Under Frank Norris's
pen, American fiction turned from genteel, bloodless realism to robust, bloody naturalism. Norris's most famous book, MCTEAGUE, A STORY OF SAN FRANCISCO (1899), shows how a man's long-suppressed animal instincts break through his outwardly civilized wrapper, with dramatic and devastating results. MCTEAGUE tells the story of an oxlike dentist and his wife, and their fatal obsession with wealth -- or, more specifically, with gold. In the dog-eat-dog world of the naturalists, people engage in vicious struggle against the forces arrayed against them, including their own inherited brutish instincts and environmental forces they can barely understand, much less withstand. The strongest of these environmental forces, of course, is the capitalist struggle of the "survival of the fittest," the social Darwinian philosophy at the root of naturalism.
At first McTeague has a simple but satisfying life, surrounded by three symbolic possessions: a caged canary, a concertina, and a gold-plated molar he wants to use as his shop sign. McTeague can be seen as the canary, imprisoned in his gilt cage by the forces of society and heredity; the concertina represents his pleasure in plebeian culture and the molar, his crude profession. Norris also shows the effects of striving for social status. McTeague comes from a family of poor miners; as a dentist, he is barely on the cusp of professional respectability. Described as "hopelessly stupid," he reverts to his innate brutish roots. His wife, Trina, comes from equally humble origins, but apes what she perceives to be the habits of those higher up the social scale. Previous