McTeague As A Social Commentary Essay, Research Paper
Written in 1899, Frank Norris? novel, McTeague serves as a view of societal factions of his time period. Norris illustrates the stratification of society in this San Francisco community by using the concept of Social Darwinism. He gives detailed accounts of the inner workings of society along with the emotions of the time. Through his characters, Norris shows the separation of classes and the greed that grew abundantly during the late 19th century. He also gives a grim picture of survival in his depiction of the theory of natural selection.
In the first chapter, Norris paints a picture of a town setting. He describes Polk Street as
?one of those cross streets peculiar to Western cities, situated in the heart of the residence quarter, but occupied by small trades people who lived in the rooms above their shops. There were corner drug stores with huge jars of red, yellow and green liquids in their windows, very brave and gay; stationers? stores, where illustrated weeklies were tacked upon bulletin boards; barber shops with cigar stands in their vestibules; sad-looking plumbers; offices; cheap restaurants, in whose windows one saw piles of unopened oysters weighted down by cubes of ice, and china pigs and cows knee deep in layers of white beans.?
In this paragraph, the reader gets a visual image of a town during the 19th century. Cozy, quaint and rather poor, this town exists as an example of any other town at this time. Also, in setting the activities of the time period, Norris describes the morning ritual on Polk Street to display the stratification of the classes. He writes:
? The laborers went trudging past in a straggling file- plumber?s apprentices, their pockets stuffed with sections of lead pipe, tweezers, and pliers; carpenters, carrying nothing but their little pasteboard lunch baskets painted to imitate leather; gangs of street workers, their overalls soiled with yellow clay, their picks and long-handled shovels over their shoulders?A little later following in the path of the day laborers came the clerks and shop girls, dressed with a certain cheap smartness? towards eleven o?clock the ladies from the great avenue a block above Polk Street made their appearance, promenading the sidewalks leisurely, deliberately??
Here the reader can see plain as day the separation of the classes of this time period. These people are separated by their occupation, which also determines their activity on Polk Street. In noticing this activity, one can see the distinct lines drawn between the workers and the wealthy.
Also, in this story of greed and deception told, the reader can see the underlying greed of the working class. The characters of Maria Macapa and Zerkow ooze greed from every pore. At the beginning of the novel, Maria can be found going through the tenant?s apartments for ?junk? to turn in to Zerkow for payment. Once there, she delights in telling the story of her family?s former fortune concentrating on a gold plate, for which Zerkow drools over the mere thought of. It is in this scene that the reader also learns of the obsession with gold that overtakes these two. In the description of their infatuations with money and objects, the reader gets a clear picture of both the desperation of the time and its evolution into greed.
In the development and climax of this novel, the reader sees a depiction Darwin?s theory of natural selection to accompany the Social Darwinism that is shown at the beginning in the description of the town goers. As the story concludes, the social interaction of the characters breaks down into violence and death. First, Zerkow killed Maria and himself. Then McTeague kills Trina. Finally, Marcus tracks down McTeague in the desert and they both die as McTeague kills Marcus and then he himself dies. It can be determined that this pattern is based on a sort of natural selection. Thus, the survival of the fittest is illustrated, where the strong survive and of the weak we dispose. In this case, the strong survive longer than the weak, but in the end they are all dead.
Within this novel lives a detailed account of life in the late 19th century, intertwined with a tale of greed and deception. Class structures are outlined and the social and economical practices are illustrated. However, the most poignant picture painted is one of animalism. The characters in the novel are driven by money and power, another theme that the reader may associate with the people of this period. Confucius said, ?A gentleman has three things to guard against. In the days of thy youth, ere thy strength is steady, beware of lust. When manhood is reached, in the fullness of strength, beware of strife. In old age, when thy strength is broken, beware of greed.? Perhaps these would have been good words of advice for McTeague and his friends.