Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In Rabelais and His World, Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes the way in which early modern philosophy’s interest in the totality of the individual and demarcation of transcendent and physical aspects of Being reindexed the (grotesque) body as a cultural symbol. Medieval and Renaissance figurations of the body foregrounded the incompleteness expressed by its “eating, drinking, defecation…copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, and swallowing up by another body” (Bakhtin, 317). Such “interchange and interorientation” between the body and its environment debases the former and reveals its mortality (if the one can swallow, penetrate, and reproduce, one can also be swallowed, penetrated, and replaced) (Bakhtin, 317). However, in allowing the body to extend itself through and absorb matter, its porosity also facilitates a “renewal” and experience of “abundance” (Bakhtin, 99). Critically, according to Bakhtin, the cycle of birth and death enshrined in the traditional grotesque body’s material processes1 links it to the “collective ancestral body of all the people”—it is a universal avatar for man’s struggle and “victory” over “cosmic terror” (Bakhtin, 19, 335-36). Conversely, insofar as the body of the “modern canons” is “finished” and “private,” it is an entity whose “orifices are…closed” (Bakhtin, 320-1). It is excluded from the ongoing elemental cycle and polarized between a positive upper stratum and negative lower stratum (Bakhtin, 21). As a result, Bakhtin writes, “All the events taking place within [the body] acquire one single meaning: death is only death, it never coincides with birth…[Events] are enclosed within the limits of the same body, limits that are the absolute beginning and end and can never meet” (Bakhtin, 321). 

Frank Norris’ 1899 novel McTeague typically has been analyzed through the lens of its adherence to Spencerian theories such as heredity and degeneration, but it is instructive to consider its naturalism in relation to the antecedent literary forms described by Bakhtin. While the vestiges of the positive grotesque remain in the early novel,2 as the narrative progresses, these are increasingly constrained by the privatization of its characters’ bodies in accordance with modern systems of social organization and standards of respectability. In this way, the novel’s deterministic ethos is bound to the new teleology of the body that arises from the censorship of the material realm’s dual and ‘open’ nature. 

Early in the novel, parallel hyperboles of food and physicality suggest the abiding interrelation between the body and its environment. Norris interjects prandial scenes with passages that itemize the various foodstuffs at hand; McTeague’s typical bachelor’s lunch at the car conductor’s coffee-joint consists of five dishes, his picnic with the Sieppes of ten, and his wedding feast of nineteen (Norris, 3, 56, 122). Each enumeration corresponds to an image of physical integration: McTeague’s lunch leaves him “crop-full, stupid, and warm,” the picnic concludes with the dentist “[s]tuffed to the eyes,” and the wedding supper culminates as “[t]he men, gorged with food…unbuttoned their vests” and “McTeague’s cheeks…distended, his eye wide” (Norris 3, 56, 123). The image pairs operate at two levels. On the one hand, the dialogue between Norris’ culinary descriptions and the images of satiety that follow them dramatize the plasticity of the body. In order to accommodate the abundance of the material world, the bodies of Norris’ characters (their oral and bowel zones in particular) must literally enlarge, becoming the loci of the “two-fold contradictory process” whereby the body is affirmed through consumption even as the process demands the transgression of its limits (Bakhtin, 26). The mechanics of this process can be clarified through proto-Freudian logic.4 The “excrescences” (the swelling of the cheeks, stomach, etc.) that result from the internal process of consumption appear in the subject’s field of vision as independent objects—”double bod[ies]” as Bakhtin would have it (Bakhtin, 318).5 In surpassing itself thusly, the body appears as a factical presence in the world; yet, one with which the subject can plausibly identify and through which it can experience plenitude. In this sense, Norris’ emphasis on the continuity between the material excess of the food and the physical projection of the characters’ bodies suggests that it is the body’s very malleability—its ability to engulf and to be deformed—that allows it to assert itself or, in Bakhtin’s words, to “[go] out to meet the world” (Bakhtin, 26). 

