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FRANK NORRIS'S VANDOVER AND THE BRUTE: NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE AND THE SOCIO-CRITICAL VIEWPOINT Joseph R. McElrath, Jr.e The value of critical codifications such as Romanticism and Naturalism is that they provide a shorthand with which to quickly enter into discussion of complicated cultural phases and their modes of expression. At best, they canbeveryhelpful in initiating critical analysis. But obvious problems attend their use. One is that because of their necessarily reductive character, they imply a norm that may never have existed in actuality. Another is that those codifications inevitably produce rigidity in critical outlook; the codifications assume the characteristics of "certainties" and eventually enjoy the status of dogma with the passing of time. A case in point is to be seen in Frank Norris studies, where the apparent legitimacy of particular, time-honored codifications has stultified critical inquiry. Norris was a RealistNaturalist ; Norris was a literary and philosophic Romantic; Norris was a melodramatic, conventional-minded moralist. These are the three major views—though one hastens to add that the categories are not exclusive of each other, as may be seen in the available body of criticism on Vandover and the Brute. The majority opinion is that Vandover is a Naturalistic work melodramatically expressed by a mind that never freed itself from the nineteenth-century genteel morality or the style of popular romance literature. The verdict is not unanimous, of course. But this interpretation has proven a comfortable one for many, who can label the plot and setting Naturalistic, the style Romantic, and the theme moralistic in the traditional Judaeo-Christian sense. Pretty much the same has been done to all of Norris's novels, and the end result is the same: classification on the critics' terms, not Norris's. It works, almost. And the "almost" in the case of novels like Moran, "Professor McElrath, who teaches at Florida State University, is the joint author of Frank Norris: A Reference Guide and an editorial associate of The Works of Frank Norris. He is at work on Frank Norris: The Critical Tradition to be published in 1978. 28Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. McTeague, The Pit, and especially The Octopus, concerns the matters of point of view and narrative technique. Norris's perspective frequently proves elusive, and unsettling to those who want clear codification; and interpreters who will clearly categorize tend to gloss over the real problem of dealing with Norris's apparently unclear attitude toward his characters in novel after novel. Only occasionally is there someone like Donald Pizer who openly admits uncertainty, as when he wonders whether Moran is an excessive example of adventure-romance writing or a parody of the subgenre.1 Is Presley in The Octopus Norris's philosophical surrogate or the butt of a satire on Le Contean evolutionary idealism; and what of "Naturalist" Norris's comedie attitude toward the hero in the first half of McTeague? What is Norris's point of view, if there is one, in McTeague? What is the tone, orwhat are the tones, involved in the characterization of Presley? In Vandover similar questions arise regarding point of view and, consequently, Norris's theme. For instance, Vandover begins with a third person narrator assuming as closely as possible thevantage point of Vandover himself: the narrator initiates the story from a point of view within the consciousness of the hero. It was always a matter of wonder to Vandover that he was able to recall so little of his past life. With the exception of the most recent events he could remember nothing connectedly. What he at first imagined to be the story of his life, on closer inspection turned out to be but a few disconnected incidents that his memory had preserved with the greatest capriciousness, absolutely independent of their importance.2 After this announcement there follows a series of his remembered experiences, and it is through this medium of remembrance that a sensitively conceived hero is introduced. But later, by the close of the first chapter, Norris's point of view shifts mainly to that of a more detached, conventional third person narrator and, as the consensus of critical opinion has it, to a much less sympathetic tone. The narrator, however, never...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 27-43
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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