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B A R B A R A H O C H M A N Tel Aviv University Vandover and the Brute: The Decisive Experience of Loss Philosophical ideas in fiction... are often inadequate guides to the interpretation of the novel in which they appear. —Donald Pizer1 In the work of Frank Norris — as in that of Dreiser and other “naturalist” writers of fiction — a tension often emerges between the dramatic action of the novel and the philosophical comments of the narra­ tive voice. Sometimes the tension becomes an outright contradiction. That this issue is especially relevant to any discussion of Norris’s fiction can be seen by the abundance of essays which take on the problem of aesthetic unity and philosophical consistency within Norris’s individual works.2 Not surprisingly, the best novels present the most difficult problems. Both McTeague and The Octopus have stimulated a great deal of discus­ sion along these lines, discussion which has often, in both cases, focussed on interpretation of the ending.3 William Dean Howells was only the first to consider the ending of McTeague as a flaw in the unity of the whole; in recent years critics have defended the validity of the final scene on a variety of grounds.4 Discussions of the ending of The Octopus have cen­ tered especially on the relation between Presley and the narrator, or Presley and Norris himself. Critics have tried to determine the extent to which Presley is meant to be seen as an authorial spokesman, or on the contrary, as an object of irony, especially in his ultimate optimism.5 4 Western American Literature Nowhere is the problem of philosophical consistency and the relation between the narrator and the protagonist more complex than in Norris’s earliest work of fiction, Vandover and the Brute. Any discussion of the logic or meaning of Vandover’s decline must confront the question of the explicit interpretations of Vandover’s behavior provided throughout the novel by the narrative voice. Most critical examinations of Vandover and the Brute continue to focus on the main “ideas” of the novel — such notions as the indifference of Nature, man’s duality (however conceived), the hypocrisy of society, the power of circumstance or the extent of man’s freedom in the struggle for survival.0 Sometimes Norris is seen to employ his central concepts in order to explain Vandover, sometimes to condemn him or, on the contrary, to criticize those around him who would do so. A variety of critics have raised the issue of the narrator’s identification with Vandover, objectivity toward him, or even irony against him.7 But it remains virtually impossible to disentangle the strands completely. The narrative voice, in fact, is sometimes wholly merged with Vandover, sometimes separate from yet in clear agreement with him, and rarely distinct enough from Vandover to provide a wider perspective upon him. The true magnitude of the problem becomes apparent when one realizes not only that the dramatic action of Vandover ultimately fails to illuminate the narrator’s more general statements about Man or Nature, but also that the action of the novel, as it renders Vandover’s experience, directly contradicts narrative interpretations of a much more local and limited kind. A great many of the most focuscd and consistent interpreta­ tions of Vandover’s behavior can be shown to be a clear distortion of the meaning suggested by the action itself. I will proceed to analyze this discrepancy more closely, and based on my analysis will propose two ideas about Norris, one of which suggests his greatest strength; one points to what is, perhaps, his greatest weakness. First, I would like to suggest that there is a more rigorous imaginative logic in Norris’sstories of individual experience than isgenerally perceived. Second, one must understand that that logic is indeed imaginative — it has a coherence quite independent of and even contradicted by the ideas expressed through the narrative voice. I would like to consider in particular two propositions in Vandover which are not only often repeated by the narrative voice, but also sub­ scribed to by Vandover himself. The first of these notions is that of Vandover’s “pliable character,” his too...


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