Who's the Boss? McTeague, Naturalism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

By Jacobson, Karen F. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1999 | Go to article overview

Who's the Boss? McTeague, Naturalism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder


Jacobson, Karen F., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The late 19th century in America was a time of technological advances, demographic transformations, and scientific and psychological inquiries of great magnitude. In addition to these new environmental factors, the impact of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 and, later, Freud's writings on human behavior caused disorientation in the sphere of human development. Human beings were now perceived to be subject to many external and internal forces over which they had little control. Indeed, the question of what governs human conduct became centrally important in science, religion, and ethics as well as in psychology.

Such questions were also a major concern for Frank Norris, an American writer of the late 19th century, and especially evident in his 1899 novel McTeague. Throughout the novel, the protagonist repeatedly asks his wife Trina "Who's the boss?" - a question prompted in part by her winning of a $5,000 lottery ticket and played out in McTeague's eventual murder of her. As a Naturalist, and follower of Emile Zola, Norris believed that human behavior could largely be understood in terms of the impact of heredity, environment, and the pressure of circumstance, and that free will or the ability to make choices was limited. What also interested him, in turn, was how such beliefs might affect individuals and/or how such theories might be enlisted to account for the abnormal or pathological in human behavior.

With the question of "Who's the boss?" in mind, my purpose in the following essay is to examine the way that Norris uses this novel as a laboratory for examining the relationship between determinism and responsibility, and how in the process he creates characters who evidence symptoms of what today is known as obsessive-compulsive disorder. In order to foreground both the contemporary relevance and the larger context of Norris's pioneering efforts, I will first briefly describe the current theories of obsessive-compulsive behavior anti trace them back to the early research on this psychiatric disorder begun in the 19th century; then I will identify the key points of similarity between such thinking and that of Naturalism; finally, I will provide a detailed analysis of McTeague with a view to suggesting how a novelist's struggle with conflicting attitudes toward moral responsibility provides observations closely connected to those of medical practitioners today. In this way, my essay will complement but also extend beyond studies by William Freedman and Edwin Haviland Miller which note compulsive behavior components in McTeague but in a more general psychological sense.

After years of study, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is now thought to evidence a distinctive set of closely related symptoms. At the VIIIth World Congress of Psychiatry in Athens, Greece, in October 1989, psychiatrists Steven A. Rasmussen and Jane L. Eisen stated that OCD almost always includes an underlying feeling of incompleteness, pathological doubt or abnormal risk assessment; behavior characterized by multiple obsessions or compulsions; an exchange of one obsession for another during the course of the illness; and no significant differences in the course, prognosis, or response to treatment amongst subtypes of the illness (20). Although obsessive behavior is often coupled with compulsive behavior, the two are somewhat different. An obsession is a persistent, ritualized thought pattern; a compulsion is a persistent, ritualized behavior pattern. In 1979, psychiatrist Matig Mavissakalian proposed a productive functional classification which consists of four forms: "(a) obsessions; (b) obsessions plus anxiety-reducing compulsions; (c) obsessions plus anxiety-increasing compulsions; and (d) autonomous compulsions" (qtd. in Jenike and Asberg 14). Thus, obsessions and compulsions can occur by themselves or jointly and are frequently accompanied by feelings of anxiety.

A decidedly human trait, anxiety is often associated with a perception of loss of security, and, according to psychiatrist Leon Salzman, it is a reaction caused by "feelings of isolation and imposed or imagined threats to [one's] feeling acceptable as a person" (8). …

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