On the other hand, these early prandial scenes also exhibit the body’s destructive power. In order to consume the hyperbolic quantities of food Norris details, McTeague and his peers must necessarily negate them. Crudely, this is evident in the lexical disproportion between Norris’ lengthy descriptions of food and relatively epigrammatic descriptions of satisfaction; in the same way the chemical and physical processes of the body consolidate matter, the literary bodies consolidate the prose that precede them. More salient though is the idiomatic yoking of consumption to death. After the “great supper” celebrating McTeague’s wedding, “the enormous goose had dwindled to a very skeleton [,] Mr. Sieppe had reduced the calf’s head to a mere skull [and] a row of empty champagne bottles— ‘dead soldiers’ as the facetious waiter had called them—lined the mantelpiece” (Norris, 125). The enumerative mode used here is symmetrical with that of the passage describing the feast. However, in the “remain[ing]” “crumbs of bread, potato parings, nutshells…bits of cake, coffee and ice cream stains…[and] spots of congealed gravy ” Norris inverts the initial image of abundance (Norris, 125).5 The transformation of the tabletop coheres to Bakhtin’s model of grotesque negation: “Negation and destruction of the object are therefore their displacement and reconstruction in space. The nonbeing of an object is its ‘other face,’ its inside out…The object that has been destroyed remains in the world but in a new form of being in time and space; it becomes the other side of the new object that has taken its place” (Bakhtin, 410).6 Ingestion forces the meal into the lower stratum of the body in both physical and symbolic terms; yet, even there, transformed to excreta or detritus, its positive aspect still appears in corollary exuberance of the body. Norris’ reconstruction of the meal’s nonbeing (sometimes literally transposed inside-out, as with the calf’s head and goose carcass) thereby generates the “new object” that replaces it: the “victorious body” (Bakhtin, 283). 

Bakhtin writes, “[n]egation and destruction (death of the old) are included [in the essence of the grotesque] as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better” (Bakhtin, 62). So too, in the early novel, the negative post-prandial images are renewed as vehicles through which man’s “triumphant” “encounter with the world” is expressed (Bakhtin, 281). Indeed, the thematic vocabulary used in this coda directly correlates consumption with martial victory. The “‘dead soldiers’…lining the mantelpiece” are just one aspect of the larger “devastation” and “pillage” choreographed across the “abandoned battlefield” of the extension table (Norris, 125). Transposing the banal domestic scene into a militaristic idiom, Norris endows it with symbolic valence and imputes a greater sense of collectivity to Polk Street’s festivities.7

As Bakhtin stipulates, the universal nature of the feast—the notion that “popular images of food and drink…express the people as a whole”—is that which attaches its imagery to cosmic cycles of life and death (Bakhtin, 302). Although McTeague’s evasion of true universality will be addressed later, it is clarifying to consider the way in which the social body persists as a structuring force in the early novel. At the wedding for example, the guests’ consumption is largely synchronous and impersonal. “For two hours, [they] ate; their faces red, their elbows wide, the perspiration beading their foreheads. All around the table one saw the same incessant movement of jaws and heard the same uninterrupted sound of chewing” (Norris, 122). Similarly, at the impromptu dinner party staged after Trina wins the lottery, “every one” of the attendees have the sense that by mere proximity to her winnings “it was as though they too had won” (Norris, 82). Appropriately, this shared sense of triumph is confirmed foremostly by food and drink (tamales and beer, specifically), but also, later by the carnival-spirit of McTeague’s toast (Norris, 83). Bumbling, the dentist emphasizes that the guests “[are]—all [always] welcome” and repeatedly entreats them to “drink hearty” (Norris, 87).8 Aside from once more foregrounding the duality of the permeable body (the guests destroy and assimilate and are themselves distorted and renewed in their intercourse with the world), the guests’ coordinated action and introjection of each other’s fortunes implies the erosion of the “boundary dividing one body from another” (Bakhtin, 322).

