- "a strange and ecstatic pleasure":The Voyeurism of the Naturalist's Gaze in Frank Norris's Vandover and the Brute and McTeague
In perhaps the most prurient scene in Frank Norris's most provocative novel, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), the miserliness of Mrs. Trina McTeague turns decidedly salacious: "One evening she had even spread all the gold pieces between the sheets, and had then gone to bed, stripping herself, and had slept all night upon the money, taking a strange and ecstatic pleasure in the touch of the smooth flat pieces the length of her entire body" (201-2). By this point in the novel the escalation of mere stinginess to the wholly scandalous feels almost inevitable, but Norris's decision to transform Trina's seemingly straightforward greed into "ecstatic pleasure" as she lies naked on her gold coins appears to be a calculated choice, one designed to titillate the reader as much as detachedly chronicle her disease. And readers are left peering in, observing a sight clearly not meant for our eyes.
And yet for whom does Trina strip and roll naked in gold coins if not for us, the reader? A unified "us" of readers is problematic, but such moments in Norris's work force all readers, regardless of their diversity of perspectives, to uncomfortably acknowledge their own aberrant gaze and the role it plays in the actions of the story. This essay examines how a specific voyeuristic perspective operates in several of Norris's novels in order to investigate the larger implications of the voyeuristic perversion inherent in the naturalist's gaze. On the one hand, this gaze emerges as one expression of a more general scientific trend that privileges the objectivity of the gaze, particularly in medicine, as part of what Michel Foucault labels the "clinical gaze." On the other hand, however, American literary naturalists often took liberties with this gaze so that they could, in Norris's words, tell romantic tales of characters "twisted from the ordinary, wrenched out from the quiet, uneventful round of every-day life, and flung into the throes [End Page 49] of a vast and terrible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions, in blood, and in sudden death" ("Zola" 71-72). This irresolvable tension between scientific objectivity and romantic fantasy is central to American literary naturalism, and it is in large part responsible for what makes these works simultaneously compelling and confounding. The bizarre, contradictory presence of both science and romance in literary naturalism produces a grotesque interplay between these two forces that results in the naturalist's gaze becoming perversely voyeuristic as it enjoys the "strange and ecstatic pleasure" of the spectacles it observes.
Norris's novels provide a critical entry point into understanding how the perversion inherent in the naturalist's gaze arises out of this tension between objectivity and fantasy. In Vandover and the Brute (1914), Norris documents the disintegration of a man's mind with both clinical meticulousness and voyeuristic fascination. Norris suggests that Vandover's degeneration originates with his glimpse of an encyclopedia entry on obstetrics and that this seemingly scientific representation of female anatomy initiates his collapse into sexual promiscuity. Vandover cannot maintain the clinical objectivity required of a great artist, but it is questionable whether the novel can either, as the reader is positioned to observe the main character's perverse degeneration from a voyeuristic position. In Norris's McTeague, the novel of degeneration provides voyeuristic access to the seamy lower classes, but it also formalizes this voyeurism through a narration that creates just enough ironic distance from the action to separate the reader while still allowing him or her to peek through the characters' windows. In naturalist novels the supposedly neutral narrator can be found observing naked women, sexual activity, and generally sexually charged subjects; it is a gaze as dependent on clinical documentation as deviant fantasy; and naturalism's clinical gaze thus becomes the voyeur's. As the voyeuristic perversity of the naturalist's gaze becomes more evident within the text, the readers of the work become implicated in complex ways as they are coerced into taking up this gaze.