Ethnic Stereotypes in Mcteague
How Stereotypical - Ethnic Stereotypes in Mcteague introduction . . . In Frank Norris’ novel, McTeague, Norris uses ethnic stereotypes of immigrant characters to convey the naturalistic theme of uncertainty about whether anything can be gained and to show the recoil of immigrants in the United States in the nineteenth century. Norris recreates a lifelike setting of late nineteenth century San Francisco, which at the time was a place where it was difficult for immigrants to succeed because of prejudice against them from Americans.
Norris uses San Francisco as a backdrop to the stories of the immigrant characters of McTeague, Trina, and Zerkow, who all strive to gain something, but do not succeed because of prejudges placed on them and their inherent greed. Norris creates the protagonist, McTeague, to be a “heavy, slow to act, [and] sluggish” Irish American (Norris 3). He has a simple life, with his only pleasures being “to eat, to smoke, to sleep, and to play upon his concertina” (2).
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McTeague also has the prevalent drunkard ethnic stereotype of Irish-Americans, which he inherits from his father who would become “an irresponsible animal, a beast, a brute, crazy with alcohol” (2), suggesting that McTeague may have been a “born criminal” and “tainted” (Pizer 28). Norris uses biological determinism with McTeague to suggest that his fate was already decided for him and that he was unable to escape it as much as he tried to fight it. McTeague is often described as being beastlike with animalistic attributes.
When he performs dental work on Trina, “The animal in [McTeague] stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring” (30). Since animals are inferior to humans, McTeague is not portrayed as human, and therefore not able to gain anything significant in life, as much as he tries because his animal instinct always overcomes him. Since McTeague is like an animal, he has issues with self-control.
Many times, McTeague tries to gain control of his wife, Trina Sieppe, mostly while he is drunk (once again reinforcing the ethnic stereotype of Irish Americans), which becomes fatal for Trina. He cannot hold himself back, becomes controlled by his animal instincts when Trina refuses to give him money, leading the animal inside of McTeague to, viciously, beat her to death. While on the run from the police, McTeague carries his canary in a cage. The canary symbolizes McTeague and his inability to gain anything in life because he is like a caged bird that is unable to escape from his predisposed fate.
The cage represents the American society holding McTeague back from gaining anything significant because he is seen to be less than human due to his ethnic stereotype of a drunk, animalistic Irish-American man. McTeague’s wife, Trina Sieppe, is the daughter of German-Swiss. Norris writes the dialogue of Trina’s parents phonetically, demonstrated, when Trina’s father says “Den he eggsplode, idiot! ” (74). Norris’ use of distinct diction suggests and emphasizes that Trina’s family are different from the average person in America.
The use of phonetics creates humor and lightens the tone, but also creates factions in the novel between those who have an American dialect compared to those, like the Sieppes, who do not. Norris does this to show the difficulty for people who are unlike the average American to succeed in the United States, especially if they speak differently. Norris demonstrates this idea when the Sieppes decide to open a carpet cleaning and upholstery business, but their business becomes unsuccessful and fails.
The immigrant family of the Sieppes try to gain financial security through opening a business, but they cannot because of their ethnicity and accents, which makes them atypical to the average American. While Trina does not have an accent like her parents, her immigration history and roots prevent her from being able to gain and maintain money. Trina strives for perfection in everything she does. She keeps a tidy house, always looks nice, has good relations with her family and husband.
However, when she wins the lottery, she is unable to keep her composure and life together. Many times, immigrants come to the United States for economic prosperity, which can unintentionally lead to these individuals to develop greedy aims, like Trina. Instead of helping her family in need, Trina hoards the money, looses contact with her family and friends by replacing them with her gold pieces. Trina would lay “herself upon the bed and gath[er] the gleaming heaps of gold pieces to her with both arms, burying her face in them with long sighs of unspeakable delight” (359).
Norris uses the stereotype of immigrants becoming greedy with the characterization of Trina, who genuinely loves the gold more than anything else in her life. Her greed leads to her being unable to gain anything in the future and leads to her murder when McTeague learns that she sold his prized concertina for money. Instead of spending the money to support her family to gain their wellbeing, she stockpiles it to only benefit herself. Zerkow is a Polish Jew immigrant who owns a store that sells and hoards junk.
He lives in “a filth den in the alley” (34). Norris uses the ethnic stereotypes of greed and filth to describe the Polish Jew immigrant and his home, suggesting that immigrants are poor with inferior households, making them subordinate to Americans. Maria Macapa is a Mexican maid who cleans the apartments that McTeague lives in and often asks the residents for any useless junk they may have so that Maria may sell it to Zerkow. Residents often are relieved when Maria leaves after she asks them for things, suggesting they find her irritating.
Norris also portrays her as being deranged because whenever someone asks her name she says, “Had a flying squirrel an’ let him go” (21). Additionally, Norris’ placement of Maria has maid further supports the inferiority of immigrants because it is her job to clean up after others. Maria is portrayed as being a second-class individual because she often begs, is seen to be mentally unstable, and her job. Zerkow falls in love with Maria’s story of the gold plates and Maria falls in love with Zerkow’s accumulation of things.
Miss Baker agrees with notion and says “Its not possible that he’s in love with Maria, it’s out of the question” (214). Through Miss Baker, Norris shows the motives behind Zerkow and Maria’s marriage, suggesting the materialism of these immigrants and their greed because they are not in love with each other, they are in love with what each other have. When Miss Baker speaks about their marriage, she says to Trina, “Maria and old Zerkow, that red-headed Polish Jew, the rag-bottles-sacks man, you know, they’re going to be married” (213). Norris’ word choice of “that” insinuates that Zerkow is inferior (213).
Additionally, the use of “you know” implies that it is well known and general thought that Zerkow and Maria are of a lower class because of their immigration status, which Miss Baker uses as a method of classification when speaking about Zerkow (213). When Maria succumbs to dementia and is no longer to recount the story of the gold plates to Zerkow, he goes mad “in his terrible rage” and puts his “fist in [Maria’s] face” demanding to know where she is hiding the plates, when in reality Maria has not hidden the plates and genuinely does not know where the plates are (242).
Zerkow kills her in a rage, and underlines the notion of greed in immigrants. Moreover, his actions show that immigrants are unable to gain anything because of this greed that comes from their immigrant roots of longing for American prosperity. Through the use of immigrant characters, Norris conveys the naturalist theme of doubt about whether anything can be gained and shows the treatment of immigrants in the nineteenth century. The protagonist, McTeague, is an Irish American who is animalistic and tries to obtain control over his wife, but ends up killing her in a drunken rage.
The Sieppes are Swiss-Germans who cannot gain success in their carpet cleaning and upholstery business because their accents make them sound comical and different from the average American. Trina Sieppes’ greed leads to her to fall in love with money after she wins in the lottery and cannot achieve balance. Zerkow is a Polish-Jew whose greed and obsession with gold leads him to marry Maria, and then kill her when she looses her memory about the gold plates. Maria is portrayed as a crazy, greedy Mexican who marries Zerkow because of his accumulation of junk and not for love.
People generally feel more comfortable and trust people who look, sound like, and have a similar background as them. Norris highlights this issue in McTeague while showing the exhausting uphill battle immigrants face based on other people’s perceptions and the immigrant’s underlying desire of prosperity, that may turn into greed. Works Cited Norris, Frank. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. New York City: International Book and Publishing Company, 1900. Print. Pizer, Donald. “The Biological Determinism of “McTeague” in Our Time. ” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910. 29. 2 (1997): 28. Print.