The early prandial scenes with which this analysis has so far concerned itself occur under the aegis of a different social constellation than the latter half of the novel. In Norris’ initial description, Polk Street’s social flux reflects its petit bourgeois inhabitants’ conflicting impulses to retain the traditional modes of interconnection epitomized by the grotesque body and emulate bourgeois privatization. The street alternates between the assertion and dissolution of social strata in accordance with the rhythms of the working day. McTeague witnesses the temporal inscription of class hierarchy in the procession of “laborers,” then “clerks and shop girls” and finally “their employers” past the “Dental Parlors” each morning (Norris, 6). Yet, this hierarchy is falsified after hours by the festive convergence of “all the various inhabitants of the street” “laughing and living, buying and selling” (Norris, 8). Oscillating between social stratification and integration, the market reflects the cycle of the carnivalized marketplace, wherein rank is “suspend[ed]” only to be recapitulated at festival’s end (Bakhtin, 10). And like the marketplace, the festive animation of Polk Street facilitates an exceptional form of “free and familiar contact” between its residents (Bakhtin, 10). “Groups of girls [collect] on the corners, talking and laughing very loud, making remarks upon the young men that [pass] them,” “newsboys [chant] the evening papers,” and a “band of Salvationists…sing before a saloon” (Norris, 8). Sexual, commercial, and spiritual idioms cohere in a “vast and prolonged murmur” that rebukes the social individuation dictated by the private domicile (Norris, 8). Instead, as Bakhtin posits, the crowd engulfs the individual so that he “feels like he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity [and] member of the people’s mass body” (Bakhtin, 92). Appropriately, then, the “murmur” derives the “dominant” image of the grotesque body: a collective mouth, uniting the people in the acts of speech and consumption (Bakhtin, 317). In this way, the very social structure of Polk Street evokes the fluid boundaries of this body. 

However, this arrangement also belies the antinomies of the lower middle-class. Comprised of “butchers,” “grocers,” shopkeepers, dentists, “dressmakers…small doctors, [and] harness makers,” the inhabitants of Polk Street retain ownership over their means of production, and the residual association they enjoy between their labor and its products is reflected in the coherence of their living and working spaces (Norris, 6-8, 148). It might, then, be argued that Norris’ early figuration of the flat internalizes the free exchange of the marketplace; yet, as Bakhtin argues, the “true human relations” of the marketplace condoned by carnival “were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced” as a consolidation of the “utopian ideal and realistic” (Bakhtin, 10). Conversely, though the apartment realizes the familiar contact of the crowd at a formal level, this contact lacks the metaphysical valence of its predecessor because the subjects who enact it cannot conceive of ideals beyond the material realm. In Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen clarifies the limited scope of the modern social imagination: 

[O]ur standard of decency in expenditure, as in other ends of emulation, is set by the usage of those next above us in reputability…It is for the [wealthy leisure class] to determine, in general outline, what scheme of Life the community shall accept as decent or honorific; and it is their office by precept and example to set forth this scheme of social salvation in its highest, ideal form. (Veblen, 49) 

McTeague and his neighbors accept their valuation in comparison to this standard, and so, their aspirations are enclosed by the haute bourgeois’ ultimate representation of “Life.” McTeague’s marriage to Trina, for instance, precipitates the advent of a new “dream” of a “little home all to themselves” (Norris, 138). As he “c[omes] to regard” the escape from the “cheap” flat “as the end and object of all their labors,” the dentist introjects the model of bourgeois respectability he encounters early in the novel through the “huge mansion-like place, set in an enormous garden that occupied the whole third of the block” (Norris, 144). 

The double enclosure of the living space coincides with the privatization of consumption, a move that effectively stymies the ‘openness’ of the body. Norris writes, “Their idea was to live in this little house, the dentist retaining merely his office in the flat. The two places were but around the corner from each other, so that McTeague could lunch with his wife, as usual, and could even keep up his early morning appointments and return to breakfast if he so desired” (Norris, 144). In this schema, the partition of food and labor works to resacralize both processes; marriage and careerism, respectively, split the grotesque dyad and denude each component of its materiality. Although Trina and McTeague’s efforts to attain this standard of respectable separation are aborted, Trina in particular remains disturbed by the “general unpleasant smell that pervaded [their delightful home]—a smell that arose…partly from the photographer’s chemical [from their wedding photograph], partly from the cooking in the little kitchen, and partly from the ether and creosote of the dentist’s Parlors” (Norris, 160). Previously, during their wedding feast “the smell of cooked food” heralds the revitalization of the collective; however, under the duress of petit bourgeois domestic diktats, bodily functions are detached from social life and obscured (Norris, 122). The “smell” is subsequently recodified as a mere sign of unwanted waste. As Bakhtin writes, when banquet imagery is “removed from the marketplace and is confined to the house and the private chamber” it becomes an expression of a “static way of private life, deprived of any symbolic openings and universal meaning”—that is, it emerges purely in its negative and ‘closed’ aspect (Bakhtin, 302). 

