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Dustin Lantz

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Morality and Desire in McTeague and The House of Mirth

Why are we who we are? A wordy question to be sure, but also an important one. The naturalist writers of American literature have long claimed that it is the environment itself that plays a great part in shaping humans. Frank Norris, one of the most renowned and well known naturalist writers seemed to have this stance, and combined it with his pessimistic views of the innate nature of humanity and society to create stunning works of fiction. This portrayal of the world and its people is gripping and shocking, yet still able to strike some chord within the reader. Another writer, Edith Wharton, did not proclaim herself a naturalist, and yet later reviews of her work would find many similarities between the characters and situations she created and the naturalist credos. Her novels too seemed to show the dark side of man, and lay bare the problems with the society of her day. By comparing the works of these two authors, we might come to find if they were of a similar mind, or if the messages they espoused were only kin on a surface level. Frank Norris’ classic piece of literature, McTeague, is an acclaimed piece of work and an excellent showcase of Norris’ views. Meanwhile, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is an equally prestigious novel with rich themes and characters. By closely examining these works and the analysis critics have made of them, perhaps a dividing line in ideology will become clear, and an interesting clash of worldviews can be examined. The titular character of McTeague is of course the easiest place to see Norris espousing his beliefs about human nature and formation. Indeed, as one of the first descriptions of any humans in this book, the negative connotations attributed to McTeague set the tone for the future characters and interactions. It is stated that, “McTeague's mind was as his body, heavy, slow to act, sluggish. Yet there was nothing vicious about the man. Altogether he suggested the draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (Norris). McTeague is explained in terms of a beast of burden, a creature that acts without much reason or thought besides momentary comfort and pleasure. According to the naturalist philosophy Norris subscribed to, these features of McTeague are the result of his upbringing and the land he hailed from. Indeed, his massive strength and lack of intelligence seem to well mirror the harshness of the coal mines in his land of upbringing. The miner requires no real wit, no mental acuity, only great strength and fortitude, features McTeague has in spades. Yet it is worth noticing how McTeague is described in these opening pages as, “docile” and having, “nothing vicious about” him, despite being the character who would later go on to commit two grisly murders, one of which being his wife. Assuming that the omniscient narrator of the story is being truthful, which we must having no other sources of information, this would imply that some event within the story changes the gentle but slow McTeague into a violent and murderous giant. This pivotal moment when the gentle animal is changed is given to us directly, during McTeague’s operation on Trina. It is during this moment of weakness and fear that, “Within him, a certain second self, another better McTeague rose with the brute; both were strong, with the huge crude strength of the man himself. The two were at grapples. There in that cheap and shabby ‘Dental Parlor’ a dreaded struggle began. It was the old battle, old as the world, wide as the world--the sudden panther leap of the animal, lips drawn, fangs aflash, hideous, monstrous, not to be resisted, and the simultaneous arousing of the other man, the better self that cries, ‘Down, down,’ without knowing why; that grips the monster; that fights to strangle it, to thrust it down and back” (Norris). This great change within McTeague is sudden and drastic, though Norris implies that it is an “old battle,” a battle fought by countless humans long before McTeague. The victory of the “brute” over the “better self” marks the turning point for McTeague, where he no longer merely exists, but ravenously desires. So different from the man he once was all in an instant, critic McGlynn recognizes this sudden urge to possess as being an inciting and corrupting force in not just McTeague, but all the characters of the city. He asserts that, “cut off from the landscape of his youth, McTeague, and his neighbors, are driven mad by an insatiable desire to possess the ‘things’ of the city, items that signify wealth but are themselves worthless” (McGlynn 25). In this case, the inciting “thing” McTeague hopes to possess is Trina, or at least what he understands that he can get from her by possessing her. It is this mad desire, this hunger that is so different from the traits and mentality given to him by his land of birth that “incites confusion, greed, and eventually animalistic violence in otherwise rational men and women”(McGlynn 25). Norris’ message seems to be that it is this desire, brought about by society itself that corrupts and awakens the “evil of an entire race” within McTeague, and perhaps within all the characters of the novel (Norris). From this pivotal point, McTeague’s desires are constantly shifting with his fortunes. From the simple desire of the giant molar for his store, he begins to desire a family. Then, as he loses his job and his fortunes fail, his desires become baser and baser, desiring only wealth and to spend it, however he can. Then, he devolves to only wanting money, wanting it so bad that he kills his wife over it, and battles Marcus to the death for it, despite its uselessness in the bowels of the desert. There McTeague’s story ends, a morally barren end in a barren unforgiving land. