What happened to the story of McTeague?

A comparison of novel and film

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

17 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. What happened to the story of McTeague
2.1. A brief summary of “McTeague”
2.2. The naturalistic elements in this novel
2.3. The production of the movie Greed
2.3.1. Deleted characters
2.3.2. Deleted or changed scenes
2.4. Is Greed still naturalistic?

3. Conclusion

4. Works cited

1. Introduction

This paper will deal with a critical analysis and comparison of the novel McTeague: A story of San Francisco, written by Frank Norris and published in 1899, and the 2 hour version of the movie Greed produced in 1924 by Erich von Stroheim.

First of all, I will give a short summary of the novel, pointing out several aspects that make it a typical naturalistic novel.

Then I will go on by giving some brief background information on the production of the movie, describing its metamorphosis from a nine hour epos to a commercial film of about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

According to this, I will discuss this shortening, give examples of what was left out of the original version and try to give reasons for that. Furthermore, I will look at the effects this had on the original story and discuss the question whether the film version can still be regarded as belonging to the naturalistic genre. Doing so, I will discuss complete scenes and shorter passages which are mentioned in the book and not in the novel and vice versa, and passages that are slightly changed.

I claim that Greed is still a naturalistic piece of art though in a weaker form by pointing out striking elements that remained in the movie.

2. What happened to the story of McTeague

2.1. A brief summary of “McTeague”

The novel was written by Frank Norris and published in 1899. He started to write on it in early 1895 during his studies at Harvard. After a while, he put it aside in order to write his novel Vandover which was published in 1914 (Pizer 1973, page 27). He returned to McTeague, made some changes and finished it in 1897. It contains 22 chapters and it is widely claimed and accepted that Norris was hugely influenced by Emile Zola when writing McTeague.

Another point concerning the development of McTeague is the fact that in 1893 happened a murder in a San Francisco kindergarten (Pizer 1973, page 52) and this event also occurs in the novel.

The novel tells the story of McTeague, who has no first name mentioned but is referred to by his friends as Mac. He grew up in California, working in a gold mine like his father. He is sent by his mother to go away with a dentist in order to learn this profession. He establishes in San Francisco, meets Trina Sieppe, the cousin of his best friend Marcus Schoeler, and they marry after a short time. Trina wins 5000$ in a lottery and this win turns their life upside down. She refuses to spend a cent of this money, even after Mac lost his job because of not being certificated. Their life becomes poorer and more miserable every day. Mac starts drinking whiskey which makes him very brutal and he starts to beat her. Since her avarice becomes a real mania, Mac leaves her. She has to work as a scrubwomen in order to leave her money untouched. Mac one day comes back to her to ask for some money but she refuses to help him. So he comes back later and kills her and flees with her money. He returns to his old mine to look for gold and then goes on to the Death Valley to escape from the headhunters. Walking through the desert, he is discovered by his former friend Marcus who some time ago started to envy Mac for all the money he and Trina had. They both end in fighting for the money Mac has brought with him to the desert. Marcus dies and Mac is left alone in the desert handcuffed to Marcus’ corpse.

2.2. The naturalistic elements in this novel

I will not try to give an exact definition of what naturalism is and how it can be differentiated from realism or romanticism since this is a field broadly discussed but never really defined (Pizer 1995, chapter 1). I will stick to certain characteristics that are said to be typical for naturalism and try to discuss them in regard to McTeague.

Norris himself said that “naturalism […] resolved the conflict between realism and romanticism by selecting the best from these two modes” (Pizer 1967, page 34).

Naturalistic novels are concerned with several themes, and I will mainly talk about the following, as there are heredity, the influence of the environment, conspicuous consumption, the uncontrollable power of the past, sexual desire, animal imagery, influence of alcohol and the operation of chance. Doing this, I will focus especially on Trina and Mac since they are the main characters in the novel and they are the best examples to show these typical naturalistic elements.


