April 28, 2003
Thomas Hardy and Frank Norris are artists, painting portraits of men filled with character, that is distraught with regression. The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy is a powerful and searching fable. Frank Norris’ McTeague is a documentation of the animalistic pursuit of empty dreams. Both authors withhold the protagonists of their dreams, in a grotesque world, which provides no sign of escape. Each emphasizes themes of greed and devolution, while carefully detailing character portraits. Both Hardy and Norris broadcast a network of symbolism to enhance the meaning of their works. Hardy and Norris’ use of complex character portraits, simplistic settings and love subplots employ correlating themes of decay and provide similar and contrasting insights into their novels.
The settings of both novels are based in small simple structured towns. Each take place during the post-Victorian era. Both authors base their novels within these small towns and avoid the introduction of a new setting. The development of a single setting story allows for both Hardy and Norris to manifest a greater complexity in the protagonist’s plight. In McTeague, “All the needed data are given at the start, and the main action-except the ending-glows out of the data; no face is withheld to allow the story to take an unexpected twist, and the facts are given mean what they purport to
mean” (Frohock 10). The Mayor of Casterbridge also follows the setting structure of a small town filled with all the necessary elements for Henchard’s undulating character progression. It is unique that both authors focus solely upon one small town, both only escaping its confides once, either in the very beginning or in the end. Both Hardy and Norris spin a complex web of symbols, characters and love subplots within their settings.
The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with a drunken Michael Henchard selling his wife and child to a sailor. The next day he rises feeling remorse for his actions, he seeks them, yet they are gone. Henchard eventually winds up in the simple town of Casterbridge. Here he seeks to create a sense of justice for the “tragic error which is the result of his moral weakness” (Gibson 97). Eighteen years pass and Henchard has cycled to the top of his wheel of fortune, his is a successful businessman and the eventual mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard suffocates the growing guilt within him; he sold his wife and then lets down the grain merchants of his town. His feelings of guilt serve as a fuel that continues to propel him to his own demise. “Time after time, one or another of Henchard’s basic needs presses him into action which lead within an ever-increasing sense of fatality to his eventual doom” (Carpenter 105). However, Henchard’s constant efforts to bring value to his name and character set the ironic tone for the novel’s end. It is Henchard’s consistent resilience which, in the end, allows Hardy to elevate him to the level of a hero, in the end providing value to his name, Michael Henchard, a name that deserves to be remembered.
Norris begins McTeague simply with McTeague. He is a simple man with simple intention and simple pleasures. He spends Sundays alone in his dental parlor, smoking
his cigar and drinking his steamed beer. “McTeague’s mind was as his body, heavy, slow to act, sluggish. Yet there was nothing vicious about the man. Altogether he suggested the draft horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (Norris 7). The beginning of McTeague almost seems like the end, “when he opened his Dental Parlors, he felt that his life was a success, that he could hope for nothing better” (Norris 7), here no conflict or foreshadowing exist, this is only Norris’ beginning statement to the devolution of McTeague’s character and lifestyle. From here, Norris seduces McTeague to his eventual demise through intense acts of animalism. Upon meeting Trina, his best friend Marcus’s love interest who comes to him because of a broken tooth, his psyche begins to change and animalistic feelings begin to well up inside McTeague. During turbulent days for McTeague and Trina, his character qualities begin to take a form all their own, and are governed by a strange savage primitiveness. His civility then dissolves, and a rather brute animalism ruptures within him. The laws of humanity no longer govern McTeague, and his abusive qualities foreshadow imminent doom. McTeague becomes obsessed with the greed that has overcome his wife, Trina and assaults her in order to get her to give him the money she has secretly been hording from him. Driven by greed and the animal instinct inside of him, he sets out to make her pay. In a final act of fury McTeague kills his wife and steals the money she had withheld from him. In the final chapter of the novel, McTeague is fleeing for Mexico through Death Valley. The last scene, McTeague is left to die in the brutal conditions of Death Valley, a force that his primitiveness and greed cannot escape. Norris’ chilling sense of realism alienates McTeague’s animalistic nature as his final result of his devolution.
Various love subplots exist in both novels, which play an essential role in the protagonist’s regressions. Lucetta Templman is a brilliant compliment to Henchard’s character. Like Henchard, she follows her elaborate emotions, formulating irrational decisions and reckless
interventions. Lucetta creates a facade depending strictly upon image. She lacks morality, as she is not concerned with her lack of virtue between Henchard and Farfere, but simply with people’s reactions to her decision. At the end, Lucetta emerges not as a heroic heroine, but as a woman driven by desire, exemplifying only childish and imprudent behavior, much like her complementing character, Henchard. The relationship between Lucetta and Henchard acts as a catalyst for Henchard’s character decay. This begins with his adaptation of bad luck, which is essentially the result of his self-destructiveness and his perverse and irrational need to punish himself once his downward course has began. “Instead of thinking that a union between his cherished stepdaughter and the energetic thriving Donald was a thing to be desired for her good and his own, he hated the very possibility” (Hardy 220). Henchard’s decay is illuminated as he uses all existing efforts to insure that they will be alienated from him. Greed suffocates his small soul as the love between Elizabeth-Jane and Farfere grow. Henchard’s complementing character, Lucetta, and the love of Elizabeth-Jane and Farfere exhaust him to his final moment of unluckiness.
