Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"For His Own Satisfaction": Eliminating the New Woman Figure in McTeague

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"For His Own Satisfaction": Eliminating the New Woman Figure in McTeague

Article excerpt

In the 1924 film Greed, Erich von Stroheim attempted to translate Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague page by page. According to Mary Lawlor, Stroheim told critic Edwin Shallert in 1923, "It has always been my determination to produce the story exactly as it was written" (389). Indeed, Greed not only recounts the characters and plot of McTeague, but also uses stylistic excesses and repetitions, like Norris's novel, to draw viewers into the same violent world it suggests they critique. The film's carnival-like music, for example, the dizzying movement of its carousel horses, its expressionist images of bodies writhing, and its repetitive language all create a gripping story that engages viewers as much as it cautions them. My project in this essay is to point to connections between such excesses and repetitions, the emergence of the New Woman figure in the United States at the turn of the century, and the representational difficulty reflected in Norris's novel, in particular. In confronting key tensions associated with the New Woman figure, that is, Norris's novel dismantles its own fledgling representations of potential New Woman characters by distorting these characters' most recognizable New Woman traits, revealing not only the complexity of Norris's relationship with the New Woman figure, but also encouraging readers to overlook the horrors endured by characters whose flirtation with New Womanhood leads not to the evolutionary progression of a native white strain but to violence, regression, and (of course) greed.

As early as 1899, readers of McTeague have acknowledged the novel's difficult story, the problem of its violent content; they also have found ways to justify that content, or at least to render the brutality of its representation as natural, deserved. An 1899 review acknowledges: "Mr. Frank Norris has been blamed ... for choosing the theme of McTeague." Still, this same critic continues, "but it is only just to him to say that he has handled his material fearlessly, that he has steadfastly followed out his premises to the end" (Barry 35-36). Another 1899 critic revels in the novel's descriptive merit: "The tragic moments are described with undeniable vigor, and there is no criminal incident that does not freshen up and relieve the mean things which fill the narrative, and thus become positively welcome" ("A Rough Novel" 38). Another writes," There is a certain fascination in a book like this--the fascination of murder and other hideous crimes" ("Literature" 46). I am interested in the narrative strategies the novel uses, most strikingly its compulsive repetitions and its subsequent silences, to cultivate these kinds of reactions in readers. I am even more interested in the narrative strategies that might have effected the following reaction, also in 1899: "the woman is responsible for the miserable outcome" ("A Story of San Francisco" 30).

It is a long-recognized feature of Norris's novel that the central woman subjected to abuse tends to be read with waning sympathy. Norris scholar George Spangler writes:

   [The novel's] conclusion ... gives the reader further cause to
   excuse McTeague's physical brutality and place the burden of
   responsibility on Trina.... Even the murder is presented in a way
   that shifts responsibility from murderer to victim.... Norris quite
   skilfully [sic] manages to make the reader feel at least some
   sympathy for McTeague and none for Trina, a sympathy that increases
   as McTeague assumes the role of doomed fugitive in the final pages
   of the novel. Throughout the process of their degeneration then,
   Norris presents McTeague as Trina's victim. (94-95)

Whether they comment on Trina's culpability, Norris's talent, or the narrative's intrigue, the above readers have found ways to justify McTeague's blows, as Spangler's comment suggests. What is more problematic is that these readers also seem to participate in the novel's fantasies of violence by examining its protagonist's brutality from what Elaine Scarry calls the "nonvulnerable" end of the weapon. …

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