Tracy’s Essay

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Tracy Chung

Literary Cities, Spring 2016

28 April 2016

Patterns and Preservation: Quantifying Pathologies in Literature

            The phenomenon of obsession has been prevalent in human behavior for as long as human behavior has been observed. This form of intense focus has been categorized again and again: conscious or unconscious, disruptive or benign, healthy or unhealthy. In psychological history, extreme obsessions were thought to be evil possessions or manifestations of latent conflicts. However, throughout much of literature, many pieces have been driven by a singular obsession, a fixation upon an object, an ideal, a memory. These obsessions are far more palatable than the severe, vivid archetypes of obsessive behavior that may first come to mind. These are unique to each individual, but also serve as a common thread throughout the literature, acting as an inescapable force, a representation of human fragility, and as a tenuous form of preservation, which is exemplified within the minds of Trina in McTeague, Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, and Charlie in Humboldt’s Gift.



            To further understand the mania of these characters, the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOC) is applied to these literary figures to develop patterns, establish a spectrum, and discuss conclusions. The Y-BOC is commonly used as a survey to identify patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but this utilization of the scale is not an endeavor to “diagnose” the characters or project disorders upon the fiction, instead using the scale purely as a tool to organize behaviors. Luckily, the scale is easily separable into “obsessive” and “compulsive” components, and this analysis will focus primarily on the quantifications of “obsession.” Compulsions do appear in-text (mostly for Trina), but are auxiliary to the obsessions. The Y-BOC specifically defines obsessions as “unwelcome and distressing ideas, thoughts, images, or impulses that repeatedly enter [one’s] mind. They may seem to occur against [one’s] will. They may be repugnant, [. . .] senseless, and they may not fit [one’s] personality.”[1] Similarly, compulsions are defined as “behaviors or acts that [one] feels driven to perform although [one] may recognize them as senseless or excessive.”

The apparatus of the Y-BOC is split into six areas: time occupied by obsessive thoughts, interference due to obsessive thoughts, distress associated with obsessive thoughts, resistance against obsessions, degree of control over obsessive thoughts, and insight into obsessions. Each section is given a quantitative value of 0 through 4 that are summed at the end of the survey; however, the interpretation of the sum is not rigid and the scale itself does not establish a threshold of diagnosis for patients, allowing for subjective appraisal of each individual’s symptoms. Ultimately, the Y-BOC will be used as a marker to easily refer to and categorize the obsessive behaviors of Trina Sieppe, Casper Gutman, and Charlie Citrine.



            Of the three novels, the patterns of obsession are easiest to identify in McTeague. McTeague himself continually falls back on his steam beer and concertina, Maria her story about her family’s gold, even Old Grannis falls back on his book binder. However, the development of obsession is most evident in Trina Sieppe. From the very beginnings of her marriage to McTeague, Trina has already developed a fierce attachment to her patterns of life, lingering on “all her pretty ways, her clean, trim little habits, [that] would be forgotten, since they would be thrown away upon her stupid, brutish husband” (Norris 146). She passively holds onto her life before McTeague as she slips into her own marriage, generally mourning the end of her previous lifestyle. Her obsession begins in earnest, however, when she receives a grand sum of money after she wins the lottery, and her preoccupation with grasping, hoarding money begins to interfere with her normal actions, telling McTeague that he is “the thick-wittedest man that [she] ever knew. [. . .] Oh, to think of losing thirty-five dollars like that. Tears were in her eyes, tears of grief as well as of anger” (161). At this point, Trina’s obsession would be considered “moderate,” consisting of definite interference, but is still somewhat manageable. But as her urge to accumulate money and persistence in penny-pinching grows more intense, she ends up breaking those precious “pretty ways, her clean trim little habits” in this pursuit. The meddlesome nature of her obsession becomes most striking in her meditations about and repulsion to giving McTeague any money at all. When she thinks of giving him “not thirty-five dollars, [but] at least fifteen or sixteen, [. . .] a feeling of reluctance, a sudden revolt against this intended generosity, arose in her” (164). This choice, in conjunction with her resistance to giving her family any money, indicates that the intrusion of her obsessive thoughts is “severe,” substantially impairing normal social performance. This impairment is indicated by Trina’s uncontrollable “stinginess [which] had increased to such an extent that it had gone beyond the mere hoarding of money. She grudged even the food that she and McTeague ate, and even brought away half loaves of bread, lumps of sugar, and fruit from the car conductors’ coffee joint” (233). In addition, her awareness of this rising feeling of “sudden revolt” demonstrates her insight into her own obsessive thoughts, but she seems to provide no resistance to these thoughts, claiming “I guess I am [miserly], but I can’t help it, and it’s a good fault” (197). According to the Y-BOC, Trina’s ease of yielding puts her in a high echelon of submission, increasing the measurable severity of her pathology.

