Emily Xiao, Mind and Matter: Physical San Francisco and Cerebral New York

Mind and Matter:

A Comparison of Physical San Francisco and Cerebral New York

 

Although written less than two decades apart, Frank Norris’ McTeague and Edith

Wharton’s Age of Innocence paint strikingly different portraits of two American cities, San

Francisco and New York, respectively. Much of the contrast between the novels arises naturally

from historical and physical differences; however, it is also shaped by the manners in which their

protagonists navigate the worlds around them, manners which not only reflect but also actively

inform both novels’ strong consciousness of setting. In the first case, McTeague’s experience

of San Francisco is a deliberately sensory one, in which the first page alone drips with

overwhelming details of taste and heat and the city itself is presented as physically navigable.

Wharton’s Newland Archer, on the other hand, finds himself trapped in what is described as

an equally deliberate “hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even

thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs” (36). McTeague and Archer inhabit

opposite modes of behavior – one physical, the other intellectual – that both serve as filters for

the reader’s interactions with each novel’s settings; it is the necessary limitations, however, of

these modes that provide the central tension in each narrative. In particular, McTeague’s extreme

physicality renders him ill-equipped to deal with non-literal forces of law and greed in San

Francisco, whereas Archer’s reliance on imagination and constructed inner realities proves to be

incompatible with the literal society in which he lives.

Norris’s McTeague is introduced to the reader as a “young giant” (2), striking in his

physical prominence; this is a man who comes from coal mining stock. When we meet him,

however, he operates a successful dental parlor on Polk Street. Yet, despite the training and

learnedness typically required for such a profession, he gets by more on mechanical than on

intellectual competency: “He worked slowly, mechanically, turning the foil between his fingers

with the manual dexterity that one sometimes sees in stupid persons. His head was quite empty

of all thought” (14). Indeed, for all the markings of a hero – namely, his placement as the novel’s

protagonist and his enormous physical strength, a key element in making McTeague decidedly

unheroic is his limited awareness of what is occurring around him. He thus lacks the capacity for

genuine moral struggle; for example, the violent lust – one of many instances of greed and desire

for possession that occur in the novel – that ambushes him when he is alone with the

unconscious Trina has a “significance [that] was not for him. To reason with it was beyond him”

(25). Still less abstract situations have their way with McTeague; he struggles even to

comprehend seating placements when attempting to buy tickets from a seller at the theater (25).

To a wide range of challenges, including his aforementioned confrontation with the ticket-
seller at the theater, McTeague seems to have only one recurring response: “You can’t make

small of me.” He essentially responds in the only way he knows how: on physical terms, with

varying results; the beating with which he kills Trina after telling her, “You ain’t going to make

small of me this time. Give me that money,” serves as the most extreme example (294), and the

one in which he most emphatically comes out on top. In other situations, however, the same

catch-phrase proves futile. When a letter arrives from the government telling McTeague that he

can no longer practice due to his lack of educational credentials, his blustery response is met

only with Trina’s “Oh, that’s all very fine to talk that way, but you’ll have to quit” (209).

As such, it seems only fitting that our final image of McTeague is one in which he is

physically overwhelmed: “All about him, vast, interminable, stretched the measureless leagues

of Death Valley. McTeague remained stupidly looking around him” (347). Although Death

Valley is technically based upon a real setting, it represents an amplification of the same forces

plaguing McTeague in San Francisco in that he is driven further into the desert by his fear of law

enforcement, and both he and Marcus continue to be strung along by their desire for gold. This,

along with the absurdly magnified scale of vastness, silence, heat, and primordialism that sets

this section apart from the rest of the novel, renders the desert a near-foreign territory, as

exemplified in McTeague’s exclamation: “Good Lord! What a country!” (330). Thus, the desert

becomes a sort of hyper-abstracted version of San Francisco, the primal and savage cousin to the

civilized West, but whose sheer physicalism makes McTeague’s defeat clear. Death Valley

renders in concrete terms McTeague’s utter lack of potency against what he cannot see or touch –

At the other end of the spectrum, Newland Archer in Age of Innocence is characterized

by his intellectual and artistic rather than physical dominance: “[He] felt himself distinctly the

superior of those chosen specimens of Old New York gentility; he had probably read more,

thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world” (7). Archer’s particular

intellectualism is distinct from the general inclination toward abstraction, cognitive association,

and symbolism of his society in that he keeps the peculiar company of artists and writers;

moreover, Archer prides himself on the sort of romanticism and capacity of imagination that he

believes others, like his fiancée and soon-to-be wife, May Welland, lack (287). Ellen, too, is at

home in the artistic world – quite literally, in that she chooses to take up residence in the

