…had a flying squirrel an’ let him go.

Buster Keaton riding on a minauture horse in front of a log cabin.

The wild west.

In his essay on McTeague (by Frank Norris), James L. Caron addresses the humor that pervades Norris’ naturalistic novel.  Caron refers to the content of the novel as a, “general discourse of the laughable that is based on incongruity.”  One of the most striking ways we see this incongruity is when the characters are portrayed as robotic machines trapped in routines they cannot escape.  Caron uses Maria as an example, “Maria exhibits mechanistic behavior whenever she is asked to identify herself: ‘Name is Maria-Miranda-Macapa. . . . Had a flying squirrel an’ let him go.”  But really, almost all the characters exhibit this mechanical love for the routine.  Think of how difficult it is for McTeague to stop his dental practice or how greed makes Trina a slave to polishing and loving her coins.  Caron argues that these behaviors are a source of satiric laughter on the part of the reader, because it is humans acting as machines.

Caron indicates that this regular laughter provides the readers with a sort of nervous release.  Where they laugh at not only the characters, but at themselves who are also trapped in the comedic tragedy of life.  So he argues that naturalism and humor inherently belong together:

McTeague in effect jokingly presents the implied reader with ideas derived from evolution about fundamental aspects of existence which he or she would otherwise repress and provides a momentary relief from critical reason.  In other words, the comic dimension of the narrative allows the reader an opportunity to indulge the liberating effect of laughter in a response to the deterministic tendency of naturalism.

Caron helps to drive this idea home by reminding us of the nervous laughter of Selina at the fight scene between McTeague and Marcus in the park.  Sometimes laughter is the only way to deal with the horrors that life throws our way.

Norris’ naturalism certainly benefits from the touches of humor throughout, in my opinion.  The novel would be much drier, and would not have as much staying power if we lost the horrified humor that pervades it to the very end where we leave McTeague handcuffed to a corpse in the desert.

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Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good post.

  2. Even though in class we all agreed that to a certain degree we were weirded out by a few of the images presented in the novel I think you are correct in saying that the novel wouldn’t have had as much “staying power” with out that grotesque humor. I think that Norris probably new this too and purposely created horrific, yet slightly humorous images to get his point across.

  3. You brought up something that I wished had been tied up in the novel – Maria and her “had a flying squirrel an’ let him go.” I kept wondering about that, and the “mechanistic behavior” idea just seems so dull.
    It seemed as though there should have been a very interesting backstory to Maria Miranda Macapa.

  4. The repetition and the humor are both there to make us think but also to make us uncomfortable. Also, leaving an open-ended story (like Maria Macapa’s) makes us wonder about it even after we’ve finished the story.


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