Thus far, Trina has demonstrated the high disruptiveness of her obsessive thoughts, a lack of resistance (and implicitly, a lack of control over these thoughts), and awareness of her strange notions. Beyond these, Trina’s most extreme form of obsession exhibits itself in her distress associated with these obsessions. After forcing McTeague and herself to move out of their home in the Parlors because she refuses to admit she has the money to continue living there, she “sob[s] herself to sleep at the thought of her past happiness and her present wretchedness” which is entirely self-inflicted (216). Similarly, her quick submission to her impulses is likely motivated by a desire to avoid this anguish. Trina’s affliction becomes significantly more palpable when she finds her money has been stolen by McTeague (although, not all of her money, yet). She has a physical breakdown as she “dug her nails into her scalp, and clutching the heavy coils of her thick black hair, tore it again and again. She struck her forehead with her clenched fists. Her little body shook from head to foot with the violence of her sobbing” (274). This is the most astonishing indicator of her obsession’s total control over her life and her thoughts. This is brought to a heartbreaking climax when she is told her fingers must be amputated and her first response is “my work!” (276). In total, Trina scores a 15 out of a total 20 scale points on the Y-BOC in obsessions alone, most of the scale points derived from her extreme distress when faced with going against her obsessive thoughts.

Whereas Trina’s fixation was upon an ideal of wealth, the more nebulous concept of a life worth living, obsessions also take a much more physical form, as it does with Gutman and the Maltese Falcon. This tangible obsession seems the most straightforward, the most explicable, but is perhaps the subtlest in the text. Gutman’s obsession is defined by the lengths to which he is willing to go to attain his end goal. First and foremost, Gutman spends an inordinate amount of time meditating upon the object of his obsession. He knows this long-winded (and hard-to-believe) history of the falcon by heart and believes it to be irrefutable: “these are facts,” he claims “historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’s history, but history nevertheless” (Hammett 124). This constant mental dedication and that Gutman has made a career out of finding this artifact, registers as an “extreme” amount of time occupied by these obsessive thoughts, according to the Y-BOC. Although the ruminations are often passive, Gutman’s whole life centers around capturing the falcon. Although his obsession is intense, it is also quite well veiled. The emotional outbursts of his mania are extremely powerful but far in between, exemplified by tiny moments, such as when “the fat man set the bottle on the table with a bang. ‘But you said you [knew where the falcon was],’ he protested” (128). Despite these rare passion-driven tantrums, Gutman has many logic-driven machinations to get what he wants—he’s willing to do deplorable things for the sake of his obsession. He poisons Sam Spade upon first meeting, playing along with a normal discussion until the very last moments when Sam “shook his head again and took an uncertain step forward. He laughed thickly and muttered: ‘God damn you.’” (130). This portrayal of Gutman’s paranoia may be acceptable under the schemata of hard-boiled fiction, acting as an archetype-building moment. However, Gutman goes even further, using his own daughter to confuse Spade, so that he may have the falcon all to himself. When he confronts Gutman saying “that daughter of yours has a nice belly

[. . .] too nice to be scratched up with pins,” Gutman succinctly responds “yes, sir, that was a shame, but you must admit that it served its purpose” (173). The limits of Gutman’s actions are constantly in flux, the boundaries flowing as he feels himself growing so close to the falcon that his desperation dominates his judgment. Gutman attempts some semblance of resistance to the suggestion of giving up Wilmer as a “fall-guy,” claiming that “[he] feel[s] towards Wilmer just exactly as if he were my own son” (178). But, in the very same breath, he begins to lose ground to himself: “but if I even for a moment thought of doing what you propose, what in the world do you think would keep Wilmer from telling the police every last detail?” (178). From the beginning, Gutman is ready to come to his final conclusion, always expecting to “sigh [and make] a wry face and reply, ‘You can have him.’” (186). Gutman’s lack of resistance is of a similar severity as Trina’s; however, Gutman’s quick surrender is veiled under a calm demeanor.

