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In the annals of literature, naturalism was the dominant genre of the late nineteenth century. In this form of literature, authors such as Stephen Crane and Jack London made their marks. Another author, who made his mark and even defined himself within the confines of this genre, was Frank Norris, the author of a Naturalistic masterpiece called McTeague. For those who have familiarized themselves with Old Norse mythology and medieval English literature, the characters in McTeague strike a familiar chord. The entire story reads like an epic, with its lavish descriptions and fate-driven characters. Through his description of imagery and thought, Frank Norris recreates the Norse epic through the distinctive lens of Naturalism by replacing the constructs of the mythology with the tendencies of his characters.
But why would Frank Norris do this? And for that matter, why is it even important? The reasons for these are very simple. Frank Norris began writing McTeague as an assignment at Harvard University, but continued writing the novel until its completion in 1899 (Hart). During his time there he would have also studied old literature, including the epics and sagas. He would have been inspired by these old texts to create stories based upon similar principles, and he would have tied the precepts of the literature to the literary movement which he identified with.
Of course, to understand how Naturalism and epic convention connect, the reader must have a modest understanding of both conventions. Epic writing contains the following conventions: detailed romanticized description, a journey, use of supernatural elements including fate, large-scale conflict or a duel, and a descent into the underworld. This form of literature was also written exclusively in a poetic form from the earliest known epics (I.e. Iliad, Aeneid) to the late thirteenth century (I.e. Divina Comedia).
Comparatively, American Naturalism is an extremely young movement. According to Doctor Robert L. Lynch of Longwood University, the convention of American Naturalism is that the literature "assumes that humans have little or no control over what happens to them. [They] are unable to exercise free willâ€¦ andâ€¦ are at the mercy of external and internal forces which control their destinies" (Lynch). At this point a parallel is beginning to appear. Both the Epic and Naturalist writings are driven by fate and amongst other higher powers.
But how does American Naturalism directly relate to Norse epics? The answer is simply wyrd (pronounced wÅ«rd). According to Liuzza, "Wyrdâ€¦ is related to the verb 'weorthan,' meaning roughly 'to occur.' [It's] meaning range from a neutral 'event' to a prescribed 'destiny' to a personified 'Fate'; it is useful to think of [it] as 'what happens,' usually in a negative sense" (Liuzza). Wyrd can also be described as the inexplicability and inevitability of the passage of time; an object which cannot be controlled by human will or ideal, but constantly exerts its own force over all worldly things. In this way, Wyrd also can be used to describe fate's physically described exertions in McTeague on the characters.
Another way in which McTeague directly relates to the Norse epics is in the use of characters to display human virtues and vices. In the epics, virtues are represented by mighty heroes, like the courage of Beowulf or the loyalty of Sigrun in Saga of the Volungs; vices are commonly represented by monsters like envy as Grendel or the greed of Fafnir the dragon in Beowulf & Saga of the Volsungs, respectively. Unfortunately, this is where Frank Norris breaks from epic convention, in that none of his primary characters represent virtue. However, he represents the vices of mankind admirably. He especially focuses upon the devolutionary power of greed and the murderous influence of wrath and envy. Of course, to support my argument it is necessary to draw parallels between the characters in McTeague and the monsters and concepts in some Norse epics.
In McTeague, the character of Marcus Schoeler is a symbol of human envy, shown in an intense scene:
"But Marcus was far from appeasedâ€¦ it seemed that Marcus was telling Heise of some injuryâ€¦ and that the latter was trying to pacify him. All at once their talk grew louderâ€¦ Marcus swung himself around in his chair, and, fixing his eyes on McTeague, cried as if in answer to some protestation on the part of Heise:
'All I know is that I've been soldiered out of five-thousand dollars.'
'â€¦it's my due - it's only justice'" (Norris 82-83).
In this scene, Marcus is claiming that he deserves the money that his cousin Trina won in the lottery, since he gave up his suit of her for McTeague, his friend at the time.
This puts the character in a similar light to Grendel. Grendel and his unnamed mother were exiled from human society, likely for their involvement in a blood-feud. Grendel kills the warriors of Denmark's King Hrothgar while they celebrate in their mead-hall because of his envy for their happiness and good fortune. This envious incarnation in Beowulf meets his fate at the hands of a heroic character, who challenges him on his own unarmed terms (T. b. Liuzza). Marcus Schoeler dies, similarly, to the bare hands of McTeague (Norris 243).
This parallel between Marcus and Grendel is deeper than a simple coincidence. It could be similar because of the old maxim that "there is nothing new under the sun," or it could be a similarity caused by Frank Norris' own familiarity with the old romantic method of description (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The same fate awaits both characters, as described above, and they are killed by their unarmed opponents, who drew them into battle by playing to their envious natures.
There are two characters whose obsession with money becomes a manifestation of human greed. Trina McTeague is one of them. After she wins the lottery, she becomes obsessed with hoarding her money unto herself and not sharing it. She also saves whatever money she (and her husband) earns, even unto the detriment of her own health (Norris). In one scene she is described as "[playing] with [her] money by the hour, piling it, and repiling it, or gathering it all into one heapâ€¦ again, she would draw the heap lovingly toward her and bury her face in it, delighted at the smell of it and the feel of the smooth, cool metal upon her cheeksâ€¦ She loved the money with an intensity that she could hardly express" (Norris 170).