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a far more obvious criticism of society, but instead elects to focus on the moral woes and evils of the upper class. Lily Bart is a women born with money, and she expects to continue living with money alongside the rest of the American social elite. Again and again Lily makes plans to marry and reacquire her wealth, to secure for herself a future that is materialistically certain, even if it may be spiritually uncertain. Despite her constant failures and falling status within the world she was brought up in, she can scarcely imagine a life that does not continue on as it has been thus far. In the early pages of the novel Selden remarks that Lily is “so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (Wharton). The naturalistic manner of such comparisons are quite strong, and Selden’s words are almost prophetic, as Lily is dragged lower and lower by the society she fails in, as though chained to some great weight. The imagery of manacles and links tie her fate very closely to the nature of her society itself. The metal and formality of society is what chains her and prevents Lily from being more, as though she is being drug down along with some great machine that is falling ever further. Lily’s exact words to Selden in the closing chapters of the novel are that she, “was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else… What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole? One must get back to it or be thrown out into the rubbish heap” (Wharton). As far as the world that created her is concerned, she is but a small malfunctioning piece, easily discarded and replaced when it fails in its duties, but just being a part of it chains her to its failures. Even when Lily is compared to Nature itself, she is anchored and unable to truly live as she sees fit. “Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock,” and just like the sea-anemone she had no choice of the “rock” she was anchored to, it was all decided in the luck of the draw (Wharton). Yet despite her reliance on the society she was born into, Lily shows herself throughout the novel to be unwilling to fully embrace what she is a part of. Whether it is speaking with Selden and ruining her plans to marry Percy Gryce, or her absolute refusal to give into Gus Trenor’s advances, Lily consistently causes her own downfall. Whether her decisions are right or wrong, she actively causes her own stated goal of a stable and wealthy marriage to slip through her fingers. She is at once a being struggling against a corrupt world, yet attempting to blend with it, and the duality of her actions inevitably destroys her. Her solemn death in her own bed after overdosing on a dangerous sleep medicine, and the subsequent discovery of her body by Selden, seems to indicate that though she was discarded by high class society, the chains that bound her still dragged her to an untimely end. Both stories feature a protagonist that is the product of their origins, of the environment they were born in.. McTeague is a slow, lumbering brute, whose form and mind are suited to the dull and taxing work of a coal mine, not the ravenous city life. Lily is a subpar socialite, cunning and scheming, yet completely useless outside of her sphere of influence and seemingly self destructive within it. In this respect, it would seem that Wharton and Norris would agree, people are shaped by where they come from, and to escape those ties is a daunting task. However, the paths these two characters walk and the ends they meet are not as similar as they seem at first glance. McTeague deteriorates morally and mentally to the level of a beast, desiring and consuming ceaselessly. McTeague does not have the capacity to judge his desires or the reasoning behind them as good or evil, he merely wants. McGlynn aptly assesses that McTeague’s “rational self understands that the fulfillment of his desires is empty; once he possesses, his desire for the thing itself will wane. On the other hand, the ‘brute’ in him reacts to and desires the temptations of the city. The brute cannot not want,” and as the victory of the brute is set in stone in McTeague’s “dental parlor” early on, he is set on a path of brutish desire (McGlynn 30). McTeague bounces from one desire to another. Whether it is his wife or his sign, be it a family or Trina’s money, McTeague follows, “his desire blindly, recklessly, furious and raging at every obstacle” (Norris). McTeague, much like a common beast of prey, charges after his desires headless of the damage or violence necessary to capture them. It is only once he has his target grasped firmly within his massive hands that he reflects and sees the destruction his heedless actions have caused. Yet he laments not about them, for he does not understand that he has done evil, he merely understands that he has done what is not accepted by his surroundings. He is too simple, too brutal to do things because they are right, or to avoid them because they are wrong, he is an imposing force that achieves his goals through physically immoral means. Society too is immoral, but its immorality is subtle. Society will happily condone Marcus’ sabotage of McTeague’s business, it is done properly and quietly. Society will never accept the violence and aggression of McTeague, because those are the ways of the mountains, of the miner’s fury; it has no place in the society of the day. Compared to the hulking brute that is McTeague, Lily is a dainty and fragile character. She cannot use the brute strength of the mountains to get what she wants, for that is not what was naturally given to her. She must use her quick wits and the rules of the game she plays to coerce and maneuver, to deflect and redirect until she has what it is she desires. She knows this, she knows well the game she plays and what consequences her actions should have, and yet time and time again she sabotages her own plans. Despite claiming that her only desire is to marry a rich man and live a comfortable life similar to the one she has lived thus far, anytime a moral quandary is placed before her, she seems unwilling to take the plunge that the other people of her high society world are willing to take and seem to expect her to take. What separates her from her corrupt peers, as well as from McTeague, is an innate sense of morality. Lily fails because she is not cold, she fails because she is not singlemindedly chasing her dream of a rich life at the expense of any and everything. She is capable of feeling so distraught, “that the moral shame was one with the physical dread,” showing that Lily has such moral fiber that an affront to it can affect her as readily as a physical sensation (Wharton). So then, if Lily is one of the few characters shown to have a moral compass within The House of