Essay 1 Outline
“The Veneer of Civilization: McTeague as Frontier Novel”
- Begins in San Francisco, ends in Death Valley. Why?
- McTeague’s San Francisco is set in a still developing west at the turn of the century
- The Gold Rush is crucial to the novel. Description of Zerkow (he was the man with the Rake… pg. 34), McTeague’s backstory and eventual (brief) return to the mines, the symbolism of the canary (canary in a mine). Characters obsession with gold.
- Thesis: The narrative arc of McTeague depicts the failure of civilization to control the base instincts of its characters
McTeague as a reactive protagonist
- Struggles with base instincts
Scene in the dentist’s office when he struggles to tame his lust for Trina: “It was the old battle, old as the world […] the sudden panther leap of the animal” (24).
- Baffled by society
Attempt to buy theater tickets lead to first occurrence of “You can’t make small of me,” revealing his insecurities (74)
- Submits to Trina’s attempts to civilize him: changing habits, better clothes, steam beer (pg. 150)
- Implication that these ‘civilizing touches’ are only surface-level and haven’t changed his character much. Once he loses them he becomes bitter
- Ultimately gives in to base instincts shown through his abuse and ultimately murder of Trina; killing Marcus
Greed às animalism
- Irony of an instrument of civilization (money) as source of downfall
- Obsession is with the physicality of money, separate from civilization
- Trina wants the possession of gold more then she wants wealth
Withdrawing all of her savings from the investment (ch. 19)
- Trina gives up the things we associate with wealth: status, luxury, etc., to feed her miserly nature
- Ultimate animalization of McTeague and Trina: Trina’s death
- Earlier in the novel, parallel between McTeague and Marcus and the two dogs who hate each other but ultimately don’t fight, whereas McTeague and Marcus initially like each other and end up destroying each other
- In McTeague’s murder of Trina, both are compared to animals. McTeague has “apelike agility,” Trina is paralleled by the cat who witnesses her death.
Significance of location shift
- Begins with bustling urban city street. “The street never failed to interest him…” (4).
- Description of the desert as wasteland: “Before him and upon either side […] stretched primordial desolation” (333).
- Reduced to survival.
They briefly form an alliance of sorts to chase the mule for water
- Greed proves a more powerful force. To Norris, Greed seems to the *the* primal force
They destroy each other over the gold which will do them no good since the water has been lost and they are doomed
- Final setting serves as metaphor for the primal state McTeague and Marcus have returned to. In Norris’ view, this primal state is characterized by greed, not the drive for survival
Irony of the final visual
- Comic visual of brutish McTeague clinging to tiny canary. Suggest a paradox to McTeague’s character, physically strong and otherwise weak / vulnerable (links back to point 1)
- McTeague’s talismans (the concertina, the canary) refined trappings of civilized society but they fail to save him.
- Gilded cage with the canary never escapes can be seen as a metaphor for greed (which traps our heroes) or the veneer of civilization.
(This may need more focus, since this is a fairly short essay, in which case I would only focus on two or three of the body paragraph ideas).
I really like all the points you’ve brought up, but I agree that it might be hard to fit all of it into a short essay. Would it be possible to include the fundamental aspects of the paragraph about McTeague as a reactionary protagonist in the paragraph about greed and animalism? E.g. analyzing his struggle with his base instincts through the lens of his primal/barbaric nature. Also, I think it could be interesting to analyze how the human characters are consistently compared to animals, but actual animals often obey unspoken laws of nature more than they do (like the dogs). The main characters are reduced to animals in a way, but also juxtaposed with them in other respects. I also feel like, if necessary, the irony of the final visual can be incorporated into a paragraph about the location shifts and still maintain its weight.
I agree with Nicole that McTeague as a reactive protagonist is a great focus — this could be the subject of the entire paper. I also like your emphasis on the shift of location — perhaps this could be the context for thinking of McTeague as a reactive protagonist? The essay that I have in mind has this title: “McTeague as a Reactive Protagonist: Placer County, San Francisco, Death Valley.” It would allow you to keep many of your points, but produce a tighter argument centered on McTeague’s reactions to three different environments.
–Wai Chee Dimock