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S U Z Y B E R N S T E I N G O L D M A N City University of New York McTeague: The Imagistic Network Critics have recognized at least three major strands of imagery in McTeague:1 gold, animals (particulary dogs), and machinery. These images, it is generally agreed, both unify the novel and re­ flect upon its themes of greed, animalism, and mechanism. A large number of equally important images, however, has passed un­ noticed through the scholarly canon. These other images not only bring out themes interesting in themselves; they also relate to each other and to the three images above in a manner which shows that an entire imagistic network is basic to the structure of McTeague. The discovery of that network proves that Norris was a far more conscious artist than we have yet realized. In McTeague he uses imagery to describe characters, both as individuals and in relation to others, to elucidate themes, and to forecast events such as the scene in Death Valley. Part of my thesis here is to show how the severely criticized ending of McTeague grows out of the imagistic structure. Because of the interrelatedness of these images, I will not discuss them as completely separate but will refer from one to another in an effort to establish their connections. These images include food, liquid, fights, teeth, hands, prisons or bonds, and music. The novel opens with a description of one of McTeague’s Sun­ day afternoons: It was Sunday, and according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductor’s coffee joint on Polk Street. He had a thick, gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. On his way back to the office . . . he bought a pitcher of steam beer. (p. 1) i All quotations from McTeague are in parentheses. The page numbers refer to Frank Norris, Collected Works (Port Washington, N.Y., 1967). All references to the Collected Works other than McTeague will be given in completed form in the Footnotes. 84 Western American Literature That Norris was particularly concerned with opening para­ graphs is clear from “The Mechanics of Fiction.”2 It is no accident that McTeague begins with a dinner. The meal not only describes the mechanical regularity of McTeague’s life; it also describes Mc­ Teague. The animalistic nature of the hero is exposed.3 “Thick,” “heavy,” and “strong” may refer here to the food, but they will be used again and again in relation to McTeague: Altogether he suggested the draught horse, immensely strong. (p.3) His limbs were heavy with ropes of muscles, (p. 3) His huge feet, in their thick gray socks, dangled over the edge of the foot rest. (p. 159) Above his giant shoulders rose his thick red neck. (p. 154) The primitive nature of McTeague is quickly established through the parallels between the hero and the food. Our aware­ ness of that nature is reinforced when, paragraphs after the initial quotation, we learn that McTeague’s mother used to cook for the miners at Big Dipper. The mine functions throughout the novel as an image of the primitive, as a crude analogy to dentistry. The first chapter introduces all of the major images of our discussion. Just as McTeague’s animal nature is made obvious through his meal, so his spiritual side becomes clear in his favorite possessions, a canary and a concertina, both of which are associated with music. The yellow canary, however, is imprisoned in a gilt cage, suggesting thereby that gold is the force that traps all the characters. McTeague’s relation to gold is presented through his blond hair and red bands. Norris uses the two colors of gold to describe his central character who buys an engraving of the court of “Lorenzo de Medici because there were a great many figures in it for the money.” (p. 3) Another item in McTeague’s posses­ sions is a stone pug dog which reinforces the protagonist’s connec­ tions with animals...


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