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History 165 Prof. Furner McTeague: A Story of San Francisco Frank Norris (1899) Norris invoked in this classic naturalist novel both the energy of the city’s densely inhabited working class districts at the turn of the century and the intensity of the compulsions that drove his vivid characters. 1. Who is McTeague? What does our first meeting with him tell us about his tastes and appetites, his capacities and limitations? What sort of life is he leading, with whom does he associate, and what possessions does he prize? How does meeting Trina transform the routines he has established for himself ? 2. Who is Trina? Place her socially, in family, class, and ethnic group? Where did she seem to be headed before meeting Mac? What rules did she go by? Why was the kiss that Mac took from her on a rainy evening such a powerful turning point? Why did Trina marry Mac? How big a deal was the wedding? 3. What do we see as the newly weds set up their little apartment? How do they go about making a life together? What changes did marriage to Trina bring Mac? How did the winning lottery ticket change the their relationship and their lives? How did Mac lose his dental practice, and with what consequences? 4. Greed is a powerful theme in the book, infecting Zerkow and Maria, but also Mac, Trina, and Marcus. How does Norris weave the attraction of gold into the story? Compare the lure of gold to Trina and Zerkow, the Jew? What turned Trina away from the small pleasures of her early marriage such as shopping for cheap luxuries for her new home toward a miserly passion that undermined her relations with husband and mother? How low did she sink for gold? Can you relate any of this to the significance of the gold standard as a pivot of U. S. politics in the Gilded Age? 5. Other powerful themes are alcoholism and abuse, including the physical abuse Mac used to control Trina. How did drinking affect McTeague? Why did he love Trina less from the moment he won her? Why did he end up slapping her, biting her fingers, and eventually killing her? Did Trina abuse Mac? 6. Norris gives us symbols to carry meanings. What do you take from these: Mac’s furnishings: (concertina, canary cage, steel engraving of the court of Lorenzo de'Medici), the great gold tooth Trina gave him, the gold dinner service Zerkow begged Maria constantly to tell about? What other symbols appealed to you? Was there a strange symmetry in the way Trina clung to her gold pieces and Mac to his canary—though both would kill them? in his stealing her gold and her selling his concertina? 7. Compare what you took from the relationships of three couples in the novel: McTeague and Trina Zerkow and Maria Old Grannis and Miss Baker (why are they here?) 8. At one level, McTeague is a story of a struggle between redemption through love and corruption by greed. At another, it is about people struggle for control. At another it pits nature against culture. At yet another it pits a man, full of energy and power but brutish and dull against a woman, finer than he and repelled by his coarseness but wanting to submit, to be conquered and then to conquer and civilize the brute. (Recall also how Mac’s mother changed him when she sent off with the itinerant dentist.) What do these interwoven themes tell us of Norris’s ideas about humanity? Can we say that the hero, McTeague, changed in the novel? How? By what forces, people, or events? Was he responsible for his actions, as Norris tells it? 10. How does the novel deal with race and class? Are they constructed, as we believe today, or embedded in nature? Do you see in this story what you consider real love?
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