The most stimulating and, militant of our early naturalists-the only one who wrote consciously with a definite creed. He had thought out a naturalistic philosophy under the inspiration of Zola. "He was never without a yellow paper-covered novel of Zola in his hand," wrote his brother of him. His two chief novels reveal the twin tendencies as revealed in Nana and Le debacle: The study of the individual in his reaction to environment, and the study of social forces and their impact upon a group of related individuals.
His Work. Falls into three groups: (1) Romance-Blix, Moran of the Lady Letty; (2) Naturalism--McTeague, Vandover and the Brute; (3) The Pit and A Deal in Wheat. Between the two latter groups stands The Octopus. The dates of the earlier works uncertain. Commonly believed that Norris began as a romantic and worked out of it slowly. Another view that he wrote romances as a means of arriving, side by side with his serious work. Thus he seems to have begun McTeague about 1894--although it was not published till 1899.
Theory. His passion for truth more ardent-or more noisy-than Crane's: his objectivity less. The strong conviction of a deterministic universe was on him, but he never quite attained the scientific detachment. His nature large and eager. Like Zola he loved large canvases. This induced him rather to the sociological than to the individualistic study. The Octopus more representative of his genius than McTeague. Man in society, his theme: not mere men and women as ends in themselves. This grew on him-the second phase. The novelist must deal "with elemental forces, motives that stir whole nations. These cannot be handled as abstractions in fiction. . . . The social tendencies must be expressed by means of an analysis of the characters of the men and women who compose that society, and the two must be combined and manipulated to evolve the purpose-to find the value of x.4 Above all, avoid propaganda.
Unskillfully treated, the story may dwindle down and degenerate into mere special pleading, and the novelist becomes a polemicist, a pamphleteer, forgetting that although his first consideration is to prove his case, his means must be living human beings, not statistics, and that his tools are not figures, but pictures of life as he sees it. . . .
Consider the reverse--Fecondite, for instance. The purpose for which Zola wrote the book ran away with him. He really did care more for the depopulation of France than he did for his work. Result-sermons on the fruitfulness of women, special pleading, a farrago of dry, dull incidents, overburdened and collapsing under the weight of a theme that should have intruded only indirectly.5
He never quite arrives at the amoral attitude. Ethical values persist in intruding themselves, sometimes quite incidentally, as in McTeague, but increasingly, as in The Octopus and The Pit.
Dedicated to Gates. The first considerable contribution to naturalism by an American writer. His carefully written work over which he labored five years.
Theme. A study in character disintegration that follows upon economic pressure. The unmaking of a man and woman by the caprice of events. The characters are simple. McTeague is heavy and stupid, slow in his movements but a blind bull when aroused. Trina neat and pretty but with unhappy potentialities in her thrift. In neither is there a will-to-power strong enough to give strength of character.
The Note of Determinism. A world of chance that victimizes them. The note struck by the lottery and the $5,000. By chance McTeague became a dentist, met Trina, proposed. But the chance that was making a man of him and a woman of Trina was preparing their downfall through Marcus Schouler. The wrestling-match was the turning-point. The two disintegrate together, each aggravating the weakness of the other. As Trina's neatness was pulling Mac up and making him self-respecting, so her thrift grew into miserliness under pressure of his failure to provide, and this embittered the essentially fair and generous nature of Mac.
Inner Drives. Little sex in the book after the first complication. Both Mac and Trina caught unexpectedly, yet handled differently. The latter pure naturalism. "The Woman is awakened, and, starting from her sleep, catches blindly at what first the newly awakened eyes light upon. It is a spell, a witchery, ruled by chance alone, inexplicable-a fairy queen enamored of a clown with ass's ears."6 But in McTeague, oddly enough, the same instinct is judged and pronounced evil. Norris abandons the amoral attitude and argues that heritage from the lower life is evil. It is the weeds that spring up and stifle, as in Sherwood Anderson's "Seeds."
Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and his father's father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?7
The entire handling of sex in Trina, from the first frightened yielding to the later docile submission to Mac's brutality, his sadism, is admirably handled from the point of view of modern psychology. Norris was not a psychologist but in this he succeeded surprisingly.
Romantic Elements. Yet even in this severe study Norris has yielded to his romantic tendencies.
1. His patent effort to give dramatic unity to the whole through the symbol of gold. An exaggeration that is almost Dickens-like, with its warping singleness. The gold tooth, the $5,000, Trina's twenty-dollar gold pieces, the imaginary gold plate of Maria Macapa, the absurd canary in the gilt cage, the discovery of the gold mine. The wonder is that he didn't give Trina gold hair instead of black.
2. The use of a minor action: Maria Macapa and old Zerkow. The same pursuit of a phantom and the same outcome in murder. McTeague and Trina are real; Maria and Zerkow are grotesques.
