McTeague’s Women in a Greedy World

The motifs of greed and possession run throughout Frank Norris’s 1899 novel, Mcteague. At the beginning of the novel, we see greed in its most undiluted and disgusting form in the Polish Jew, Zerkow, and again in a more unstable, neurotic form in Maria Macapa. Both of these characters, to a large extent, have already fallen from society when we are introduced to them, and we see them in a degenerated state at the outset. In the character Trina, who is Mcteague’s wife, we see avarice’s power to transform a person from a good daughter and wife to an unkempt, selfish, and completely unsalvageable human being. Greed undoubtedly contributes to the downfall of both of the main women in the novel, and on the surface it seems that Norris is equating femininity with greed. However, given Norris’s detailed descriptions of these women, we can view their rapacity as the result of environmental and hereditary factors, rather than as the expression of an intrinsically feminine flaw. Near the start of the novel, Norris introduces Maria Macapa, the Mexican woman-of-all-work around the flat. The narrator immediately describes her as greedy and manipulative, but above all, unstable. When she first shows up, Marcus describes her to Trina saying, “She’s a greaser, and she’s queer in the head” (Norris 20). Norris seems to connect her petty theft and her talent of swindling more to her Mexican heritage than to her sex. He tells us, “There was a legend to the effect that Maria’s people had been at one time immensely wealthy in Central America,” and indeed, if her story is to be believed, her family once possessed a gold service of immense value (Norris 21). Whether or not her story is true, she certainly seems to believe it herself, and this obsession seems to be the underlying cause of her desire to acquire wealth. She believes that she was once in a position of wealth and power, and she resents those in positions above her now. She is greedy, but she is not miserly, and Norris tells us that “she spent [her money] on shirt waists and dotted blue neckties, trying to dress like the girls who tended the soda-water fountain in the candy store on the corner. She was sick with envy of these women” (Norris 34). Fixated on the gold of her past and stuck in a position that affords her no luxuries, she becomes a figure of greed in the novel, because she is willing to con the tenants of the flat in order to earn a few extra cents. Fate and her deranged obsession with the past have more to do with her greedy behavior than her womanhood. Norris describes the development and results of a different type of pathological obsession with money in the character Trina. Although Trina’s compulsive hoarding of money makes her seem at least as greedy (and unbalanced) as Maria, the environmental causes for her behavior are quite different. Norris gives such convincing descriptions of these environmental and hereditary factors that it is hard to imagine that he is simply trying to equate women with greed. Trina comes from a humble German lineage, in stark contrast to the fabled family wealth of Maria. In the beginning of the novel, Trina’s way with money seems to be a virtue rather than a vice, and Norris describes it as “economy” rather than “miserliness.” He immediately associates this trait with her heritage, telling us, “A good deal of peasant blood still ran undiluted in her veins, and she had all the instinct of a hardy and penurious mountain race – the instinct which saves without thought…saving for the sake of saving, hoarding without knowing why (Norris 134). Unlike Maria, Trina avoids spending her money at all costs, because she values the security of having money more than actually having any material possessions. Norris indicates that Trina’s avarice is the result of her heredity, although the rest of her family does not show her same extreme of miserliness. What prompts this change in Trina that makes her different from the rest of the Sieppes? Trina marries Mcteague, which puts her in a vulnerable position, in which she has very little control over her own life. Trina sees marriage as an unalterable fact, and it does not even occur to her that she could potentially escape. In addition, Mcteague is a physically dominating character; he is a huge man, immensely strong, and could (and later does) forcefully bend Trina to his will without breaking a sweat. Trina realizes that she is helpless, and at first she responds to this with fits of instability, alternating between despondency and needy affection. Soon, the narrator tells us, “Trina’s emotions, oscillating at first from one extreme to the other, commenced to settle themselves to an equilibrium of calmness and placid quietude” (Norris 187). In the same paragraph, he mentions that Trina ran their household with “an economy that often bordered on positive niggardliness. It was a passion with her to save money.” There is a close connection between her control