Frank Norris was born in 1870, in Chicago, Illinois. In 1884, his family moved to California. After traveling to Paris to begin his painting career, Norris soon became very interested in literature. He pursued this new vocation and worked on his drafts of both Vandover and the Brute and McTeague while he was a student in a writing class at Harvard University from 1894 to 1895. Vandover seems to have been completed, or nearly so, before he left Harvard in 1895. McTeague was not finished until several years later. Doubleday & McClure offered to publish McTeague in early 1899, but when they later declined the novel Norris, apparently tired of trying to publish it, began using scenes from it for other novels.
McTeague is the story of a young dentist and his fall into a spiral of error. It takes place in and around San Francisco, where he runs a small dental practice.
He falls in love with one of his patients, Trina, the cousin of his good friend Marcus. They soon get married and everything seems to be going well. Trina wins a very large sum of money, but refuses to use any of it. With Trina at his side, McTeague leads an entirely traditional lower-middle-class urban life. He works hard, lets his wife decorate their apartment, and dreams of owning a little house. McTeague soon loses his job due to the fact that he had never gone to college. He is no longer able to practice dentistry and goes into a deep despair. He tries, but continuously fails to keep another job. Trina tries to convince McTeague that they are very poor and refuses to let him use any of her money. She moves them repeatedly into smaller apartments and causes McTeague to start drinking. He soon becomes very violent and abusive towards Trina. After many fights and a loss of all love between them, he leaves Trina and wanders around living on what little money that he has. He then returns and tries to take all of Trina's money. They get into a fight over it and he accidentally kills her. Upon seeing what he has done he takes her money and flees to Death Valley. Trina's cousin Marcus eventually finds McTeague and after a long battle Marcus chains himself to McTeague and then dies. McTeague is left, chained to his deceased friend with nothing.
Many of McTeague's problems can be attributed to the sometimes-false promise of opportunity in America. America is often seen as a land of freedom and opportunity. In many ways it is, but this land is far from perfect. People come here in hopes of finding jobs and a good, safe place for their family to live. America does not offer this though. They do offer many more freedoms than the rest of the world, but it is sometimes believed to be much more than it actually is. Also, America is a very natural place. "Terrible things must happen to the characters in a naturalistic tale." (Walcutt, 125) Another common misconception in the early nineteenth century is that America is the land of equality. The separation of the classes of this time period is very apparent when looking at this novel. The scene in which Norris describes the daily rituals on Polk Street displays this well. " The laborers went trudging past in a straggling file. A little later following in the path of the day laborers came the clerks and shop girls dressed with a certain cheap smartness. Towards eleven o'clock the ladies from the great avenue a block above Polk Street made their appearance, promenading the sidewalks leisurely, deliberatelyÃ¢ÂÂ¦" These people are separated by their occupation and social class, which determines their activity on the street every morning. In noticing this activity, the distinct lines drawn between the workers and the wealthy are very visible. This disproves the claim that America is the land of equality and proves that social Darwinism was and still is present in American society.
McTeague tried to make a life for himself and it was taken away by the instinctual greed and self serving ideals of society. He did dig himself into a very deep hole through his ignorance, but he was carried the rest of the way by the people he met. America has always been considered the land of the free and it is, if you can afford it.