Mining and Rape in Frank Norris's McTeague
Cavalier, Philip Acree, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)
Early in Frank Norris's novel McTeague, Maria Macapa brings the items she has pilfered from the apartments she cleans on San Francisco's Polk Street to Zerkow, the junk dealer, to sell. "[A]bsorbed at once in the affair," Zerkow becomes excited by the potential treasures contained in Maria's bag. In a passage characterized by violent haggling and sexually suggestive language the narrator catalogues the contents of Maria's pillowcase:
Then a long wrangle began. Every bit of junk in Maria's pillowcase was discussed and weighed and disputed. They clamored into each other's faces over Old Grannis's cracked pitcher, over Miss Baker's silk gaiters, over Marcus Schouler's whiskey flasks, reaching the climax of disagreement when it came to McTeague's instruments. (25)
Although the pillowcase contains items of little or no value, such as Grannis's cracked pitcher, and items of moderate value, such as the "hard bits, and excavators" she has stolen from McTeague, they are stimulating enough to be "discussed and weighed and disputed" (24, 25). The "climax" of the disagreement is reached over McTeague's collection of gold fillings. The object of Zerkow's desire is pure gold, and its purity--"virgin metal"--is represented in sexual terms:
[He] drew a quick breath as the three pellets suddenly flashed in Maria's palm. There it was, the virgin metal, the pure, unalloyed ore, his dream, his consuming desire. His fingers twitched and hooked themselves into his palms, his thin lips drew tight across his teeth. (26)
The term "virgin" here indicates initially what the rest of the description makes clear: that gold arouses Zerkow sexually.
Throughout McTeague, gold replaces the female body as the object of male sexual desire. The female body functions instead as a barrier which men such as Zerkow and McTeague, whom Norris figures as miners, penetrate and mutilate in order to reveal and take possession of gold hidden from them. When Zerkow sees the gold fillings in Maria's hand, he tries to take hold of them, but she quickly "shut[s] her fist over the pellets" (26). By placing her body between him and the object he desires momentarily, Maria prevents Zerkow from satisfying his desire to touch the gold (26). In this early scene, Zerkow pays Maria to surrender her gold, thereby satisfying his desire without violating her body; in later scenes, however, Zerkow will employ increasingly violent methods in order to pry from her grasp the gold he thinks she is hiding from him.
Although he does not hurt Maria in this scene, Zerkow causes himself pain because he must pay for what he desires. Zerkow "count[s] out to her the price of all her junk, grudging each piece of money as if it had been the blood of his veins" (26). Zerkow's response introduces one of the novel's central tropes: whether in its purest form or alloyed with other metals as currency, gold is like blood. According to the logic of this trope, extracting all the gold from a mountain vein would be like draining all the blood from a person's veins: it would lead to death and transform the body into waste.
McTeague and Zerkow each mutilates his wife's body in order to open her veins and release the gold which each believes his wife is withholding. Zerkow eventually marries Maria in order to stake his claim to the story she tells about a set of gold plates and serving dishes that her parents owned but lost. After the marriage, Zerkow forces her to repeat the gold service story endlessly to satisfy his desire for gold and to enable him to search in the narrative for a clue to the location of the gold service. When Maria's amnesia causes her to forget the story, Zerkow concludes that she is withholding the story because she has found the gold plates and is hiding them from him. Having convinced himself of this, Zerkow begins to act like a miner. Maria wakes up in the middle of the night, for example, to find Zerkow digging in their house for the gold service: "[she] would sometimes wake to find Zerkow gone from the bed, and would see him burrowing into some corner by the light of his darklantern and would hear him mumbling to himself:. …