The very structure of consumption is altered as Norris foregrounds his characters’ identification with and emulation of their class superiors.9 “Hate[ful]” towards her husband’s “common and vulgar” habits, Trina “cultivate[s]” higher “tastes” in McTeague: his favored tobacco mixture is replaced by “Yale mixture,” he exchanges his dinner at the car conductor’s coffee joint for private meals of “cabbage soups and steaming chocolate” and substitutes steam beer for “bottled beer” (Norris, 203). In doing this, Trina converts the act of consumption from a collectively significant expression of ancient human cycles to an individualistic means of invidious distinction. The stable tautology denoted by McTeague’s “[eating] for the sake of eating, without choice” is relativized by the dentist’s newfound awareness of his dueling duty as a “member of a class, a profession, or a political party” to conform to the standard of the group and to at least perform individuality, to have “opinions, convictions,” and preferences (Norris 122, 138). Insofar as the consumption which takes place during the wedding supper lacks this tautological orientation and instead uses its duality to foreground a cycle of creation and destruction, the act and the body which performs it remain vital. By contrast, the consumption prescribed by Trina and practiced by McTeague is motivated by seemingly bounded goals such as homeownership, the purchase of higher quality goods, and social ascendancy. The subordination of this act to private, socially performative ends limits its cathartic function. It no longer expresses a synthesis of creation and destruction, but becomes merely a means of complying with the standard of social respectability alongside other performative pursuits such as “keeping the little suite in marvelous order and regulating the schedule of expenditure” (Norris, 135).10 Unlike the cycle of carnivalesque consumption, which continuously affirms the transcendent elements of  the human experience, routinized bourgeois consumption is oriented towards “a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of oneself as comparison with one’s neighbors” (Veblen, 16). Rather than a renewal of essential values, bourgeois consumption’s motivation towards fungible material aims therefore results in a linear anticlimax that negates life through futility. Veblen clarifies this distinction:

If…the incentive to accumulation were the want of subsistence or of physical comfort, then the aggregate economic wants of a community might conceivably be satisfied at some point the advance of industrial efficiency; but since the struggle is substantially a race for reputability on the basis of invidious comparison, no approach to a definitive attainment is possible. (Veblen, 16)

The broader behavioral shift that occurs in the novel is confirmed by the perversion of material processes. Trina is engaged in the perpetual anticipation of the next expenditure charted by the aforementioned model of accumulation, and her increasing reticence to disburse her savings, even to her husband and parents, reflects the precarity of her class position as well as her sudden individuation as a financial actor. More germane to this analysis, however, is the way in which constricted by the exigencies of modern domestic life, her body and those of the other characters in the novel begin to fall away from the principle of growth and malfunction as consumptive instruments. Images of stifled bodily interface are ubiquitous throughout the latter half of the novel. For example, suspending her “natural” appetite for food and drink, Trina instead attaches the traditional meaning of these terms (the conclusion of man’s “struggle” in work and the celebration of his vitality) to money. It symbolically usurps food as the ends of her “work[ing]” and “slav[ing]” and she even attempts to use it as a literal substitute, “put[ting] the smaller gold pieces [of her savings] in her mouth” and “jingl[ing] them there” (Norris, 218). However, the process of consumption in the latter image is attenuated (she cannot swallow her earnings) and reflects her inability to fully assimilate the signs of value she has amassed into her person. Because the simulated ingestion she elects fails to meaningfully gratify her, she is left insatiable, in constant pursuit of “more, more, more” (Norris, 219). This incomplete substitution of money for food and drink is further evinced by the inverse relationship between her body and her wealth. After McTeague absconds with her savings, she devotes herself wholly to pecuniary accumulation, but as she accrues money through the interest paid to her savings and her job as a washerwoman, she is physically reduced rather than extended. In anathema to the way in which eating and drinking “disclose [the body’s] essence as a principle of growth” according to Bakhtin, her fidelity to this secondary system of social signification leaves her “thin and meager,” “her flesh” literally “cl[eaving] tightly to her skeleton” and hardening to the world around her (Bakhtin, 26; Norris, 250).