This calm demeanor is the most misleading factor in Gutman’s obsession. From a perspective far removed from any interpretation of Gutman as a person, the obsession with the falcon is obviously pathological. However, Hammett reveals Gutman’s strangely suave personality that is able to mask his obsession in casual control, unlike Trina. Throughout the novel, Gutman is never the one to initiate talk about the falcon—every time, they come to speak about the prized object when Spade says explicitly “let’s talk about the bird” (123). During the exposition of the novel, it is unclear whether this offhand regard for the falcon is genuine or feigned, because, throughout, Gutman is painted as smooth and well-mannered (as well as ruthless). While his persona develops and the race for the artifact grows more frantic, an image of Gutman “fumbling [. . .] sweat glistened on his round cheeks. His fingers twitch[ing],” over come with excitement at beholding the actual (supposed) bird, becomes the reality, a second where Gutman’s veiled obsessions shine through. The Y-BOC recognizes that diversion of obsessions with concerted effort falls short of complete control, and Gutman fits snugly into this category, able to sweep his constant thoughts of the Maltese Falcon under an elaborate curtain. This control is broken and the interfering nature of his obsession is most apparent when he decides it may be worthwhile to drop everything and go to Turkey at the drop of a hat to find this bird. By any sane logic, there must be a certain point where the sunk cost no longer weighs on the hunt. But Gutman “for seventeen years [has] wanted that little item and [has] been trying to get it” and shows no sign of stopping, reasoning that “if [he] must spend another year on the quest [. . .] that would be an additional expenditure of only [. . .] five and fifteen-seventeenths per cent” (203). Gutman’s intrusive thoughts are strange because he truly believes them to be pushing him toward a nobler cause and sees no reason to resist the obsession. In sum, Gutman’s place on the Y-BOC scale is milder than Trina, scoring an 11 out of a possible 20 scale points, but this dilemma singular to Gutman in that his obsession is both controlled and controlling.

Lastly, Charlie Citrine’s obsession in Humboldt’s Gift is an entirely new beast. Charlie is neither obsessed with an ideal like Trina nor a physical object like Gutman. Charlie Citrine is already in the throes of his obsession with Humboldt when the novel begins, and even before he even meets Humboldt. The entire novel is driven by Charlie’s meditations upon Humboldt (and by extension, the glorified past), that almost every moment of the piece is permeated by Humboldt’s posthumous presence, a “what would Humboldt have said to this?” at every turn (Bellow 3). The reader’s introduction to Humboldt is highly ordered and deeply nuanced—a clear sign of deep reflection on the Charlie’s part. He asks “what else can result from the capitalization of such nouns? Myself, I’ve always held the number of sacred words down. In my opinion Humboldt had too long a list of them—Poetry, Beauty, Love, Waste Land, Alienation, Politics, history of the Unconscious” (6). This description is intensely intimate and speaks volumes about the thought that Charlie has put into looking back upon the person Humboldt was. The specificity of the descriptors Charlie chooses is indicative of an “extreme” amount of time his obsession filled at one point in the past. This heavy investment to his obsession may stem from the sudden absence of Humboldt, a void where his form and voice once dominated. Charlie is often tasked with doing things with or for Humboldt, the most vivid example being Humboldt’s convoluted Princeton plan (126). The intense devotion to filling this void following a loss—both in Humboldt’s death and in the estrangement of their relationship—is understandable, expected even, for a moderate interval. But, the rigor of Charlie’s infatuation is made clear by his insight into the obsession, and his unwillingness to take action against it, admitting that he has “reached an age at which you can see your neurotic impulses advancing on you. There’s not much that [he] can do when the dire need of help comes over me. [He] stand[s] at the edge of a psychic pond and [he] know[s] that if crumbs are thrown in, [his] carp will come swimming up” (50). This awareness is self-realized; in addition, many others make a concentrated effort to point it out to him—most notably, Renata, claiming “what [he does] is invent relationships with the death [he] never had when they were living. [He] creates connections they wouldn’t allow, or [he wasn’t] capable of. I heard [him] say once that death was good for some people. [He] probably meant that [he] got something out of it” (315). These biting comments are jarring to the reader, serving as a sort of wake-up call, but Charlie has little resistance to these probing statements. While his life is going haywire in the present (interpersonally and financially), thoughts of Humboldt overtake him, intersecting the other, more pressing matters, instead pondering “how to prevent the leprosy of souls. Somehow it seemed up to [Charlie]. [He] meditated like anything. [He] followed Humboldt in [his] mind. He was smoking on the train. [Charlie] saw him passing quick and manic” (137). Charlie literally enters a semi-dream state as his obsession grows—both in an attempt to avoid the realities of his present and to reconcile what went wrong in the past. Humboldt is generally a cumbersome presence in Charlie’s narration, making an appearance at every important intersection.

