“The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings” (“The Use of Naturalistic Techniques in Frank Norris’ McTeague and Jack London’s Novels”).The Naturalist Literary Movement erupted in the late nineteenth century, spawning an avant-garde school of thought in both the scientific and literary realms (“Frank Norris 1807-1902”).Partially inspired by Emile Zola’s novels and University of California-Berkley Professor Joseph Le Conte’s lectures, author Frank Norris sought to develop a naturalistic work himself. Incorporating aspects of Social Darwinism, Norris constructed the novel McTeague.The graphically blunt and politically incorrect taste of Norris’ writing generated extensive criticism from Victorian literary scholars.Nonetheless, these critiques did not entirely detract from the novel’s widespread popularity and literary acclaim.At any rate, Frank Norris wrote McTeague to naturalistically exemplify the theory of Social Darwinism.
Norris’ Social Darwinist characterization of McTeague epitomizes the naturalistic premise of the novel.The author’s portrayal of the innately misguided protagonist serves to embody the inferiority of his Irish ancestry.This philosophical concept functions as a profound instance of Naturalism, due to its theoretical stance on the correlation of fraudulent individuals and familial lineage.For example, McTeague’s instinctive sense of smell reveals the author’s animalistic description of the protagonist, “The odor of her hair, a charming feminine perfume, sweet, heavy, enervating, came to his nostrils, so penetrating, so delicious, that his flesh pricked and tingled with it; a veritable sensation of faintness passed over this huge, callous fellow, with his enormous bones and corded muscles” (Norris 20).On the platform of Social Darwinism, McTeague’s animalistic and uncivilized tendencies attest to biological inferiority. Additionally, a sectarianist wave of anti-Irish sentiment at the time indicates the author’s implementation of McTeague as a genetically deficient character (“The Use of Naturalistic Techniques in Frank Norris’ McTeague and Jack London’s Novels”).In summation, the author’s use of Social Darwinism stands as an example of Naturalism.
Likewise, the penny-pinching illustration of Zerkow exhibits a manifestation of Naturalism within the novel.The author characterizes Zerkow as an unprincipled Jew, who encompasses negligent miserly tendencies.His niggardly behavior, according to Norris, results from the inherent lowliness of Jewish ethnicity.For instance, Zerkow’s lust for his wife’s gold dishes, the foundation of the marital union, reflect the Jews’ inability to express civilized conduct. “Zerkow would surely get the information from her. Someday, if only he was persistent, he would hit upon the right combination of questions, the right suggestion that would disentangle Maria’s confused recollections. Maria would tell him where the thing was kept, was concealed, was buried, and he would go to that place and secure it, and all that wonderful gold would be his forever and forever. This service of plate had come to be Zerkow’s mania” (Norris 135).Norris argues that this lack of humanity stems from the Jews’ inherent affliction of avarice.Thus, Zerkow’s natural inclination for tightfisted frugality exemplifies a personification of Naturalism in the novel.
In regard to literary analyses of the novel, McTeague received fiery criticism upon its publication.Some literary scholars were disturbed by the novel’s inappropriate content and racist themes, including literary scholar Ernest Marchand (“Assignment Four—Frank Norris’ McTeague”).In his summary of the initial reviews of McTeague, Marchand contended that novel was, “the most unpleasant American story that anyone has ever ventured to write” (“Assignment Four—Frank Norris’ McTeague”).Marchand, along with other respected literary scholars, attributed McTeague as a primary cause of the escalation in Jewish bigotry and Anti-Semitist sentiment of the early twentieth century.These scholars reasoned that survival of the fittest theories should not be applied to human civilization.Essentially, they reprimanded the societal perils that could potentially result from the exploitation of Social Darwinism.In conclusion, McTeague was not well-received by all critics at the time of its publication, due to its offensive and provocative nature.
Concerning historical context, the Naturalist Literary Movement transpired in the nineteenth century, and it profoundly influenced Frank Norris’ work.In terms of chronology, Naturalism grew out of realism and romanticism, “Naturalism incorporated both the concern for surface detail of realism and the sensationalism and depth of romanticism. It differed from both, however, in occupying itself with all levels of contemporary life, particularly the low, rather than confining itself to one class or to the past” (“Naturalism”).The Naturalist Literary Movement formed in America and Europe, due to the ubiquitous use of the scientific method.As outlined by Loyola University Chicago Professor Carol Scheidenhelm, “The Naturalists believed in studying human beings as though they were ‘products’ that are to be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures” (“Naturalism”).Prominent Naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, and Jack London.Emile Zola, in particular, influenced the arrangement of McTeague, resulting from her naturalist novels that Frank Norris studied at the University of California-Berkley.In summation, the Naturalist Movement as a whole, prompted Frank Norris to write McTeague.
In conclusion, Frank Norris wrote McTeague to illustrate the theory of Social Darwinism in a naturalistic work. The author’s description of McTeague, particularly the degradation of his Irish ancestry, symbolizes a naturalistic foundation for the novel.Similarly, Zerkow’s miserly tendencies reveal his biological inferiority as an individual of Jewish ethnicity.McTeague did receive criticism, especially for its illicit content and chauvinistic propositions.Lastly, the rise of the genre of Naturalism immensely attributed to the novel’s construction as a whole. Despite the novel’s universal popularity, one should not interpret Frank Norris’ McTeague through a literal lens.
Brucker, Carl. “Assignment Four — Frank Norris McTeague.” American Literature: Capitalism and Socialism in American Literature 1860-1920. Arkansas Tech University, Web. 20 November 2015.
Gifford, D. “Frank Norris’ McTeague, Self-Concious Darwinism in the Late 1890’s.” Archives. Williams.edu, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 November 2015.
McElrath, Joseph, Jr. “Frank Norris (1807-1902).” Georgetown University. Georgetown University, Web. 20 November 2015.
Metzger, Dr. Sabine. “The Use of Naturalistic Techniques in Frank Norris’ McTeague and Jack London’s Novels.” Academia.edu. Academia 2015, Web. 20 November 2015.
Scheidenhelm, Dr. Carol. “Naturalism.” American Literary History: Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism. Loyola University Chicago, Web. 23 November 2015.