In the same way, after his dental license is revoked, McTeague remains impelled by, but can no longer play the game of social conformity in which Trina tutored him. His higher “taste[s]…could not now be gratified,” and though he eventually returns to his vulgar habits, their fare is now received by him in reduced form (Norris, 203).11 Norris explicitly correlates the dentist’s reduced performativity with the contraction of his body. As he grows poorer, his “enormous jaw” and fist become “lean,” his cheeks “shrunken,” and Miss Baker tells Trina that stripping McTeague of his practice is “just like cutting off [his] hands” (Norris, 44, 256, 198). This pathetic inversion of the grotesque body’s exuberant dismembered parts indicates the loss of the grotesque’s creative aspect. Indeed, such a loss is expressed in McTeague’s constant complaints of being “hungry” and “starv[ing]” throughout the latter half of the novel and persistent anxiety about being “ma[de] small” (Norris, 256, 71). Incapable of achieving satisfaction, McTeague sublimates his appetite by “bit[ing] [Trina’s fingers]” until her “fingertips were swollen and the nails purple” (Norris, 219). As with the abbreviated form of consumption embodied by Trina and her mouth full of coins, Norris immobilizes the regenerative faculties of the lower bodily stratum, instead emphasizing McTeague’s “crunching and grinding” (Norris, 219). Rather than actually nourishing the body, of course, the action gives prominence to the mouth’s pure destructive prowess and non-productive expenditure of energy. That is to say, like the coins, McTeague never actually ingests the fingers, but retains them in the domain of nonbeing, pantomiming their destruction again and again until Miss Baker’s comment about his limbs is actualized in the “stumps” of Trina fingers after their amputation (Norris, 249).12 The devolution of the nutritive consumptive act into one of pseudo-cannibalism and mutilation intimates the resignification of the grotesque body. As Bakhtin writes, “the new bodily canon…presents an entirely finished, completed, strictly limited body, which is shown from the outside as something individual. That which protrudes, bulges, or branches off is eliminated, hidden, or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed” (Bakhtin, 320). The body no longer exhibits its abundance, but exists only in an amputated state as a source of horror and derision. 

Appropriately, then, McTeague’s “pinched” look finds its pendant image in the “tight[ly] dr[awn] strings of the little chamois-bag” where Trina hoards her savings (Norris, 256, 218). Epitomizing the retentive pathology of the privatized body, the bag simultaneously evokes and seals all the body’s major convexities and orifices at once. Most provocatively, insofar as the sealing of the bag evokes that of the ungiving womb, it also illustrates the way in which the negative grotesque bars the possibility of reproductive futurity. In the realm of the positive grotesque, the phallicized excrescences of the body reach their final form in childbearing insofar as it involves a fully independent projection of oneself into the world. Conversely, Bakhtin writes: 

What remains [in the negative grotesque body] is nothing but a corpse, old age deprived of pregnancy, equal to itself alone; it is alienated and torn away from the whole in which it had been linked to that other, younger link in the chain of growth and development. The result is a broken grotesque figure, the demon of fertility with phallus cut off and belly crushed. (Bakhtin, 53) 

If the body is individualized, the reproduction of the self is no longer feasible or desirable. Norris verifies the implicit anti-natalism of the privatized body through the relationship between Zerkow, an anti-Semitic caricature of a gold-hungry junk dealer, and Maria Macapa, Polk Street’s Mexican charwoman who is obsessed by the legend of family dishes lost in Central America. Norris’ descriptions of Maria and Zerkow are strongly informed by contemporary rhetoric conflating racial alterity with contemporary theories of degeneration; in this sense, the negative grotesque Maria and Zerkow embody from the outset of the novel suggests the eventual resignification of Trina and McTeague’s and the way in which their devolution into this pattern of retentive consumption coincides with the foreclosure of their reproductive futurity. Their relationship develops from an economic exchange based around symmetrical practices of retentive consumption: Maria “collect[s] bits of iron, stone jugs, glass bottles, old sacks, and cast-off-garments” in a “half-filled pillow case” in order to sell them to Zerkow, a man who “accumulates, but never disburses” (Norris, 287, 293). Despite their individual acquisitiveness, their obsessive consumption fails to realize the aforementioned “principle of growth” stressed by Bakhtin. Maria’s pillow case seems to prefigure Trina’s chamois bag and its symbolics of sexual foreclosure and Zerkow’s advanced age and “shrivelled” body indicate a similarly prohibitive flaccidity and contraction (Norris, 293). 

