75 pages 2 hours read

Frank Norris

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1899

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1899 and written by author Frank Norris, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco is a novel in the tradition of Naturalism, a literary movement that explores how people are at the mercy of forces, internal and external, that dictate their behavior and destiny. In McTeague, despite their attempts to fight these forces, even fundamentally good people are brought to their destruction by their nature, their environment, and their social class. As their tenuous hold on civilization dissolves, characters devolve into their basic animal states. The novel centers around McTeague, a slow, sluggish dentist in San Francisco who in both body and mind skirts the boundary between animal and human. After painting a picture of the mundane lives of McTeague and his friends, Norris introduces a catalyst that leads to the emergence of characters’ innermost instincts and examines what happens when these instincts collide. Norris also uses the California landscape to reflect the futility of humans’ endeavors to rise above their natures. The result is a grim vision of a world that is not only indifferent to humans but also hostile. Though McTeague himself slips into vulgarity and violence, his lack of free will prevents him from being wholly unsympathetic. McTeague looks at humanity through the lens of a ruthless, objective universe, asking whether we are truly to blame for our choices when so much works against us. This guide refers to the Penguin 20th Century Classics edition edited by Kevin Starr.

Plot Summary

McTeague, a former miner, is a young dentist who lives in a small flat in San Francisco. One day his best friend Marcus Schouler brings his cousin Trina Sieppe—whom it is understood Marcus will marry one day—to McTeague’s office because she has broken a tooth. McTeague treats her over the next few weeks. On one occasion McTeague is obliged to use anesthesia on Trina. While she is asleep, he wrestles fiercely with an urge to kiss her, ultimately succumbing and assaulting her. When she wakes up, he asks her to marry him. Instinctively fearful of him, Trina refuses.

When McTeague admits to Marcus that he loves Trina, Marcus decides he will step aside so McTeague can have her. In the following weeks McTeague frequently visits Trina and her family. When he kisses her again, she at first resists but then, compelled by instinctive enjoyment of submission, returns his kiss.

Trina learns that a lottery ticket she bought from Maria Macapa, the eccentric woman who cleans the flats in McTeague’s apartment building, has won her $5,000. After she and McTeague are engaged to be married, Trina insists they not spend any of her $5,000. Instead, she will invest it in her Uncle Oelbermann’s toy store, and he will pay her monthly interest. For extra income, she will also whittle Noah’s ark figures for his store. Marcus is furious that the lottery money would have been his if he had married Trina, and he blames McTeague for having what he believes is rightfully his.

Trina and McTeague are married, and they move into a larger apartment in McTeague’s building. Under Trina’s influence, McTeague’s habits are refined. Trina gradually grows more miserly with money, lying to McTeague about how much she has saved and refusing to help her mother when her father’s business fails.

One day shortly after Marcus moves to a ranch in Southern California, McTeague is informed he is not allowed to practice dentistry because he did not go to dental school. Though McTeague wants to depend on her lottery winnings or her savings, Trina insists their only option is to move into a small dirty room in the back of their building.

McTeague struggles to find new work. Trina becomes lax in her cleaning and appearance. After she refuses to give him money for the train on a rainy day, McTeague has whiskey with friends. When he returns home, he berates Trina for making them live in this shabby room and threatens to hit her.

McTeague slips back into his old habits and ceases looking for a job. He spends much of his time drinking, and when he returns, he hurts Trina, often biting her fingers. When he is out, Trina counts and plays with her money, which she hides from McTeague.

To save even more money, Trina makes McTeague move into the back room of the house where Maria Macapa was murdered by her husband Zerkow. When McTeague steals her savings and disappears, Trina falls into a fit. She also learns that because of the damage done by McTeague biting her fingers and her painting Uncle Oelbermann’s toys, several of her fingers must be amputated.

Trina moves to a room above a kindergarten, where she works as a scrubwoman. Dejected by the loss of her savings, she coerces Uncle Oelbermann to return her $5,000, which she plays with and sleeps with in her room. McTeague, now living in the back of a music shop where he works, asks her for money one night, but she refuses. The next night he kills her as she works in the kindergarten.

Instinct leads McTeague back to the mine where he worked when he was younger. He enjoys his life for a time, until he is moved by an inexplicable urge to flee. Two days later police officers arrive, having traced him from San Francisco to arrest him for Trina’s murder. Now on the run, McTeague ends up in the desert town of Keeler, California. He meets a man named Cribbens, who invites McTeague to go with him toward the Armagosa Mountains to prospect for gold.

On the way to the mountains, Cribbens and McTeague strike gold. As they set up their camp, McTeague is plagued by an even greater urge to flee. He abandons the camp and heads through the desert, deciding to cross Death Valley to throw his unknown pursuer off his trail. Several brutal days into his journey, he encounters Marcus, who is helping the sheriff in his pursuit. The two men have a physical altercation, and McTeague kills Marcus. Before dying, Marcus handcuffs himself to McTeague, who is left in the middle of Death Valley with no water.