Peter’s Outline

Michael Peter Rothpletz

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

Literary Cities

Final Paper Outline



Some we love, some we hate, some we eat – humans have always been intimately linked to the beasts that walk our earth. They share our homes, serve as friends and soul mates, act as sentinels for environmental disaster, protect us from disease as “laboratory Play-Doh,” and line our supermarket isles and refrigerator shelves.


Yet, the only factor at play in our treatment of specific species (and their ultimate fate) is how they display characteristics we interpret as human. We’re inexplicably eager to assign feelings and personalities to the creatures around us.


Dogs, cats, birds, and every other animal known to man has been granted a Pixar-like anthropomorphism; they have drives, interests, worries, and dreams. In this world of self-perception, identity is critical and universal, and animals serve to reinforce our humanity.



Though the anthropomorphic tendencies of characters in McTeague and The Golden Gate, both Frank Norris and Vikram Seth foster the notion that animals serve as vital instruments in the human quest for identity.



Analysis within McTeague:


McTeague shows a considerable degree of loyalty to a number of his possessions throughout the course of the novel – notably his steam beer and concertina. However, only his pet canary follows him all the way to his death – serving as the one and only constant in his life.


  • The canary acts as 1. A symbol for McTeague and 2. a motivating force to hold on to his humanity and endure the world and strife around him.
    • Discuss the canary as a connection to McTeague’s past life as a miner
    • Explain the role of canaries in mining and logically draw a conclusion as to how and why McTeague keeps the bird – a reminder of his old life and childhood.


“By the one window, chittering all day in its little gilt prison, hung the canary bird, a tiny atom of life that McTeague still clung to with a strange obstinacy” (259)

  • McTeague sees the canary (and the birdcage where it resides) as a symbol for himself and a microcosm of his world. The cage represents McTeague’s imprisonment in middle-class San Francisco.
  • He sleeps with the bird directly above his head (find quote). Its care is his first responsibility in the morning.
  • Numerous times throughout the text, McTeague ignores logic (or “logic” in Trina’s case) to protect the canary
    • “I’ll sell the canary to the bird-store man on Kearney Street” “No.” etc. (190)
    • “Better break its neck an’ chuck it” – Cribbens (224)
      • His prospecting partner identifies the bird and its massive cage as a clear liability. McTeague ignores his advice and continues to bear the burden of both while hiking through the mountains.
      • Dissect why he feels such a bond with the bird. He must keep it in a cage to keep it from fleeing, and yet he shows unbelievable loyalty


  • McTeague and the canary die at the same time
  • “the little bird cage broke from the saddle with the violence of their fall, and rolled out upon the ground” (Norris, 243).


  • “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” (243)
    • What is the significance of this? McTeague’s dedication to this bird. Its death is a crushing blow that both facilitates and symbolizes his loss of a will to live. He will not escape Death Valley.



Analysis within The Golden Gate:


Seth seeks to suggest that the American’s penchant for pets – and their resulting appetite for anthropomorphism – is born from their alienation from human connection through the growth of urban living.


“the elevation of an animal to pet status removes it entirely from the human food chain”


Split Discussion between the several pets discussed in the novel


The Siamese cat Charlemagne

  • Lord of Liz’s hearth and bane of John’s existence
  • Focus on the characterization of Charlemagne in Chapter 6
    • Countless quotes to pool from
    • 15
    • 16
    • 18
    • 26
    • 30
  • Discuss Seth’s choice to quite literally provide Charlemagne with a conscious narrative voice.
  • The cat is no longer a cat given human traits by a character, but a contributing narrator in the story.
  • Dissect Liz’s loyalty to Charlemagne – why take his side over that of John
    • What does it say about Liz that she holds them as equals
  • Note the significance of a “cat psychiatrist” – multiple instances of direct anthropomorphism in the text.


Ah, John, don’t take it all for granted.
Perhaps you think Liz loves you best.
The snooker table has been slanted.
A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest.
Be warned. Be warned. Just as in poker
The wildness of that card, the joker
Disturbs the best-laid plans of men,
So too it happens, now and then,
That a furred beast with feral features
(Little imagined in the days
When, cute and twee, the kitten plays),
Of that familiar brood of creatures
The world denominates a cat,
Enters the game, and knocks it flat.


The iguana Schwarzenegger

  • Compare to the immense characterization of Charlemagne
  • Why are some animals allotted more human characteristics than others?
  • Is Schwarzenegger merely a pet while Charlemagne is a character?
  • What sense of Identity to Phil and Ed obtain through the iguana


* * *

Peter —

McTeague and The Golden Gate make for a fascinating comparison, but I don’t think you should take anthropomorphism as the universal norm in either novel.  In the case of McTeague, if you broaden your analysis to include not only the canary but also the two dogs as well as the cat in the kindergarten, your analytic vocabulary would seem also to require other supplementary concepts.  This is especially true in The Golden Gate, with neither Charlemagne nor Schwarzenegger exactly resembling its owner.   One possible title for your essay: “Anthropomorphism and Beyond.”

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