However, where the impotence and incapacitated reproduction entailed by the negative grotesque is largely symbolic in McTeague and Trina’s relationship, it is literalized in Maria and Zerkow’s courtship and marriage. Their mutual romantic is predicated on fetishistic compulsion: Zerkow “marr[ies] [Maria] just so he can hear [the story of the plates] every day, every hour” and Maria’s desire correspondingly derives from the way in which this perpetual retelling allows her to momentarily recover the lost plates (Norris, 352-353). Rather than extending the grotesque positivism of the body by emphasizing the body orifices and protrusions, their intercourse is reduced to individualized pursuits of wealth under the aegis of the bourgeois marriage; each party uses the other as a mediating device to access the true, though fundamentally unobtainable object of their desire: the golden plates. This paraphilic privatization of the libido does not literally impede the open and reproductive aspects of the body insofar as the marriage which sublimates it produces a child; however, this child is “wretched and sickly,” does not have “strength enough nor wits enough to cry” and dies shortly after birth (Norris, 171). The emphasis the child’s silence places on the image of the closed mouth indicates the broader effacement of the violable and consumptive body at work in Zerkow and Maria’s apathy-cum-antipathy towards their child, whose birth and death “[n]either are much affected by” (Norris, 171). As Norris writes, “Zerkow had welcomed [the child] with profound disfavor, since it had a mouth to feed and wants to be provided for” (Norris, 171). Unlike in the first half of the novel, where Owgooste and the twin’s orality is encouraged as they are given the leftover juice of the “stewed prunes” at the wedding feast, the orality consumptive cycle, the orality of the sickly baby is suppressed as a threat to its own parents (Norris, 125).13 Ironically, then, the recodification of the body within the bourgeois marriage and family exemplified by Trina and McTeague and Zerkow and Maria’s respective relationships jeopardizes the futurity of these very institutions as both relationships end in spousal homicide and the only child they bear immediately dies. In this sense, Norris stresses the extreme negativism engendered by a privatized mode of consumption apposite to the carnivalesque utopia. As Bakhtin writes, “[i]n the grotesque body…death brings nothing to an end, for it does not concern the ancestral body, which is renewed in the next generation”; by contrast, the stymied reproductive capacity of the privatized grotesque body and its consumptive engenders a new, primarily negativistic relationship to death (Bakhtin, 322). 

Pivoting towards the conclusion of the novel, McTeague’s death constitutes an apogee of privation, detachment, and determinism. Shackled to a corpse in the middle of Death Valley, the eponymous dentist is left “stupidly looking around him, now at the distant horizon, now at the ground, now at the half-dead canary chittering feebly in its little gilt prison” (Norris, 312). Orality and anality literally foreclosed by a lack of food and water, he apotheosizes the completed body of the modern canons and its teleological orientation towards death. His death is certain, yet never consummated. While this lack of closure appears incongruous, it reveals the extent to which the narrative has internalized the modern antipathy towards the material realm. Bakhtin divulges the pregnant meaning of the moment’s topography: “The opaque surface and the body’s “valleys” acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed, as well as all signs of its inner life (Bakhtin, 320). McTeague charts a progression from the grotesque dualism of the “Earth… (the grave, the womb)” from which its protagonist emerges, to the impoverished grotesque mode of the modern city (Bakhtin, 21). Ultimately, in abridging McTeague’s actual death, Norris bars his reunification with the fertile earthly element and asserts the ultimate negativity of the exclusive body. 

Applying Bakhtin’s theorization of the grotesque alongside Veblen’s analysis of class signification in the late 19th century, the rich literary history and cultural forces undergirding Norris’ exploration of naturalism become evident. Moreover, tracing the grotesque body through the novel reveals Norris’ obsessive preoccupation with corporeal integrity and violability as well as his exploration of the hybridized social forms proliferating within the fin-de-siecle urban scenario. Fundamentally, McTeague transcends its own crudeness; a prismatic text with myriad nested forms, it raises still relevant questions about embodiment and physicality as well as the distinction between the individual and collective, launching a latent critique of lower-class identification with bourgeois ideology in line with Norris’ own flirtation with socialism.

