Fate and Determinism in McTeague and The Kitchen God’s Wife

Intro: While McTeague and The Kitchen God’s Wife might both be books of San Francisco, they could not be more different. McTeague is a dentist driven to murder by forces outside his control—namely, the greed of the people in his life and the materialistic environment of a San Francisco at the mercy of the Gold Rush. He has absolutely no control over his fate.

In contrast, the protagonists of Tan’s novel acknowledge the role that luck, or fate, plays in their lives, but are far more successful in playing an active role in their destinies. This manifests itself in the more optimistic representation of San Francisco as a haven for immigrants. Although much of the novel takes place in China, Winnie’s resourcefulness and resilience give her agency and make her an ideal example of what immigrants in the ‘90s might have expected from the American Dream.

Point 1: Determinism versus Agency

  • McTeague is completely at the mercy of his environment. (naturalism)
    • 304, “It was the same work he had so often performed in his Parlors, only magnified, made monstrous, distorted, and grotesqued, the caricature of dentistry.”
    • McTeague’s utter confusion at the way greed makes his wife/Marcus act.
    • Golden canary in a cage
  • While Winnie emphasizes the role that luck/fate plays in her life, especially in positive ways, she ultimately believes she has agency and can fight her fate if she tries hard enough.
    • 341, “That’s what I said to your father many years later, after we were married. How lucky we were that fate brought us together…All I can say is this: I was on a small road in Shanghai. Your father was at that same place.”
    • 401, “For all those years I had imagined how it would be to have my mother know…She was putting all this into her own heart, so I could see what was left. Hope.”

Point 2: Contrasting Depictions of Immigration

  • The immigrants in McTeague are either constantly suffering or malicious drains on their cities’ resources
    • Zerkow/Maria
      • 34, “It was impossible to look at Zerkow and not know instantly that greed—inordinate, insatiable greed—was the dominant passion of the man. He was The Man with the Rake, groping hourly in the muck heap of the city for gold, for gold, for gold.”
  • The traumatizing things that happen to Trina’s family
  • In contrast, immigrants in The Kitchen God’s Wife are productive, hopeful citizens that build new lives for themselves in entirely unfamiliar cities.
    • 14, “My mother and Auntie Helen co-own Ding Ho Flower Shop on Ross Alley in Chinatown.”

Point 3: Protagonists (McTeague/Winnie) as Reflections of Their Cities

  • McTeague and his stupidity/powerlessness despite his physical prowess are direct reflections of the San Francisco of his time. The city treats immigrants and non-immigrants alike as marionettes controlled by the factors of greed that regulate the Gold Rush.
    • 20, “In some places east of the Mississippi nature is cozy…In Placer County, California, she is a vast, unconquered brute of the Pliocene epoch, savage, sullen, and magnificently indifferent to man. But there were men in these mountains, like lice on mammoths’ hides…sucking their blood, extracting gold.”
    • 71, “Neither of them had asked that this thing should be, that their destinies, their very souls, should be the sport of chance.”
  • Winnie comes to a San Francisco with far more opportunities for honest social/economic mobility for immigrants, and her personal strength is a reflection of that.

Conclusion: Restate thesis: the contrasting ways the characters of Norris’s/Tan’s novels feel in control of their fate reflect their personalities/the quality of the San Francisco they inhabit/the attitude of the authors and the cities towards immigration. In this way, the personality of San Francisco as a whole can be seen as unbelievably dynamic. Judging from the ideas presented in these novels, within the span of a century, San Francisco went from a harsh, naturalistic playground for the greedy and corrupt to a beacon of hope for immigrants searching for better lives.

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