McTeague Essay
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McTeague Essay

Course: ENG 4W, Fall 2008

School: UCLA

Word Count: 976

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Steve Shaffer Devine English 4W (11) 29 October 2007 What Truly Is the Difference? If you look at McTeague, if you just skim over the text, youll notice theres a great deal of description. Theres an abundance of long, drawn-out paragraphs chronicling the setting of the scene, or detailing mundane activities of the characters, or simply giving details that seem unnecessary to our understanding of the story. And...

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Shaffer Steve Devine English 4W (11) 29 October 2007 What Truly Is the Difference? If you look at McTeague, if you just skim over the text, youll notice theres a great deal of description. Theres an abundance of long, drawn-out paragraphs chronicling the setting of the scene, or detailing mundane activities of the characters, or simply giving details that seem unnecessary to our understanding of the story. And indeed, often times the objects mentioned in these paragraphs are left at their descriptions, never to be brought up again. So we ask: "Why does Frank Norris spend so much time on these descriptions? Why waste time describing objects when he could be building plot or developing characters?" And in response, were asked, "Whats so important about plots and characters?" In McTeague we see a rebellion against the accepted and expected romantic literary style through a very specific use of emphasis. Emphasis is taken from the characters in the story and given to non-characters, challenging the very existence of the commonly assumed functional divide between these two entities. Normally (insofar as "normalcy" is defined by the standard of romantic literature), when a story has characters (as most do) the focus of the reader is first and foremost on those characters. In McTeague, Norris fights against this natural bias the reader places on the text by intentionally emphasizing non-characters in the story. For example, in describing Zerkows junk shop, Norris writes, Shaffer 2 "Everything was there, every trade was represented, every class of society, things of iron and cloth and wood; all the detritus that a great city sloughs off in its daily life. Zerkows junk shop was the last abiding place, the almshouse, of such articles as had outlived their usefulness" (28). This is more than just junk. Theres a story behind each and every piece in the shop. Norris even goes so far as to say that every class of society was represented. Since classrepresentation is an action usually performed by people, not objects, this personification creates a very unique situation. By placing an uncommon emphasis on these material "things" Norris raises these inanimate objects to the same level of attention as the characters in the story, causing the reader to question whether a difference truly exists between the characters and this other organic matter. This counter-emphasis away from characters and onto objects also plays an important role in the foreshadowing used in the text. One of the tools Norris uses to foreshadow in McTeague is the placing of words in quotations, which gives the "word" a tinge of sarcasm. This sarcasm in turn foreshadows events, as evidenced in the way Norris describes the paint Trina uses on her Noahs ark animals as "Little pots of ,,nonpoisonous paint" (160). The sarcasm behind the term "non-poisonous" foreshadows the eventual paint poisoning Trina will get from the paint. Whats interesting here is the object thats used to foreshadow this event. Norris does not point out Trinas Rather "health." he uses the paint, a non-character, to foreshadow the loss of Trinas health. We see another instance of this at the beginning of the novel when Norris describes Shaffer 3 McTeagues office, referring to it as McTeagues ",,Dental Parlors on Polk Street ..." (6). The sarcasm generated by the quotation around "Dental Parlors" seems to suggest that these are somehow not real "Dental Parlors," which indeed they are not because McTeague never went to dental school. And in fact, theyre ultimately taken away from him for just this reason. Again, the object used to foreshadow the impending fate of McTeague was a non-character, the "Parlors." Norris could just as easily have introduced McTeague as "Doctor" McTeague, and achieved the same result, but he chose to again elevate the attention of the non-character, rather than elevate the already inflated emphasis that the "normal" reader gives to McTeague. And through this counteremphasis, Norris ever so slowly closes the gap between characters and non-characters. But this divide is not bridged only by bringing non-characters up to the level of characters. Norris also brings characters down to the level of non-characters. For example, McTeague himself is portrayed in such a way so as to stress his animal-like attributes. The very first description of McTeague, mind and body, is summarized by saying, "Altogether he suggested the draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient" (6). The question then arises: if after summing up both his body and his mind by saying they were just like those of the draught horse, what truly is the difference between McTeague and a horse? Zerkow too is introduced to the reader in a similar manner as "the rags-bottles-sacks man" (23). The phrase out of context would conjure an image of a scarecrow-like figure made of rags, bottles, and sacks. And still this is the phrase chosen to define Zerkow. This metaphor then raises the same question: if the junk he peddles defines Zerkows existence, what truly is the difference between Zerkow and his junk? Questions of just this sort are asked of the reader all throughout the novel. Shaffer 4 They are questions that are not dissimilar from the question, "What truly is so special about being human when science shows us that we are, genetically, only 5% different from non-human primates?" Such inquiries were crucial during the time period in which McTeague was written. Building from Charles Darwins theory of evolution, many were asking similar questions. In this context, McTeague seems to be a reflection of the identity crisis of a society that was encountering more and more resistance to the romanticized identity it previously held. McTeague is a challenge to the romantic ideal of what it means to be human, a challenge that uses as its only premise, observation. And a challenge like that that is tough to counter. What truly is the difference between my life and the life of a tree, except that the tree will most likely outlive me?

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