3. The use of foils: Old Grannis and Miss Baker. Justified in romantic literature by contrast. The self-effacing, timid drawing together contrasted with the brute directness of McTeague. They do not marry, and preserve their dream world.
4. The use of the revenge motive: Marcus Schouler-the dramatic pursuit into Death Valley and the end.
"VANDOVER AND THE BRUTE"
An unfinished work-but a huge and terrible torso.
Theme. Revealed in the title. The two natures of man and the sloughing-off of the higher till the wolf is left. Done with a terrible directness, till the naked man is on all fours, padding up and down in his room. A grim and sordid theme but not quite achieved. The thing got away from him. If he had chiseled it as he chiseled McTeague, holding it off objective and amoral, it would have been a tremendous piece. But it is insufficiently motivated.
Determinism. A study in will. Vandover set over against Charlie Geary and Dolly Haight. The latter a victim of momentary weak-ness; the former a victim of constitutional pliability. A sensuous egotism that grows and consumes. Geary alone survives-the egoist who drives forward ruthlessly. A study of the slow, long descent-a chain of circumstances that finally binds him hand and foot. His props knocked away one by one-partly by fate, partly by himself: his father, the girl whom he loves, his concern for respectable opinion, his art, his money. The conclusion intensely dramatic-more so than the romance of McTeague.
The comment of Garland on McTeague applies equally to Vandover: "What avail is this study of sad lives? for it does not even lead to a notion of social betterment." His interest is "not that of the ethical teacher."
McTeague and Vandover are of the city and its sordid evil ways. They are studies in psychology. The Octopus is of the great California valleys and the evils that have come into the farm life with the railroad. It is a study in economics-the first of a long series of such studies. One can easily see how the theme caught the imagination of Norris, how his mind felt the relief from the narrow world and sordid wretchedness of Vandover. A certain magnificence in Norris responded to the epic breadth of the valleys-they fired his imagination-the vast sweep and power of nature: the rich soil, the brilliant sun that lays its palpitating heat upon the land, the quick response in flowers and fruit. The land is eager to produce; its fruitfulness is overpowering. There is an epic sweep of life and reproduction here; and this epic of the soil is linked with the tragedy wrought by the Southern Pacific-the economic machinery of man's making. The facts were well known and they took hold of Norris's imagination. His sympathy is aroused and yet instead of attacking the railroad he weaves it into his deterministic philosophy.
Theme. Ostensibly the wheat. Norris planned a huge trilogy of its growing (The Octopus), marketing (The Pit), consumption (The Wolf-never written). In reality, the impotence of unimportant individuals in the struggle with things as they are. In The Octopus the individual is dwarfed by the vast spaces, he is crumpled and despoiled by the railroad. The flock of sheep destroyed by the train is only a symbol of the men and women of the valley, under the wheels of modern industrialism.
Action. A huge canvas with crowding figures and abundant action. "The canvas swarms with actualities-plowing, planting, harvesting, sheep-herding, merry-making, rabbit-killing, love, labor, birth, death"--all keyed high and swept into a palpitating background. A "strongly interwrought group of episodes," that fall into certain series of developments too:
1. The atrophy of Magnus Derrick, which might well be a story in itself.
2. The development of Annixter, "out of an absolute, yet not gross, materiality," through the love of Hilma Tree; and then their final annihilation.
3. A host of background characters-supernumeraries-that give a sense of epic sweep.
The Note of Romance. The riot of color, of life, arouse the latent romance of his nature. He cannot remain detached but projects himself into the story in the person of Vanamee. He returns to the use of the symbol as in McTeague-the wheat. He allows his villain to perish melodramatically. How much more convincing is the figure of Charlie Geary setting Vandover to work than S. Behrman in the hold of the vessel.
In the end he abandons the amoral attitude. After proclaiming the doctrine of determinism-that the railroads are the masters---not the puppets of men--he takes refuge in a moral order. In the large balance, the wheat remains, rectifying wrong-saving other lives to make good what it here destroys. "The larger view always and through all shams, all wickednesses, discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly, work together for good."8 Nevertheless in contemplating the injustice done by the railroads, Norris neither demands nor expects relief.
The Octopus exemplifies Norris' theory of broad-scale work. It "draws conclusions from a whole congeries of forces, social development, race impulses." It "devotes itself not to the study of men but of man."
4The Responsibilities of the Novelist, "The Novel with a `Purpose,"' Garden City, N. Y., 1928, Vol. 7, P. 22.
5Ibid., p. 22.
6Frank Norris, Complete Works, New York, n. d., Vol. III, p. 58.
7Ibid., p. 22.
8Frank Norris, The Octopus, New York, 1906, p. 652.