Works Cited

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World, edited by Helene Iwolsky. Bloomington, Indiana University, 1984, first translated from the original Russian in 1965. 
  • Bataille, Georges. “The Notion of Expenditure.” Visions of Excess, edited by Alan Stoekl and translated by Alan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985. 
  • Norris, Frank. McTeague. New York, Vintage Books, 1990, first published 1899.
  • Norris, Frank. “McTeague.” Norris: Novels and Essays, edited by Donald Pizer. New York, The Library of America, 1986. 
  • Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class, edited by Martha Banta. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, first published 1899.

[1] To clarify in brief—Bakhtin emphasizes the “ambivalent” character of the “upper stratum” focalized around the mouth and throat and the “lower stratum” focalized around the stomach, genitalia, and anus: the upper stratum negates through ingestion and positively asserts the body through the integration of new matter; the lower stratum negates through excretion and is the locus of fecundity (Bakhtin, 28, 21). In this, the two strata interlink, and, as this analysis will disclose, mirror the ambivalent topography of the very earth.

[2] Bakhtin’s stance on the latency of the positive grotesque in modern canons is ambiguous. On the one hand, in asserting that grotesque forms are “reduced to their minimum” in the new system of images, the theorist seems to acknowledge their residual presence; yet, often he absolutely denies their survival (“There is no symbolic broad meaning whatever in the organs of this body [of the new canon]”) (Bakhtin, 48, 321). Given these contradictions, this analysis attempts to retain Bakhtin’s skepticism towards modern formal developments, but may not wholly accord with the theorist’s verdicts about grotesque presence and absence.

[3] Bakhtin’s work was written in 1940 and published in Russian and English in 1965 and 1968, respectively; however, it theoretically situates itself alongside the medieval and Renaissance knowledge systems with which it is concerned, and so, rebuffs the wholesale application of even the most ubiquitous modern frameworks.

[4] As Bakhtin clarifies “[bodily exaggeration] is actually a picture of dismemberment, of separate areas of the body enlarged to gigantic dimension” (Bakhtin, 328). The “anatomization” of the body therefore reflects the linguistic anatomization of the objects of its consumption. On some level, this anatomization could be seen as characteristic of the naturalism as a whole, and recurs broadly in McTeague’s numerous physical, processual, and topographical descriptions. The grotesque dimensions of this style are particularly evident in the various synecdoche Norris employs—for instance, Trina’s “heaps and heaps of blue-black coils and braids…heavy, abundant, odorous,” McTeague’s “salient jaw,” and Zerkow’s “claw-like, prehensile fingers” (Norris, 18, 4, 91). Independent of the physical whole, yet endowed with equivalent signifying power, they too suggest the malleability of the grotesque body. However, it is important to caveat this apparent symmetry by recalling Bakhtin’s assertion that these details constitute a mere “accentuation of expressive and characterized features” rather than actual “severance of the organs from their body or their independent existence” (Bakhtin, 322). 

[5] Such inversion recurs throughout the novel in the basket “emptied” during the Sieppe’s picnic and the “husks of tamales” and “empty beer bottles” left over from the celebration of Trina’s lottery win in the “Dental Parlors” (Norris, 82).

[6] As will become evident, it is also instructive to consider this motif using Georges Bataille’s analysis of the principle of loss. According to Bataille, Bakhtin’s contemporary, every productive pursuit also involves a loss of energy or matter, or an “unproductive expenditure” (Bataille, 118). In this construction, “the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for [an] activity to take on its true meaning (Bataille, 118). Refracted through modern economics, Bataille parrots Thorstein Veblen, arguing that this tendency towards expenditure has been refigured by the non- “agonistic” market model (that is, an economic system wherein objects have a relatively “stable” value and are pursued acquisitively rather than with the explicit intent to impoverish another), so that “ostentatious loss remains universally linked to wealth, as its ultimate function” (Bataille, 123). To a certain extent, then, these grotesque images of nonbeing also serve a performative function as secondary tokens of their purveyor’s wealth; in this way, Norris’ expression of the grotesque is complicated by the contemporary socioeconomic practices that necessarily superimpose it.

[7] That being said, it is important to note that this militaristic idiom also recapitulates stereotypes of Germanic militarism, merely conforming to Norris’ broader representation of ethnic typologies throughout the novel.

