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S U S A N P R O T H R O M c F A T T E R University of New Mexico Parody and DarkProjections: Medieval Romance andthe Gothic inMcTeague More than one Norris critic has commented on the obtrusive crafts­ manship of McTeague, a work characterized by conspicuous animal imag­ ery and an intrusive narrator who insists that heredity and environment control the characters’ actions. Other commenters note the obvious resem­ blance between the characters of Polk Street and those that people Zola’s naturalistic works.1 If we read the novel as a strict work of naturalism, however, we may overlook Norris’s skillful interweaving of genres, dismiss­ ing the work, as does Perry Westbrook, merely as an “interesting showcase of naturalistic attitudes and conventions.”2 But McTeague is actually a carefully structured work divided into two equal parts:3the first half of the novel, culminating in chapter eleven with the fight between McTeague and Marcus Schouler in Schuetzen Park, develops around the ironic use of the conventions and characters of medieval romance to epitomize a segment of turn-of-the-century western urban society; the final eleven chapters, focus­ ing on McTeague’s regression to atavism and his ultimate disintegration in Death Valley, rely heavily on Gothic elements to create a much darker reality than is presented in the first half. Integral to the parodied medieval romance and the Gothic which emerge in the novel is the humor which threads its way through the work from beginning to end. Although I deal only tangentially with Norris’s use of humor, still it becomes apparent that the burlesque that prevails in the first half is a vehicle for the satire that dominates that section; whereas, the introduction of a gruesomely ironic Poesque humor prevails in the second half, obscuring the intermittent travesty that continues to occur.4 120 Western American Literature Turning first to the initial chapters of McTeague, it is not surprising to find that Norris incorporated elements of medieval romance into his earliest novel: his youthful interest in the subject is well documented,5and one can only imagine the perverse delight with which he may have sought to undermine his boyish enthusiasm for the genre by “naturalizing” it within the confines of late-nineteenth-century San Francisco’s Polk Street. But the result of his ironic use of the genre may have surprised even him in its capacity to emphasize what he recognized as the ills of American society at the time. If we recognize the work as a parody of medieval romance, Marcus Schouler and McTeague appear as twin-buffoon knights, and several of the male/female relationships become ridiculous versions of courtly love. By taking the most cursory look at the important principles of this conven­ tion, the ironic possibilities open to Norris in creating a court romance in the shoddy apartment building on Polk Street become clear. To make my point, I borrow John E. Stevens’s concise rendering of these principles which were originally set forth by Andreas Capellanus in his De Arte Honest Amandi: Love derives from sudden illumination; it is private and must be kept a secret from the world; it is intensified by frustration and diffi­ culty; and it lifts the lovers on to a new level of being.6 Application of these principles to the relationship between Miss Baker and Old Grannis supplies the key to the couple’s importance in the theme of the novel: their love affair represents a contrasting parallel to McTeague and Trina’s. William Dillingham recognizes this parallel, suggesting that Norris uses it to illustrate that the “same forces [chance and instinct] which destroy his main characters also can create happiness.”7The old couple’s affair does end happily; however, the two appear to be motivated more directly by their posturing as courtly lovers than they do by chance and instinct. Mr. Grannis is an English gentleman educated in veterinary medi­ cine, and Miss Baker, certain of his nobility, advances as fact a fairytale-like rumorwhich helps to explain his presence on Polk Street. Early in the novel, she tells McTeague, “They say that he’s the younger son of a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 119-135
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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