Mirth, does her death signify that Wharton has deemed such a notion silly or fruitless? If Lily’s death had been a simple and dreadful event within the narrative, then perhaps that conclusion would be correct, but it is important to remember that the final chapters of the novel do not wallow in foreboding or deprecation. Lily does not die alone in a desolate land, she passes peacefully in her sleep, and, “ she did not feel herself alone. It was odd--but Nettie Struther's child was lying on her arm: she felt the pressure of its little head against her shoulder. She did not know how it had come there, but she felt no great surprise at the fact, only a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure” (Wharton). Lily’s hallucination of the child can seem odd, she had only met it once previously, and up until their encounter she had seemed almost inconsolate after her encounter with Selden. Critic Donald Pizer rationalizes the child’s importance as a “symbol of the triumphant rebirth of her will to live and indeed to live happily,” for Nettie, and proves that, “this victory is also possible for Lily within her own seeming manacles of environmental conditioning” (Pizer, 244). Lily can see herself with the baby, with the thing she associates with Nettie’s success in rebuilding her life that had gone so far off the rails, and this ironically empowers her as the medicine kills her. Lily dies content, or at the very least feeling, “warmth and pleasure,” but if her death were to stand as an indictment of her actions or morals, then certainly she would face a sullen and pointless end, not a hopeful one. Critic James Gargano finds that the final chapters of the novel stand not as a warning against moral consistency, but rather as an endorsement of them. Lily and Selden finally realize the relationship that lays between them, and though they cannot be together, the realization itself brings both comfort and affirmation that things are not as bleak as they seem. In the final moments of the novel, Selden reflects upon how they have come to this point, and recognizes that, “It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction” (Wharton). This talk of, “victory” over, “extinction” mirrors Gargano’s own conclusion that Wharton hopes to convey, “an almost mystical assurance that only moral action can save the ever-threatened continuity of human existence” itself ( Gargano 141). To break free from the corruption and evil of society, and allow herself to be cast down rather than give in to immorality gives Lily the chance to see the life she could make, the happiness she could seize if she was but to relinquish her petty desires and be honest with herself and Selden. The realization of this happiness eludes them, but merely the discovery of the possibility for it within this world that has so scorned and beaten Lily down, provides hope for all people. The love they recognize but never act upon, “functions in its very possibility of fulfillment as a testament to man’s capacity to posit a spiritual dimension to experience,” and it is presented as a sign to them and the reader that they can, “gain strength and derive meaning from their desires, hopes, and faiths” (Pizer 247). These two novels, McTeague and The House of Mirth, becomes the lenses through which we can begin to see the beliefs and assertions of the authors who created them. Norris believes he has seen the “hereditary stain of evil” within all men, and condemns the slow and brutish McTeague, but extends his contempt to humanity and all of its desires(Norris). He implies that, “the factors that incite one person to evil cannot be reduced to simple biological factors and therefore seem more plausibly the result of a corruptive environment awakening the capacities for evil shared by all humankind” (McGlynn 35). Norris sees the darkness within man and offers scant reconciliations, a few sidelong assurances that some people may find peace, but no matter how the world has shaped us, we must eventually come to wrestle with the beast within. Wharton, too, has seen the evil of mankind, its vices and blackness spread even upon its society, corrupting the very heights of wealth. Yet Wharton sees more in humans than their evil, she sees their virtues. She sees that for every Simon Rosedale and Gus Trenor, there is a Nettie Struther who still strives to do what is right, to live peacefully and righteously. Whether it takes the form of love, comradery, or something else, it is, “faith in oneself and others that motivates and pushes life through hardship” (Gargano 140). Regardless of how the world has shaped us, faith in our morals and each other redeems and perhaps even saves mankind from itself. The dividing line between these two great American authors then is faith in mankind itself. Both will cite culture and land of birth as shaping forces in the lives of humans, and each will concede that other factors will come to influence them as they move forward. But where Norris sees mankind as fools who may struggle and rage against their natures, inevitably linked not only to their origins, but to a collective darkness that can never destroyed, Wharton sees flawed people who can overcome and redeem themselves through moral introspection and faith in one another. To simplify this clash of ideals down to the old struggle of pessimism and optimism would do disservice to the intensity and candor of these arguments. Even the most hopeful of people must admit that Norris’ dark and morally bankrupt themes have within them a certain undeniable truth in our modern world. Even the most miserly of readers cannot deny the hope sparked by Lily and Selden’s final thoughts of each other and the future they most certainly could have made if only they’d had faith in each other from the start of the novel. These two views of mankind’s nature, and perhaps even its fate, are two branches from the same base in naturalist assumptions about the world mankind has created for itself. In the end, the environment of the reader’s own origins may be what influences which path they find kinship in. Is Wharton correct in seeing a light in the darkness of mankind, a path of redemption which elevates humans above the base creatures of desire, or is all of mankind heir to the evil that Norris saw, which must be fought tooth and nail, else they become just another beast of desire?