McTeague’s relationship with Trina serves as a dissolvent for McTeague’s character. Trina’s character rouses the animal in M. Norris uses animal imagery to describe the deterioration of McTeague’s human qualities: “The male, virile desire in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal. It was resistless, untrained, a thing not to be held in a leash an instant” (Norris 25). From her first moment of contact with McTeague, he is driven by animalism. As Trina’s stingy appetite for money gruesomes, McTeague’s inner animal pounces,
The people about the house and the clerks at the provision store often remarked that Trina’s fingertips were swollen and the nails purple as though they had been shut in a doorThe fact of the matter was that McTeague, when he had been drinking, used to bite them, crunching and grinding them with his immense teethSometimes he extorted money from her by this means, but as often he did it for his own satisfaction (Norris 239).
From his love with Trina McTeague’s sadistic nature consumes hid own natural character, only the chilling animalism to prevail.
Through the love subplots and character traits of both Henchard and McTeague, patterns of decay may be detected. Henchard experiences his decay in cycling motions. Each experience causes him to regress and deepen his wounds, the more things that change for Henchard, for better or for worse, the more they remain consistent in the cycle. Henchard becomes a prisoner of his own trap, lacking mortality and fusion of the entree meaning of a good name. Henchard is his own demon which cannot be exorcised. Yet, “Henchard is ironically saved from deathby seeing himself’ drown in the river, but this is only a temporary respite; for Henchard can never escape from himself and his character, which is, as Hardy says, his Fate” (Carpenter 109). And so Henchard’s fate lies in the decaying cycle of a sinking ship. His character is the inevitable tragic cycle of Hardy’s fierce idea of Fate.
McTeague’s decay is made prominent by a straight sprint from man to brute, a quick race of devolution. What truly animates McTeague is not only Norris’ wide use of animalistic imagery, but the character’s desperate lust for gain and the haunting fear of loss. McTeague finds comfort in routine. His habits are the formulas which maintain his humanity and Trina’s introduction quickly sets him on the road to decay of any humanistic qualities. McTeague’s lust for what he once had causes him only to devolve further into an animalistic strife, he soon becomes well adjusted to Trina’s more costly tastes in tobacco and beer. Yet, when her greed sets in, she represses McTeague of his comfort motions. His animalism continues to manifest itself with greed as Trina strips him of his remaining forms of identity. She sells his concertina and eventually his gold tooth is also sold.
The gold tooth of McTeague places heavy symbolism upon the decay of McTeague. He refuses to sell the tooth; it forms an identity with him, as Norris describes both of them as oversized and distorted. “the tooth, the gigantic golden molar of French guilt, enormous and
ungainly, sprawled its branching prongs” (Norris 185). Eventually, McTeague sells the tooth, symbolizing his loss of hope and that his dream is now out of his reach. McTeague sells it for five dollars, proving it is as outdated as he is. When the tooth was of great value to him and his dream was harnessed, he was offered ten dollars for it. McTeague’s decision to sell the tooth for five dollars and compromise his dreams and identity is the climax of his decay.
As a continuation of Henchard’s inevitable cycle, he visits Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day, carrying his symbolic gift, a caged goldfinch. He leaves is on a corner as he goes to speak with his stepdaughter, as she coyly dismisses him. Days later, the bird is discovered starved. Elizabeth-Jane quickly searches for Henchard. She finds him at the cottage of Abel Whittle, were he claims that Henchard “didn’t gain strengthhe couldn’t eat.” (Hardy 250). This reveals a symbolic tie between Henchard and the caged bird, which shared the same fate: both lived and died in a prison filled simply with personality and the past.
McTeague also symbolically concludes the novel with a caged bird. The finalized setting, Death Valley, serves as a major function of Norris’ theme of devolution: Only a Darwinist strength may represent the true meaning of nature, similar to the animal McTeague devolves into. “McTeague’s refusal to leave his canary behind is a measure of his inability to adapt, to change, and to make peace with his loss” (Hochman 74). Both McTeague and Henchard exist within a prison built by the cruelest force of nature: one’s self.
Through the complex webbing of simplistic settings, love subplots and brilliant inelaborate character portraits, Hardy and Norris create ascendent themes of naturalistic literature. Hardy’s works are a balance of Darwinism and prudishness. He refused to deny his characters of the chilling realism of humanity. Norris illuminates the power that denies any man the ability to thrive, prehistoric animalism. Their twisted themes of decay flourish through symbolic impressions to provide works which set the astonishing tone for literature to ensue Victorian prudishness.
Carpenter, Richard. Thomas Hardy. C.D. Miles. 2ed edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1964. 89-153.
Frohock, W. M. Frank Norris. 1st edition. St. Paul: North Central Publishing Company. 1968. 5-39.
Gibson, James. Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life. 3rd edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1996. 1-138.
Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge. Merriam Schuster. 4th edition. San Diego: Harcourt. Brace Jovanovich Inc. 1972.
Hochman, Barbra. The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. 3rd edition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 1988. 1-77.
Norris, Frank. McTeague. Peter Brief. 3rd edition. Sand Diego: Harcourt Brace Joanovich Inc. 1977.