This love of wealth and the desire to hoard simply for its own sake is reflected in the dragons of Norse mythology. In Saga of the Volsungs, the dragon whose name is Fafnir kills his father in order to take the ransom paid for his brother Otter. Fafnir is slain by a hero who comes seeking glory and fortune, but as he passes he lays the following curse, "that same gold will be your death [Sigurd], as it will be the death of all who possess it" (Byock 65). It is also reflected by the obsessive guardianship of the Dragon in Beowulf, who goes on a rampage when he discovers that a single cup is missing from his hoard (T. b. Liuzza).
These characterizations are very similar, and they all end in the same fates for those who follow the same path. They are all slain by humans. Though the exact circumstances are different for each one, the overall concept is the same, Trina, Fafnir, and the Dragon in Beowulf are all undone by their greed, and they are all killed.
Some may argue that this characterization could be applied to most of the characters in McTeague, especially Zerkow. The only problem with this idea is that Zerkow never actually has a proper hoard. In Norse epics, the dragons described are always in possession of great wealth that attracts the attention of the human hero of the tale. Zerkow is described pretty specifically as being in possession of nothing better than "a miserable hovel" repeatedly throughout the novel (Norris).
Another interesting parallel is the cursed treasure. In McTeague, the story reaches its climax when McTeague kills his wife and takes her fortune. This is his journey, as he attempts to go to Mexico. Through a series of wyrd events he winds up going into Death Valley, the veritable underworld of this epic, with the gold and is captured by Marcus Schoeler. After he kills Schoeler, McTeague finds himself handcuffed to a corpse in the middle of a desert with no water, staring at the golden cage of a bird who he wouldn't give up and the pouch of golden coins that he stole (Norris 243). In Saga of the Volsungs Sigurd is killed by his in-laws after an object from Fafnir's hoard (the ring Andvaranaut) is given as a wedding band twice (to different women each time) (Byock). In Beowulf, the same treasure spells Beowulf's death sentence, and would have done the same for all the Geats had Wiglaf not had it burned with Beowulf (T. b. Liuzza).
In all cases, the desire to acquire, and the gold itself lead to the deaths of those who have sought it out. The dragons who held it are killed by humans, who in the end are doomed completely by the monetary treasure that they fought so hard to gain. As it is said at the end of Beowulf, "In the barrow they placed rings and bright jewels,/ all the trappings that those reckless men/ had seized from the hoard before,/ let the earth hold the treasures of earls,/ gold in the ground, where it yet remains,/ just as useless to men as it was before" (T. b. Liuzza 79). Of course, Frank Norris uses his ending scene to reflect upon the values of industrial America and the superficiality of his contemporaries' greed.
But it can't possibly be all bad. There has to be some saving grace in McTeague. This is the case, and the pair of characters eerily mirror both the actions and the circumstances of another pair of characters in Saga of the Volsungs.
In McTeague, we are presented with the character of Old Grannis, who is described as an Englishman in his sixties who does book-binding. We are also presented with the character of Miss Baker, a woman in her sixties who lives next-door to Old Grannis. Though they both act awkwardly in social occasions when the other is present, they have never been introduced formally. What finally brings them to be introduced is that Grannis sells the device which he invented for book-binding. Miss Baker, not hearing him at work through their small partition of wall, takes tea to his apartment and offers him a cup. He accepts, and "together they [enter] upon the long retarded romance of their commonplace and uneventful lives" (Norris 177-182). After this, they are never mentioned again, and we are left to assume that they live the rest of their lives in happiness.
In Saga of the Volsungs, we are presented with the subplot of the warrior Helgi. After a successful battle, Helgi comes across a large group of "womenâ€¦ by the edge of a forestâ€¦ riding in magnificent attire" (Byock 48). He discovers that the woman at their head is named Sigrun, and she is being delivered to marry Hodbrodd, the son of King Granmar. She begs for Helgi to fight Hodbrodd and Granmar so that he can take her instead; which he does (Byock 48-50). This rite of proposal and battle to take a wife is common in Norse legends, and was a common custom among the Germanic tribes like the Huns (to whom the Volsungs, including Helgi, belonged). After a successful battle at a place called Frekastein, "King Helgi assumed power in that kingdom andâ€¦ married Sigrun and became a famous and excellent king. And he is out of the saga" (Byock 50). Much like Old Grannis and Miss Baker, we are left to assume that these legendary figures live out the rest of their life in peace.
In a strange twist, at the battle of Frekastein, Sigrun comes to the aid of Helgi along with her band of shield-maidens (I.e. valkyries) (Byock 50). Sigrun's assistance for Helgi is reflected in Miss Baker bringing tea (a notably British custom) to Old Grannis; which makes him feel significantly better and brings them closer. Also, in a similar manner, when these chapters end, both pairs are never mentioned again. In both cases, readers are left with the impression that the characters will live long and be prosperous, whether that prosperity be emotional or monetary. The only difference is that we are blatantly told in Saga of the Volsungs that the characters had long lives. In McTeague we are left with the impression that this will be the case, but the ending of the scene is ambiguous, much like the end of the novel. In both cases, these are sub-plots, and therefore not the most important point of the story.
The most important point that can be drawn from this is that Frank Norris was an educated writer whose work used all of the conventions of the Norse epic to create a novelized analysis of human vice. He speaks specifically to the nature of human greed by keeping it in human terms, rather than applying majestic imagery to the same ideas. By transforming the monsters like Grendel into human equivalents he maintains the realism of the American Naturalists while still creating a fulfilling description. This Ameri-Norse epic redefines an old archetype while simultaneously fulfilling the structure of the most popular literary genre of its time. This is why we remember McTeague, in spite of the despicability of the characters.