over her own emotions and her control over her money (Norris 188). Karen Jacobson points out in her article “Who’s the boss? McTeague, Naturalism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder” that Trina classically shows compulsive behavior in response to a need for control in her life (32). Soon, Trina finds that her compulsion to save is stronger than she is. She cannot bring herself to spend even a little money for her husband, for herself, or for her family, even when they request help from her. She admits, “It may be mean, but I can’t help it. It’s stronger than I” (Norris 210). Trina’s passion for saving soon becomes pathological, and once Mcteague loses his job, her stinginess becomes a major source of friction in their marriage. When Trina keeps insisting that they move into cheaper, more inhospitable places, Mcteague becomes frustrated with his own impotence. He reacts to this loss of control by resorting to bullying and abuse. First, he threatens her by saying, “You’re going to do just as I tell you after this, Trina Mcteague.” Then he actually carries out these threats and hurts her (Norris 299). Why do their respective reactions to a loss of control seem so logical to the reader? Although Norris does seem somewhat prejudiced against women, because he generally characterizes them as unstable and uses terms like “high-strung feminine nerves,” he gives us another logical explanation for Trina’s saving compulsion; Trina’s father, a man obsessed with military precision and control, has provided Trina with an excellent source on which to model her obsessive behavior. Jacobson makes this connection between Trina’s compulsive saving and her childhood environment, noting that “in families in which dissidence is forbidden and perfection is demanded, obsessional rituals and phobias will be more common” (Jacobson 32, quoting Salzman). While Norris was not aware of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or its causes, the ideas of Naturalism fit well with more recent observations of personality disorders – namely, that disorders such as this are caused both by hereditary predisposition and by environment. Thus, Trina is the victim not of her femininity, but of her upbringing and genetics. Her compulsive behavior then leads to a cycle of degeneration; her stinginess embitters her husband and makes him more brutal, which in turn causes Trina to focus more and more on money, so that she has something to control. Ultimately, both Trina and Maria’s relationships with money contribute to their respective downfalls. Maria’s marriage to Zerkow seems inexplicable, except through their mutual fixation on Maria’s story of the gold dishes. Trina and Ms. Baker hypothesize that the idea of marriage was mostly Zerkow’s, since Maria gains little through the alliance, and Zerkow actually believes that Maria has the gold plate stashed somewhere. By now, Maria’s slight propensity towards acquisition seems hardly a fault in comparison to Trina’s irrational stinginess. When Trina lies and tells Maria she does not have any tea to give her, the narrator comments that “Trina’s stinginess had increased to such an extent that it had gone beyond the mere hoarding of money. She grudged even the food that she and Mcteague ate” (Norris 296). In fact, after Maria’s marriage to Zerkow, we see hardly a single example of her greed. Her mental instability and perhaps her desperation led to her marriage with Zerkow, not her greed. If anything, her marriage puts her in a lower social position, not a higher one, so she must have some other motivation besides greed. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that Maria’s greed leads to her downfall at all, since she does not show greed in her marriage to Zerkow, and it is his greed, rather than hers, that causes her death. Instead, both her greed and her downfall are separate symptoms of her deranged memory of wealth and power. The very existence of Zerkow as a character in Mcteague contradicts the premise that Norris is trying to equate femininity with greed. Zerkow is easily the most despicable and unsympathetic character in the novel, and he is also the greediest. In him, more than any other character, we see greed’s power to corrupt and pervert. Driven mad by the idea of the gold service, he convinces himself that it actually exists, and he ends up killing Maria because she cannot tell him where it is. Norris uses Zerkow throughout the novel to exemplify greediness. If Norris were trying to connect women with greed, why would he make his quintessentially greedy character a man? In conclusion, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the women in Mcteague do not show greed or that they do not suffer immensely as the result of their relationships with money. Yet, these characters are not greedy simply because they are women. Norris, instead, follows the idea of Naturalism by portraying Trina and Maria as victims of their circumstances and heredity.