12 July 2006

Frank Norris defines Romanticism, in part, through contrast with Realism. He does this in response to critics who deem Naturalism as "a sort of inner circle of realism. . . a kind of diametric opposite of romanticism, a theory of fiction wherein things are represented 'as they really are'. To him, realism is based on close observation of the ordinary: its subjects are boring everyday people and situations, and we do not qualify as such "if things commence to happen to us, if we kill a man or two, or get mixed up in a tragic affair, or do something on a large scale, such as the amassing of great wealth". Romanticism, on the other hand, "is the kind of fiction that takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life". This romance "go[es] straight through the clothes and tissues and wrappings of flesh down deep into the red, living heart of things". If accuracy, he says, is realism, romanticism is truth.
So how does his own work, McTeague, fit with his definition? The characters seem ordinary enough: Trina is a pretty little thing, the daughter of immigrants; McTeague is an unlicensed dentist; Marcus is a brash, impatient young man; they live in the residential district of San Francisco, surrounded by other fairly ordinary people. So far, it seems to be the stuff of realism. Ah, but then something extraordinary happens--Trina hits the lottery, winning five thousand dollars.

Now begins the real story: the story of how greed, jealousy, and despair change the lives of three otherwise happy people. Although Marcus had been planning to marry Trina, he deferred to McTeague because McTeague felt more strongly about having her. However, when Trina wins the five thousand dollars, he feels cheated. As the McTeagues prosper, his jealousy grows.
Trina, meanwhile, has also been changed by her winnings: she has become obsessed with money. She starts to save, at any expense, and refuses to touch her wisely invested winnings. McTeague begins to resent the scrimping.
Finally, Marcus's jealousy reaches a head and he tells the authorities that McTeague does not have the credentials requisite for practicing his profession. McTeague loses his job, and life becomes progressively miserable for the young couple. Still Trina scrimps and hoards. McTeague finally takes her little stash and leaves her.

He returns, having spent the small stash; he learns that she has withdrawn her five thousand dollars; he asks her to share it, and when she refuses, kills her and takes off with the money. Marcus goes after him. Marcus finally catches McTeague in Death Valley. They have no water. McTeague is a wanted man; Marcus wants the gold. They fight, and McTeague kills Marcus--but the book ends with him handcuffed to the dead body.

This is romance, under Norris's definition, because it digs into what at first appear to be normal, happy lives, and digs up great secrets and tragedy. It goes beyond the everyday; it searches the soul. By basking in the darker emotions, Norris brings his subjects to a boil; when they explode, as they surely must under such circumstances, they lose all resemblance to the drawing-room characters he claims are typical of realism. So, if realism is defined by what it is not, and McTeague is not those things, McTeague is thus not realism. Ergo, it falls onto the other side of the dichotomy he offers: it is romanticism.


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