[8] A more comprehensive analysis of the novel’s carnivalesque forms would attend to the way in which McTeague functions as a standard bearer of the grotesque throughout. Like the carnival giant, who, in folklore, both “distribut[es]” food to the people and whose hyperbolic body functions as an avatar for the consumptive power of the whole people, in the early novel, Norris’ “huge blonde giant” appears as the steward of public orality (in his role as dentist and in his aforementioned hailing of the party) and, with the overdetermined “enorm[ity]” of his body and appetite, as sort of grotesque representative (Bakhtin, 329; Norris, 211). Even more strikingly, McTeague resembles the clown archetype. Dualized into clown/clown-king by carnival tradition, the clown reflexively doubles the existing cultural system through parody, returning it to the people as an object of derision and laughter (Bakhtin, 84, 197). Throughout the early novel, by imperfectly doubling the reproduction of the ideal, McTeague restores its base qualities and reveals the absurdity of the copy and, to some extent, the original. In Chapter 9, for example, his attempt to participate in the pseudo-bourgeois white wedding mounted by his peers results in the splitting of the “wedding scene” into its ideal generic and actual comic aspects. Although he attempts to participate in the self-conscious “solem[nity]” of the ritual, he is physically inconsonant to it—his Prince Albert suit is “too short in the sleeves” and his unwieldy body interjects the primness of the scene as his “knees [thud] on the floor to kneel” (Norris, 117, 119). This, as with his misidentification of champagne as “beer,” reveals the materiality obscured by the aspirationally-bourgeois scenario, regrounding Polk Street in the language of the grotesque and the realm of the common and plastic body (Norris, 121).

[9] That is not to say that prior to Trina and McTeague’s marriage characters’ consumptive habits are devoid of problematic elements. Recall for instance, the “gilded tooth” that is McTeague’s “ambition” and “dream” throughout the early novel in large part because of the way he anticipates it will one-up the other dentist, “his competition and social better,” and make him “positively sick with jealousy,” or the farcical wedding in which “artificial orange blossoms” substitute real ones and a “melodeon” substitutes the traditional organ in a desperate effort to simulate the pretensions of a bourgeois wedding (Norris, 5, 107, 111, 119). Indeed, the whole of the novel is steeped in class performativity, but it is primarily after this decisive moment that these impulses become compulsive enough that they encroach upon the characters’ biological processes.

[10] Here, it is also instructive to look at the way in which this “regulation of expenditure” by the institution of the household is prefigured by Trina and Mrs. Sieppe’s attempt to regulate and refusal to acknowledge the physical exigencies of Owgooste at the theater early in the novel. The proper functioning of the grotesque body (its coinciding growth principle and materializing property) represented by the burst of energy he experiences after drinking the lemonade (“He could not keep still an instant; he twisted side to side, swinging his legs with incredible swiftness”) and his triumphant production of urine is censored by the disgust and impassivity of his mother and sister (Norris, 77). The triumphant aspect of the cycle is thereby stripped and the child is left with the purely negative sense of the event, experiencing it as “a veritable catastrophe, deplorable, lamentable, a thing beyond words!” (Norris, 78).

[11] A series of variations on the description of his bachelor breakfast clarify as much: a “suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar” is exchanged for “half-done suet pudding”; “muddy coffee” and “bad bread” appear in place of the “two kinds of vegetables” he had once enjoyed; and the whole meal is summarized as a “badly-cooked supper” rather than the source of contented “crop-ful[ness]” (Norris, 3, 207).

[12] The unfavorable correlation between this violence and the integration of the labor space with that of the domestic is pertinent. “The tiny, grimy room, full of the smells of cooking and of “non-poisonous” paint foreshadows the eventual blood-poisoning caused by the paint and again emphasizes the way in which the overlap of the two realms would disturb the projected self-image of the petit bourgeois (Norris, 214).

[13] Although a full account of the oral motif within Maria and Zerkow’s relationship would be excessive within this analysis, it is relevant to note the way in which the negative orality exemplified by this child is first augured by Maria’s description of the plates as “soft gold” that you can “bite into…and leave the dent of your teeth” (here, the prefiguration of Trina’s oral fixation is palpable) (Norris, 296). 

[14] The son of a “shift-boss” and cook at the Big Dipper mine, McTeague is intrinsically connected with the earthly element (Norris, 4).

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