Archer himself seems to live inside his own head; he is described as “at heart a dilettante,

[for whom] thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its

realization” (4). He does not simply have a mere capacity toward romanticism – he thrives on it,

and his disinclination toward action in favor of the world of thoughts and ideas distinguishes him

from the impulsive McTeague, who often acts in what is described as an animal-like manner

untempered by contemplation or even awareness. Thus, it is striking that part of what attracts

Archer to Ellen is her strange ability to make things happen to her, in her world “where action

followed on emotion with such Olympian speed” (134). Yet, for the new realm of possibilities

that Ellen, as a foreigner, introduces into Archer’s life, they fail to achieve any meaningful

realization of their love toward each other. Neither Archer nor Ellen are quite able to muster the

impetus required to leave New York and begin a life together somewhere else; their love remains

a head-love, as when they lunch together in an inn in Boston: “Archer was conscious of a curious

indifference to her bodily presence […] this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be

superficially satisfied. His one terror was to do anything which might efface the sound and

impression of her words” (200). Believing themselves to be “chained to their separate destinies”

(200) and their relationship to be elevated above the trysts so common among their peers, the

best that they can achieve is a tentative physical proximity that is eventually terminated when

Thus a rift emerges between the romantic life Archer has constructed with Ellen, which

continues to subsist only in his mind, and his marriage to May in the literal setting of New York.

The incompatibility of Archer’s inner life with reality becomes only more pronounced with

Ellen’s departure, when he is able to maximally abstractify his conception of her: “Since then

there had been no farther communication between them, and he had built up within himself a

kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings” (215);

ultimately, Ellen becomes reduced to “some imaginary beloved in a book or picture” (286). This

rift becomes still more pronounced with Archer’s, and the reader’s, growing comprehension of

his own ignorance in the face of others’ awareness, as when he realizes at Ellen’s going-away

party that the company has known about their affair all along; not only does this point to a

limitation of understanding interestingly parallel to that of McTeague’s, but also it underscores

Archer’s role of protagonist in limiting the reader’s own experience of old New York. It is this

world, with all of its cerebral machinations, that gets the better of Archer and traps him into a

Archer’s final decision not to go up to Ellen’s apartment – as he tells himself, “It’s more

real to me here than if I went up” (298) – is wholly consistent with his characterization

throughout the novel. What makes the ending tragic, however, is that his dream life no longer

has an antagonist; Archer lives in an entirely new world, in which people are straightforward and

feelings are declared, and this is underscored in the presentation of Archer’s son, Dallas, who is

like Archer in appearance and artistic inclination and yet happily making preparations to marry

the love of his life. Old New York is sustained only through Archer himself as a necessary

opposing backdrop for his continued romanticism; this indirect reliance on the past is what

makes him, as he calls himself, “old-fashioned” (297). One could almost think of Archer as static

as a portrait, the sort from which Mrs. van der Luyden, in the flesh, is nearly indistinguishable.

Thus, we are left with opposing, but parallel and uniquely appropriate images of

McTeague and Archer: McTeague is trapped in an external, physical abstraction of San

Francisco (i.e., Death Valley); Archer, in an internal, cerebral abstraction of New York City.

Although, by most standards, Archer leads a successful and fulfilling life, he remains

intellectually and artistically dissatisfied: “…one by one the pictures burst on him in their half-
forgotten splendour, filling his soul with the long echoes of beauty. After all, his life had been

too starved…” (295), and it is difficult not to compare this starvation to McTeague’s physical

thirst in Death Valley. Neither novel achieves a real resolution in the sense that we leave

McTeague in the desert without actually witnessing his inevitable death; similarly, Archer

maintains an unsatisfying sense of inertia as he continues to age.

A particularly poignant description in Age of Innocence points to the characters’ failure to

achieve any meaningful growth or change: whereas Ellen says that the metaphorical Gorgon has

dried her tears, essentially disillusioning her in the ways of the world, Archer finds that the wind

“had frozen his tears” (240); as McTeague is frozen in his futile physicality, Archer is frozen

in an equally futile romanticism. Both characters remain trapped in their respective and limited

modes of understanding the world – trapped in their ways.

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