It’s just like cutting off your husband’s hands, my dear’” (p. 219). McTeague’s practice gave him purpose. Pulling teeth gave his big, Placer County “car-boy” hands use and value, even in the city, where they would otherwise be out of place. After losing his practice, McTeague does not know what to do with his hands anymore. His “car-boy” body no longer makes sense in the cramped city. He becomes a “caged brute” (p. 240), violent and alcoholic.
Norris underscores this metaphorical amputation with the loss of another body part, albeit a grotesquely enlarged one: McTeague’s gilt molar. This second tooth extraction differs from the first. McTeague is no longer the dentist, removing Trina’s dead tooth; instead, the Other Dentist operates on McTeague, removing his beloved gold sign. As Trina did, McTeague initially refuses to have the tooth removed. When the Other Dentist offers him ten dollars for it, McTeague is furious. “‘You can’t make small of me. Go out of here’” (p. 219), he rails. But, like Trina’s dead tooth, the gilt molar has no more connection to its life source; it is an advertisement advertising a dental practice that no longer exists, a sign signifying nothing. It becomes a relic of Trina and McTeague’s former life and love—a reminder of how far they have fallen. Desperate for money, McTeague finally does sell it to the other dentist for a measly five dollars. The double loss of the tooth and the money it originally cost “make[s] small” of McTeague, exactly as he feared.
The gilt molar was in many ways a shared body part between Trina and McTeague, and the extraction of the tooth also affects Trina. Originally a birthday present from her to him (one of her last selfless gestures), it was physical proof of her love for him. It hung outside the windows of their joint home, where they were both briefly happy. When the reader finally gets a description of the molar in front of the Other Dentist’s parlors, it is through Trina’s eyes. McTeague has not come home, and as Trina wanders the streets searching for him, she passes their old dental parlors:
It was all dark; the windows had the blind, sightless appearance imparted by vacant, untenanted rooms. A rusty iron rod projected mournfully from one of the window ledges. “There’s where our sign hung once,” said Trina…There, overhanging the street from [the Other Dentist’s] window, newly furbished and brightened, hung the huge tooth, her birthday present to her husband… “Ah, no; ah, no,” whispered Trina, choking back a sob. (272)
The “rusty iron rod” is like a bloody stump left where the molar was cut away; rust and blood are even of similar color. The old dental parlors are depressingly empty. The hole left by Trina and McTeague has not been filled; the rooms remain “vacant” and “untenanted.” Seeing the hole where the gilt molar used to be—the site of the amputation—hammers home the magnitude of Trina’s loss. Her tearful “ah, no” here echoes the language she used when she had her first tooth out: “One hole like that was bad enough; but two—ah, no, it was not to be thought of” (p. 20). Now she is confronted by a new “hole” where a tooth used to be, a gaping emptiness much worse than what she could ever have imagined at the beginning of the novel.
Trina sees the lost molar on the same night that she loses McTeague, which is also the night before the doctor tells her she must lose her fingers. Trina’s fingers, like McTeague’s, house a certain emotional intelligence. She uses them as instruments of love—at least initially. “Trina took an infinite enjoyment in playing with McTeague’s great square-cut head, rumpling his hair till it stood on end, putting her fingers in his eyes, or stretching his ears out straight” (p. 107). She expresses her love for McTeague by running her fingers over him, poking and playing. Later, she expresses her lust for her gold in the same way: “She would plunge her small fingers into the pile with little murmurs of affection” (p. 243).
When Trina loses her fingers, she loses this capacity for love or human connection. She has irrevocably lost McTeague; the amputation of her fingers also severs any remaining relationship she has with her parents. She can no longer write them letters, because she can no longer write. She cuts herself off from the world, including from her old friends and neighbors. After the amputation, “She never saw any of the old Polk Street people” (p. 283). She is absolutely alone with her gold.
Trina loses the last remnants of her humanity along with her fingers; her reaction to the doctor’s decision to amputate is so inhuman it’s implausible. When she hears she will lose her fingers, all Trina says is, “‘And my work!’” (p. 276). Ironically, her work is whittling wooden animals. Through her various emotional and physical amputations, she herself has been whittled down to an animal, incapable of any feeling but greed. “Her avarice had grown to be her one dominant passion…driving out by degrees every other natural affection” (p. 278). She cannot even see dapples of sunlight without comparing it to pieces of gold (p. 277).
Cut off from their professions, friends, family, and ultimately each other, Trina and McTeague are emotional and physical amputees. In the end, McTeague manages to escape the city. He reverts to his “car-boy” self, fulfilling the destiny written for him in his hands. As he crosses the desert, his fingers are twice described as “prehensile, grasping” (p. 336). This McTeague is all instinct—a creature of desire, ruled only by his own wants and fears. Meanwhile, Trina cannot escape the city. In her final struggle with McTeague, she fights “for her miserable life with the exasperation and strength of a harassed cat” (p. 294). Interestingly, Norris explicitly describes neither Trina’s death nor McTeague’s. Instead of giving a blow-by-blow account of Trina’s fatal beating, the text abruptly cuts off. All Norris says is, “Then it became abominable” (p. 294). Similarly, the book cuts off before McTeague actually dies. In both places, the narrative itself is amputated, focusing more on the animal instinct to fight for life and less on the actual moment of death. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, forty years before Norris published McTeague. Perhaps Darwin’s theory influenced Norris; these amputations are a form of de-evolution, and Norris is paring away his protagonists’ “humanity” to reveal the animal beneath. No matter how much humans “evolve,” no matter what social refinements prevail in the city, there will always be an animal inside us, fighting for survival.