Beyond these, however, the scene of Humboldt walking down the street with a pretzel stick is the most piercing image that continues to insert itself into Charlie’s mind, increasing the interruptions that burgeon from his fixation upon the past, his inability to let go, and his failure to come to terms with his own actions: “the mention of zwieback brought back to me the pretzel [Humboldt] was chewing on the curb on that hot day. On that day I made a poor showing. I should have gone up to him. I should have taken his hand. I should have kissed his face” (346). This scene recurs in Charlie’s constant inner monologue, conjured up by a variety of different triggers. The level of control Charlie has over these sudden waves is minimal and the vision-like memories hinder his focus on the more dire circumstances in the present. Charlie’s obsession is unique in its evolution. As time goes on, moving his frame of reference further from any instance where Humboldt was physically present, his obsession morphs into a broader, impulsive focus on the past and the actions he did not take (and the theoretical effects those actions may have had on his future). The trap that ensnares Charlie walks the line of “acceptable” obsession—although the intrusive thoughts are surely disruptive, to say the least, it is can also be rationalized as grief, a shock to the system. Renata’s diatribe of Charlie’s so-called-mourning succinctly distinguishes the two, and allows for insight into the gradient of mania over time. Charlie also scores 11 scalre points of the 20 possible, which is the same quantitative value as Gutman, but Charlie’s acute obsession arises primarily from how often his thoughts are invaded by Humboldt, both dead and alive.



            Assigning quantifiable values to the pathologies of Trina, Gutman, and Charlie allows for a sincere investigation of the very individual forms of obsession exemplified by each. The different patterns correlate generally to intensity and duration. Gutman has violent moments of intensity in his quest for the falcon, and Charlie’s duration of obsession with Humboldt—which continues even after his death—is quite extreme. Trina is the most interesting to pattern-read because, as she develops throughout the novel, the intensity of her neuroses slowly heightens, pushing the duration of her obsession to its limits. Similarly, Gutman is inadvertently dragged to the limits of his addiction; ultimately, both Trina and Gutman are “destroyed” (in a purely physical meaning of the word) at the end of their obsessions. Trina’s death is simply delineated from her highly focused, unyielding hang-up; Gutman’s death is related to his, although in a convoluted manner; both involve the degradation of their respective relationships and a prioritization of their obsessive object above everything else. It remains to be seen whether Charlie truly releases his obsession with Humboldt; that is not to say that he completely wipes Humboldt from his mind, but rather is no longer fixated upon him. The reburial of Humboldt appears to imply an end to his troubles, leaving Charlie planning “to take up a different kind of life” (490). This certainly seems optimistic about Charlie leaving his obsession behind, but the fruits of these hopes are never explicitly depicted.

Although these pathologies are often demonized (and there definitely are serious consequences of such an obsession), the incidence of such a strong craze is also a powerful mechanism of preservation for these three characters. All three look to protect some faction of themselves. Trina’s preservation is a desperate attempt to retain normalcy, her habits, masking her fragility and, above all, fear. Her interactions with McTeague have fundamentally changed the course of her life, not just because McTeague is brutish, but because it constitutes a certain loss of self. As she becomes more and more detached from the life she knew before McTeague, the more fiercely she holds onto the gold, the money, and her physical ability to save and something, anything. Charlie’s preservation is related, but is two-fold. It is both Charlie’s preservation of Humboldt as a greater person than the specter he sees on the street right before his death, and Charlie’s need to save himself by doing so. Charlie is seeking answers to his current decline that is paralleled to the decline in Humboldt’s past. In a way, he is getting something out of it, as Renata accuses him of doing—the conservation of Humboldt’s memory is also a conservation of Charlie’s future. Saul Bellow also presents this obsession as far more positive than Frank Norris does Trina’s—Charlie’s obsession comes to a head with a form of release and a noble gesture; whereas Trina’s obsession leads her to a complete disregard for her own safety. On the other hand, Gutman’s preservation is by far the least obvious. Gutman’s actions indicate a protection of his purpose. He has built an entire network dedicated to tracking down this bird and has invested years of his life into this endeavor. At this point, finding this Maltese Falcon is a part of his identity. Quitting would incur huge losses, and would feel like a colossal waste to Gutman, although there is no way to get back the years he’s already used in the search. The payoff of finding the bird has something to do with money, for sure, but the greater payoff deals with Gutman’s self-constructed identity surrounding this object.


Like most emotion and human elements, obsession is extremely difficult to put to a test, to hold to a rigid standard. However, attempting to apply a system of values to behavior can be beneficial in analysis. The Y-BOC is fortunately very fluid, and allows assessment of each individual and circumstances subjectively. Using this quantification method in conjunction with inquiry within the minds of Trina Sieppe, Casper Gutman, and Charlie Citrine furthers the comparison between the different forms of their obsession. Although all three are fixated, the natures of their fixations are so diverse and can be ambiguous. The observation of these behaviors confers reality unto these works of fiction and spurs the connections between these pathologies and the actions that follow.

[1] St. Louis OCD Group. Y-BOC Symptom Checklist, accessed 24 April 2016.

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