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LOSS, HABIT, OBSESSION: THE GOVERNING DYNAMIC OF MCTEAGUE Barbara Hochman* Miss Baker's "agitation betrayed itself in the repetition of the word." McTeague1 From the first appearance of McTeague it was generally assumed that the organizing principle behind the disparate stories of Trina and McTeague, Maria and Zerkow, Old Grannis and Miss Baker, must lie in the large "Naturalistic" theme implied by the basic action of the novel and elucidated by narrative pronouncements about chance, instinct, atavism, heredity, and circumstance.2 Seeking to account for the full impact of the novel, recent critics of McTeague have become increasingly suspicious of Naturalistic concepts and of readings that take the narrator 's interpretative comments too literally.3 Still, it has remained difficult to integrate the experience of the particular characters into the structure of the novel as a whole. Yet McTeague does have an organizing structure that animates its characters and informs its multiple action. That structure centers on the problem of personal loss and its implication for the self. Readers of the novel have long taken the problem of greed as a crux, whether moral, psychological, or social. What animates McTeague, however, is not the desperate lust for gain but rather the haunting fear of loss, to which greed is but one response. McTeague is full of characters who are preoccupied with loss. Whatever a character may have lost, or feels in danger of losing, he tends to experience the potential or actual deprivation as a threat to the integrity of his being, as a violation that opens the way to chaos or death. Trina's hoarding of gold is only one among many strategies employed by the characters of McTeague to protect themselves from the experience of loss or from the fear of disintegration that follows such experience. Within the world of the novel everyone fears the implications of change or loss; the wary self turns for protection to whatever stabilizing structures it can generate. In the effort to stabilize internal or external flux, McTeague drinks steam beer, smokes his pipe, and repeatedly plays the same six tunes on his concertina; Trina and Zerkow hoard gold; Old Grannis binds books; Maria Macapa incessantly repeats a phrase and story; Papa Sieppe organizes and reorganizes his family, labelling, counting, and fretting. McTeague is full of habits and obsessions, great 'Barbara Hochman is a Lecturer in the Department of English and American Literature at Tel Aviv University. She has previously published in The Dreiser Newsletter and Western American Literature. She is currently at work on a book on Frank Norris. 180Barbara Hochman and small, all either serving to defend the self from whatever may threaten to subvert it or arising as a consequence of some threat experienced in the past. To consider McTeague in these terms is both to elucidate the logic of McTeague and Trina's decline and to perceive new connections between the subplots and the story of the central protagonists. Donald Pizer's conception of the turbulence "beneath the surface of our placid everyday lives"4 has long been useful to students of American Naturalism. Trina's intrusion into the midday serenity of Polk Street with the news of Maria's murder is only one of many scenes in McTeague in which the commonplace surface of life is shaken by a sudden view of its turbulent depths. Such juxtaposition between surface and depth can most clearly reveal the vital center of McTeague insofar as that juxtaposition implies an ongoing process in which the commonplace trappings and routines of daily life serve directly, though not always effectively, to stabilize and neutralize hidden turmoil, whether within the individual or outside him. The novel's opening description of McTeague, cradled and supported by his immediate environment, implies a typical strategy for dealing with the threat of inner and outer turbulence. Throughout McTeague, the life of routine, full of forms and habits on which one can rely, becomes the protective bulwark of the vulnerable self as it struggles to ward off conflict and danger. McTeague's habits are characteristic. His favorite song laments that there is "no one to love, none to Caress, left all alone in this world's wilderness." He tends to...


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pp. 179-190
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