Mac is described as a huge former miner worker whose father “became an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcohol.” (Norris, chapter 1). So you can see that he is in his behaviour influenced by his father, and coming after him it is not surprising to see that Mac will deal in his life with alcohol which brings out the worst in him. He can do nothing against it because it is inherited by his father and father fathers. Although he knows that he cannot handle whiskey, he drinks it because his genes tell him to do so and because his father did it as well. In these cases, Mac does not even have in mind that this excessive drinking caused his father’s death, he does not think at all.

About his mother, who also is supposed to have some influence on the genes of her son, one can only say that she was a hard working lady “who […]cooked for forty miners. She was an overworked drudge, fiery and energetic for all that, […]” (Norris, chapter 1). She is described as always being tired and exhausted from all the hard work she had to do in the mine. Nevertheless, she was the one who wanted Mac to have a better life and to learn a profound profession so she was the starting point for Mac’s ‘career’ as a dentist. One can only guess what had happened to Mac if his mother had not send him away with the dentist Dr. Potter, probably he would have worked in the mine till his end without thinking about other possibilities to lead his life. And probably, he would have been content with it since he is not presented as a highly ambitioned person in the novel.

Trina on the other hand comes from a Swiss-German family. Right on from the beginning it is mentioned that she is very good and accurate in caring for the household and that she is able to deal well with money. This is also heritage from the family. “A good deal of peasant blood still ran undiluted in her veins” (Norris, chapter 8). So, same as with Mac, she cannot really be blamed for becoming a miser after winning in the lottery because “[i]t’s growing on me, but never mind, it’s a good fault, and, anyhow, I can’t help it.” (Norris, chapter 10) and she was born with this characteristic. It is also in her genes and it was foreseeable that one day she would become what she actually became in the course of the story.

Influence of the environment

Concerning the influence of the environment, I would like to start with talking about Social Darwinism. It is based on the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ every person has to deal with more or less unconsciously. Characters in the naturalistic novels are often compared to animals as it can best be seen in Mac and in his physical description. “For McTeague was a young giant, carrying his huge shock of blond hair six feet three inches from the ground; moving his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscles, slowly, ponderously.” (Norris, chapter 1). “These barbarians, as the Social Darwinism perceived them, were incapable of surviving without the help of the upper class, the “fittest”.” (Bousquet). That means that people just like Mac and Trina are defined by the society and the environment they live in.

Mac often sits in his dental parlors watching the life in Polk Street, and this is described in detail by Frank Norris. So the reader gets a clear picture of how the world Mac lives in looks like. There are many shops and people walking around, following their everyday habits while Mac is sitting in his dentist chair, having his beloved steam beer or playing in his concertina. Only sometimes does he go out and become a part of all the other society members. Usually, he then goes to Frenna’s Saloon in order to get new beer or to eat there with his friend Marcus. So by his outward appearance and his behaviour, Mac is more or less an outsider and does not really belong to the rest of San Francisco’s inhabitants.

In town, there is another dentist who is not named in the novel. He is just described by Mac as the one the shop girls prefer to go to because he is younger and better looking. When Mac receives the letter that he is prohibited from working as a dentist because he has no diploma or ever went to a college, everybody thinks at first that it was Marcus who told this association of Mac’s default but thinking about it more closely, it is also possible that it was the other dentist. There is some striking evidence for that. First, Mac was competition for him and in the struggle for the fittest there is only place for one good dentist so the other –in this case Mac- has to be smoothed out. Second, it is the other dentist who buys after the closing of Mac’s parlors his beloved golden tooth and asks him “You don’t want to trade anything for a diploma, do you?” (Norris, chapter 14). How should he know that Mac has none? So it can be seen that Mac has no chance to survive in this society because there are a lot of people who are smarter, better and more successful than him and Mac is determined to fail. He is weaker and has to be removed. e isHeHe is helpless against everything that happens to him and there is no way to break out.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


What happened to the story of McTeague?
A comparison of novel and film
Bielefeld University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
543 KB
Greed, naturalism, McTeague
Quote paper
Steffanie Bauer (Author), 2007, What happened to the story of McTeague?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/154409


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